Crown Heights, Brooklyn is a neighborhood of New York City with a population of largely poor and working class African-American residents. Upward social mobility was historically difficult for the residents of Crown Heights. Many families remain isolated and marginalized. From the 1970s to the early 1990s, areas of New York City like Crown Heights received little public funding or private investment. Insufficient financial support led to deteriorated housing and widespread decline. When the CBVP grant began in 2010, Crown Heights had yet to experience the level of economic redevelopment already evident in other Brooklyn neighborhoods, such as Williamsburg, Park Slope, and Boerum Hill. By late 2014, however, Crown Heights had begun to gentrify and rent prices were increasing (Sierra 2014).
Crown Heights was traditionally one of the most violent neighborhoods in New York City. A disproportionate number of young males in Crown Heights were involved in the criminal justice system. Between 2003 and 2008, the number of homicides in the neighborhood led the New York Times to call the neighborhoods’ 77th police precinct the “bloodiest block in Brooklyn” (Lehren and Baker 2009).*
* According to the CBVP proposal, the 77th precinct saw 164 shootings and 31 gun fatalities between 2007 and 2009. In just the first five months of 2010, there were 26 shooting victims. In any given year, more than one-third of shooting victims and up to half the perpetrators of gun crimes were under age 25. In 2008, 80 percent of all individuals arrested in Crown Heights were between 16 and 21 years of age and 38 percent of those arrests were for felony charges. That year, one of every 12 males ages 16 to 24 were imprisoned.
Crown Heights, however, was also home to the Community Mediation Center (or, Mediation Center), a project of the Center for Court Innovation. In October 2010, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) selected the Mediation Center to participate in the Community-Based Violence Prevention Demonstration Initiative. The Mediation Center operated out of a storefront location and named the new program “Save Our Streets (SOS) Crown Heights.” The Center’s strong presence in Crown Heights made the neighborhood an ideal location to evaluate strategies aimed at reducing the shootings and violence that adversely affect youth, families and the community. As its primary violence-reduction strategy, the Mediation Center chose the Cure Violence model (formerly called Chicago CeaseFire).
RESPONSE TO GROWING VIOLENCE
Crown Heights was historically divided along racial and ethnic lines. Long simmering tensions between the Jewish and Black communities erupted in 1991. On August 19 of that year two Guyanese cousins—both age seven—were struck by the car of a prominent Hasidic rabbi. A Jewish-affiliated ambulance arrived at the scene to tend to the Jewish driver of the car, but failed to administer aid to one of the children stuck under the vehicle. Both children were ultimately taken by city ambulances to the hospital and the boy who had been trapped under the car died as a result of his injuries. Protests turned to a general uprising during the following three days. In one incident, African-American residents attacked and murdered a Jewish man (Hicks 1993).
Immediately following the uprising, local officials assembled community leaders of various ethnic groups to create the Crown Heights Coalition. Their efforts helped to sustain a long process of restoration that continued with the 1998 establishment of the Crown Heights Mediation Center. Supported by the Center for Court Innovation, a prominent non-profit organization in New York City, the Mediation Center acted as a neutral party for resolving conflicts and providing resources to the community (Who We Are n.d.). Other services provided by the Mediation Center addressed education, parenting, family disputes, housing, unemployment, immigration concerns, and reentry support for formerly incarcerated residents. The Center provided training on conflict resolution and diversity and facilitated dialogue about community issues, such as how to re-unite a discordant block association and how to plan a street fair (Crown Heights Community Mediation Center n.d.).
Mediation Center staff supported a variety of grassroots, anti-violence efforts. For example, the Center created an anti-gun violence mural and hosted a video contest about ending gun violence. It created a re-entry resource directory and held a re-entry resource fair to assist people returning to the community from jail. The Mediation Center also organized a coalition against gun violence and helped to organize and advertise several local law enforcement initiatives which sought to combat gun violence, including a gun amnesty program and gun buy-back program. With all of its anti-violence efforts, the Mediation Center fought to affect neighborhood behaviors and change the social norms that fostered gun violence.
In February 2010, the Mediation Center launched a replication of the Cure Violence model. Save Our Streets (SOS) Crown Heights was supported by OJJDP with funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Cure Violence is a public health violence reduction approach that considers violence as acting similar to a communicable disease. Communities must focus on changing the behaviors that lead to shootings to curtail the spread of violence. By harnessing the Mediation Center’s resources and reputation for neutral conflict mediation, SOS responded to violence in Crown Heights and mobilized community partners in positive ways that police are sometimes incapable of doing on their own. The SOS team believed that waiting for the police response to shootings would never fully stop violence in the community without additional proactive prevention measures.
