A revolutionary way to prevent gun violence
A year of “golden silence,” is how New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently described going a record 365 days without a shooting at the New York City Housing Authority Queensbridge Houses development. The mayor attributed the success in part to the work of Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement’s initiative 696 Build Queensbridge. It is one of 18 programs formed in the city over the past seven years after the Cure Violence model – and from all indications, the trajectory is for more growth.
“We cannot go back, we have to move forward,” New York City Councilman Mark Treyger told New York Nonprofit Media. He worked closely with City Councilmen Jumaane Williams and Fernando Cabrera and the City Council’s Task Force to Combat Gun Violence to bring a Cure Violence-style program to his district in Coney Island last year.
Treyger also expressed gratitude for City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s support and concern about how the federal budget may impact the city’s budget. He said, “I can tell you that council members, including myself, will be fighting tooth and nail to preserve this very important program.”
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Gary Slutkin used public health strategies to develop the Cure Violence approach in which gun violence is treated like a disease and outbreaks are aggressively attacked at their source. The goal is to cool conflicts before bullets fly.
In last year’s New York City budget, there was enough funding to create the program’s five newest sites in Coney Island, Queensbridge, Central Harlem, East Harlem and the North Bronx. The mayor’s new Office to Prevent Gun Violence has been tasked with overseeing an “expansion of effective, innovative violence intervention strategies,” such as Cure Violence. The city said it is investing $22.5 million this fiscal year and expects to invest $16 million annually. State support is also poised to grow, with the state Division of Criminal Justice Services recent request for applications to make up to $13.3 million available in contracts to expand a Gun Involved Violence Elimination initiative, which incorporates Cure Violence methodology, into 17 counties outside New York City.
Derick Scott is a staff trainer for the NYC Cure Violence project under the city Health Department's Center for Health Equity. He helped implement the city’s first program modeled after Cure Violence, Save Our Streets, in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood.
And the program showed promise. There was a 20 percent lower shooting rate in the program’s part of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, according to a report from the Center for Court Innovation from January 2010 through May 2012.
“Had we done ill will, or had we done wrong, or had we not had our model proven and tested, there wouldn’t be 18 sites in New York City today,” Scott said.
Scott is also the program manager for Operation Helping Our Own Develop, a Cure Violence-style program operated by the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island. Most Cure Violence sites are overseen by a nonprofit, but housed in a separate location. Any connections to its sponsoring nonprofit, or relationships with the NYPD, are obscured for safety reasons and to build trust within the community.
In October 2016, Operation HOOD celebrated 200 gunfire-free days in Coney Island.
In all of last year, the mayor’s office said New York City had the fewest shootings in more than 30 years.
The Cure Violence model relies heavily on the success of its violence interrupters – credible messengers that can speak from personal experience to individuals entrenched in a potentially violent conflict – and command their respect.
“The New York City Police force, which I have tremendous, tremendous amounts of respect for, they are designed, for the most part, to be a reactionary body, to make arrests and deal with crimes when they occur,” Treyger said. “This approach attacks violence from the preventative side.”
Rudy Suggs, one of the city’s first violence interrupters, remembered working alongside Derick Scott at the Save Our Streets project. When a conversation got heated, Scott would always remove the one with the “biggest mouth” and try to calm them down, Suggs said. Scott would say things like, “After you shoot this person then what? What happens to that person’s family?” Suggs said. “That person no longer has a son, a father, a husband or a brother. Guess what happens to you? You’re going to jail for 25 years. You’re holding your family hostage for the next 25 years.”
The Queensbridge and Coney Island projects were initially supported by discretionary funds from City Councilmen Jimmy Van Bramer and Treyger, respectively, in part because the program was so new that Treyger suspects few nonprofits would have been interested or financially secure enough to respond to a request for proposals. Currently, providers are asked to cover the cost of services first and bill the government for reimbursement later.
Despite the fact that Jewish Community Council’s portfolio did not include any similar programming, Treyger recommended them for funding because of their strong community ties, fiscal stability and track record of meeting contractual requirements. Operation HOOD now serves as a foundation for its new division of community support systems, which includes an in-school conflict resolution component with a local high school serving high-risk students, legal services provided with the Legal Aid Society and mental health services with Urban Neighborhood Services.
“Once we have moved these individuals to a mental state and commitment that they’re ready to change their lives, we have to have alternatives to offer them,” said Rabbi Moshe Wiener, Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island’s executive director said.
Treyger is advocating for more Cure Violence funding to offer additional job placement opportunities for youth and a more linguistically diverse staff, as well as resources to address domestic violence issues and to strengthen communication between the NYPD and community leaders.
As the Jewish Community Council’s program is just nearing its first anniversary, it seems the effects are already being felt. The NYPD’s 60th Precinct, which includes Coney Island, has seen a 40 percent reduction in crime – more than anywhere else in the city, according to the New York Post. Wiener said that the precinct’s deputy inspector told him Operation HOOD played a significant role in the reduction of local gun violence.
“If the police are recognizing that the gun violence reduction is attributable to the program, that that evidence of efficacy will be shared with others to lead to increased supports,” Wiener said.
It seems the golden silence may spread further.