Police in Minneapolis unravel crime scene tape in 2020, a year marked by a stark rise in homicides. Community violence intervention programs offer a data-backed alternative to policing. Brandon Bell/Getty Images
When shots ring out on the South and West sides of Chicago, Sam Castro and his team at the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago race to the scene of the shooting and to the hospital where emergency responders are treating the gunshot victim.
Knowing most of the city’s gun violence is caused by a small cluster of people who are usually gang-affiliated, the group wants to prevent the often-expected retaliation shooting by intervening in victims’ lives to stop the cycle of violence and the revolving doors of the hospital.
Castro, the organization’s director of community violence intervention, and his colleagues meet gunshot victims at their hospital beds and walk the streets of the Austin, Back of the Yards, Brighton Park and West Garfield Park neighborhoods, talking with those who are at a high risk of committing or being the victim of gun violence. They offer individualized “wraparound” support services, whether being a caseworker, delivering food or helping residents find and keep jobs.
Like many of the people who run these programs nationally, Castro has personal experience with gun violence. He’s been shot three times, the first when he was 3.
He became part of the gun violence cycle as a gang leader, spending 12 years in state and federal prison. He wanted something better for his children and community through “relentless engagement.” It’s his calling, he said.
“It’s hard,” Castro told Stateline. “We’ve been through some traumatic stuff. We’ve got to figure out how to heal the people in the community while still running into this gunfire.”
Now the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago and similar organizations nationwide have a new opportunity to expand their work. A massive injection of federal grant money, beyond the private philanthropy that has previously sustained their mission, will help more programs offer an alternative to law enforcement that, supporters say, gets at the root drivers of violence.
“We’re investing in the people in communities that have been disinvested for generations,” said William Simpson, the director of violence reduction initiatives at Equal Justice USA, a nonprofit that advocates for public funding for these programs in states like California, Louisiana, New Jersey and North Carolina.
“Folks are doing the lifesaving work and never getting the resources they need to do it,” Simpson said. “The dollars are allocated, but there’s so much more work.”
He and Castro were among roughly 700 experts from 200 organizations in 45 cities who gathered last week at a community violence intervention conference in Los Angeles, hosted by the Giffords Center for Violence Intervention. The program launched last year within the national gun safety organization led by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, a mass shooting survivor.
Part pep talk, part professional development seminar, the conference gave people from some of the deadliest and economically depressed cities in the country a chance to share their strategies for curbing urban gun violence, tapping new funding streams and getting more state and city money.
Feds invest big
Through its Community Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative, the Biden administration recently freed up $50 million in grants for community violence intervention programs. This comes on top of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which President Joe Biden signed last year, allocating $250 million over the next five years for these programs.
This is the largest federal investment in community violence intervention programs in U.S. history, said Amy Solomon, the assistant attorney general of the Office of Justice Programs in the U.S. Department of Justice.
So far, the feds have dished out $100 million in grants and will allocate an additional $100 million by September.
“These are not our resources, these are your resources,” she told the conference. “Collectively, we can save lives and build safer communities.”
Community violence intervention programs embrace a nonpunitive way to prevent chronic gun violence. The programs work to interrupt the cycle of violence by working with people who are at highest risk through the provision of individually tailored support services, said Paul Carrillo, vice president of the Giffords Center for Violence Intervention.
Long studied and lauded by academics and activists as an alternative to law enforcement-focused responses, these programs are starting to get the attention of leaders from city, state and federal government, and money is beginning to flow into the programs.
The federal money available, however, is far less than the $5 billion that Biden proposed in 2021, following a 30% surge in homicides in 2020. But the president has told state and local leaders that they also can use American Rescue Plan money for community violence intervention programs.
Still, Carrillo, who grew up around gun violence in Southeast Los Angeles and started his career at a hospital-based violence intervention program, added a warning to activists and program leaders at the conference.
“As the old saying goes, when there’s more money there’s more problems,” he said.
The influx of federal dollars is an extraordinary opportunity for community groups to get much needed funding, said Connie Rice, a civil rights lawyer who helped reshape the Los Angeles Police Department through lawsuits and working within the department. She also created community safety partnerships that reduced the city’s violent crime rate over the past three decades.
But she cautioned that it is very difficult to distribute money effectively.
The work must be grounded in specific programs to address specific violence challenges in specific neighborhoods, or the programs will fail, she warned.
“When you have a lot of money, it’s like a gold rush,” said Rice, who co-founded the Urban Peace Institute. “You have got to do it in consultation and co-development with the groups that are most experienced and expert on the ground working.”
Those local groups, however, often don’t have the administrative capacity to apply for and dole out public dollars, she said; groups need intermediaries.
Folks are doing the lifesaving work and never getting the resources they need to do it.
– William Simpson, Equal Justice USA
New money is also flowing in from cities and states. In 2017, five states invested $60 million in community violence intervention programs. By 2021, 15 states invested $700 million. Those programs and the funding continue to expand.
Last year, California announced $156 million in community intervention grants. Democratic lawmakers in the Golden State have also proposed legislation this year that would tax firearm sales to fund more community violence intervention programs. The bill passed the Assembly in May and is being considered in the state Senate.
Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, who took office in December, will launch the Office of Community Safety to lead violence intervention initiatives to lower gun deaths through nonprofit partnerships.
The Los Angeles City Council heeded the mayor’s budget request to raise the starting salary for community intervention workers from $40,000 to $60,000 — a livable wage for people who have made communities safer for years, said Deputy Mayor Karren Lane, who heads the new office. But often, she argued, they have not gotten the credit they deserve.
“Homicides are down in Los Angeles because everyday people with lived experience, deep relationships in communities, put their lives on the line and disrupt violence,” she said. Indeed, after a spike in 2020, mirroring a national increase, homicides fell in 2022.
Lane added, “While law enforcement may play a role, we also realize that once paramedics are called, police officers are called, emergency operating centers are established, we have already lost.”
An alternative to policing
The role of police in urban gun violence prevention has been contentious, especially as law enforcement agencies are funded substantially more than community-led programs. Many of the program leaders have been personally affected by police violence.
In March, police in New Jersey shot and killed Najee Seabrooks, a member of the Paterson Healing Collective. Seabrooks, whose job was to work with people who are at a high risk to commit or be the victim of gun violence, was having a mental health crisis when he was confronted by police at his home. He was wielding knives, according to police.
Members of the Paterson Healing Collective, trained in de-escalation and mediation, pleaded with police to allow them to talk to Seabrooks but were denied, despite Seabrooks asking for his colleagues’ help. He should be alive today, said Casey Melvin, the field operations manager for the organization.
“We’re still reeling from that,” he said.
Solomon, at the U.S. Department of Justice, asked the activists and program leaders gathered in Los Angeles last week how they can identify new opportunities for communities and police to “come together and leverage each other’s collective strengths.”
While she acknowledged that it was a “complicated ask in a complicated time,” she implored the room to realize they can’t do it alone.
This is an opportunity to show that community violence intervention can become even more effective, said Simpson, of Equal Justice USA.
Community violence intervention programs need multiyear funding from both private philanthropy and governments to create a sustainable infrastructure that lasts, he said. The current federal investment is a “drop in the bucket,” he said, and needs to increase consistently over time to reduce gun violence.
“We’re not just going to arrest our way out of this,” Simpson said.
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