Reducing gun crime through violence interruption programs

Published: Aug. 1, 2022 at 11:11 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 2, 2022 at 5:00 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - There’s a new tool in Memphis’ crime-fighting arsenal. Memphis is among the cities looking at reducing gun violence and over-policing in communities of color by using violence interruption programs.

The U.S. Department of Justice pledged $444 million last year to support a wide variety of violence intervention programs. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland made it a priority in his administration.

The goal is to identify potentially lethal conflicts in the community and mediate a truce, or a peace agreement. Memphis’ violence interventionists are one part case manager, one part life coach.

At Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, doctors and nurses treated 150 kids with gunshot wounds in 2021. Medical Trauma Director Dr. Regan Williams said the hospital’s role in the city’s new Group Violence Intervention Program, or GVIP, is critical.

“I’m really tired of seeing children shot,” Dr. Williams said, “Only by working together, and that means all of us, every adult in the community working together to keep our children safe, are we going to make a difference. And if we can’t keep our children safe, then we don’t have a future for our community.”

If a child is shot, stabbed or assaulted, Le Bonheur staff work to treat the physical and emotional pain. A key component is offering mental health counseling for patient and family.

“The families come in in a mode where they are really trying to survive this incident,” said Lydia Walker, program manager for Le Bonheur’s SHIFT (Supporting and Healing Individuals From Trauma) and HVIP (Hospital Based Violence Intervention Program), “What we’re looking at is what led up to this incident? And what are the factors that now exist, so we can peel back the layers and address the issues.”

Walker and Dr. Williams said Le Bonheur started talking about taking a holistic approach to combatting gun violence in 2017. The effort picked up steam in 2019, and now with the City of Memphis GVIP in operation, Le Bonheur’s work fits in seamlessly, providing the healthcare component necessary for violence interruption programs to succeed.

Former Memphis Police officer Jimmie Johnson worked for MPD for 11 years. He noticed right away that police can’t fight crime alone. He now heads up GVIP. The program’s 50 interventionists, many of them former drug dealers and gang members who turned their own lives around, are tasked with the heavy lifting: showing criminals they have a second chance at leading a productive life, and convincing them that they’ll receive help getting out of the cycle of crime.

“It could be anything as simple as getting their driver’s license reinstated so they can get back and forth to work,” Johnson said, “Or getting them emergency housing. Food. We all have the same thoughts: I can’t help you if I don’t supply your basic needs first.”

Fernando Rejon, Executive Director of the Urban Peace Institute in Los Angeles, said his organization trained Memphis Police and Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputies in relationship-based policing strategies last August.

“If you come in as an occupying force,” he said, it doesn’t work. When you incentivize public trust policing, it really changes the us versus them dynamic and creates a different type of incentive for police to police differently.”

UPI also upskilled the members of 901 B.L.O.C. Squad, a Memphis group that has been de-escalating tensions between gangs and warring factions in the Bluff City since 2012. They underwent UPI training in 2013, and again last year.

“There were a lot more of them,” said Rejon, “which was really good to see. There’s some level of budget, which was nice. There is a larger group eager to learn and we talked about the connections between gangs in Los Angeles, Chicago and Memphis.”

The Memphis City Council approved $2 million for GVIP. 901 B.L.O.C. Squad Executive Director Delvin Lane said having that kind of support, knowing the city is behind them, makes all the difference in turning lives around and creating a peaceful community.

“I think it takes hope. I think once you give a person hope for the future, their actions, their behaviors and attitudes will change,” Lane said, “Now we have jobs. Now we have educational programs. We have everything we need to help these young people. Now all we need is a buy-in from them and their parents.”

GVIP leader Johnson said since July of last year, Memphis’ 50 interventionists have made contact with more than 700 people. Of that number, 250 took them up on the offer to receive service or a referral for service, meaning one third were willing to give peace a chance. And for Johnson, that’s a really good start.

“If we can touch multiple people like that in the City,” said Johnson, “the violent crime will drop. I’m convinced that it will drop.”

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