The ARRA grant provided SOS Crown Heights with funding for a program manager to supervise and organize community events. The funding enabled the organization to establish partnerships, to hire outreach workers who work with high risk individuals in the neighborhood, and to begin producing public education materials. The SOS program was established in the Mediation Center storefront location because it was convenient to the neighborhood and because the Mediation Center already had a positive reputation in the community.
The SOS program was in operation for only a few months when the Mediation Center received an additional $2.4 million OJJDP grant in through the CBVP program in October 2010. The additional funding provided program support from October 2010 through March 2013, which allowed SOS to enhance its replication of the Cure Violence model by hiring violence interrupters, growing the public education campaign, developing a stronger connection with the faith community, and establishing a youth program known as Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets, or YO SOS.
By the end of 2010, the SOS Cure Violence replication site had expanded to include implementation of all the model’s core components: outreach to high-risk community members, community mobilization, public education, faith community utilization, hospital crisis response, and data processing/analysis. YO SOS began to work with youth as a complement to SOS’s work with high-risk community members. In 2013, the New York City Council provided additional funding to hire a hospital responder in accordance with the Cure Violence model, rounding out Crown Heights’ services.
SOS Crown Heights identified two main goals: 1) to reduce gun violence in the Crown Heights neighborhood; and 2) to change community norms regarding violence. At the time of SOS implementation, the Crown Heights community had developed a tolerance for gun violence. By implementing a full Cure Violence replication, the SOS team hoped to change community perceptions of the risks and cost of involvement in gun violence. In order to decrease the acceptance of violence in the community and to reduce its prevalence, SOS worked to increase community mobilization and encourage a sense of efficacy related to violence prevention. SOS also hoped to increase education and employment options for the high-risk population. SOS staff found that one of the best ways to get the community involved in their efforts was to connect the neighborhood with resources. Providing resources to the community gave SOS an avenue to open dialogue about the broader SOS goals and to help instill faith in SOS’s efforts in the wider community.
In the beginning, the community did not really buy into SOS. According to one SOS staff member, the highest risk individuals in the neighborhood would look at the SOS staff when they said they wanted to stop shootings as if to say, “Yeah? Good luck. We’re going to be shooting regardless.” Some individuals reportedly called SOS “Shoot On Sight” or “Snitches On Sight.” Residents believed that the police did not care about the shootings happening in their neighborhood. Apparently, it was normal to hear shots fired without any sirens following thereafter.
For the SOS team, the first step to creating lasting change in the neighborhood was to demonstrate their sincerity. In distressed communities, people are less likely to trust social programs because they have experienced a lot of hypocrisy in their lives. By having an organization of people from the neighborhood declaring that the violence has to stop and then diligently working to improve the community, the SOS team demonstrated its commitment. Slowly, neighbors began to believe in the program’s intentions. The SOS team was visible in the community, working in heat, rain, snow, and all forms of bad weather. This contributed to the community’s eventual acceptance of the program and its work.
In order to maximize its effectiveness, SOS staff focused their efforts on a small area within the Crown Heights neighborhood. When SOS was launched in 2010, the targeted zone (or catchment area) was the entire 77th New York Police Department (NYPD) precinct. By the time OJJDP funding began, SOS had reduced the catchment to focus its efforts and maximize effectiveness. The new target area was roughly 40 square blocks within the 77th precinct bordered by Kingston Avenue to the west, Uttica Avenue to the east, Atlantic Avenue to the north, and Eastern Parkway to the south. The new target area aligned neatly with census tract boundaries and remained stable over the course of the evaluation period. There were extended periods of time during the evaluation period when the catchment area was quiet and had little violence. This caused staff members to consider expanding the target area. New incidents would flare up, however, and the catchment area would stay the same.
SOS outreach workers and violence interrupters used seven criteria to identify those individuals living in target area who were at the highest risk to engage in gun violence. The criteria included: (1) recent release from incarceration for a crime against a person; (2) being a major player in a violent street organization; (3) active involvement in a violent street organization; (4) carrying a weapon; (5) having been shot within the last 90 days or being close to someone who has been shot; (6) being between the ages of 16 and 25 years old; and (7) having a history of violence. When an individual met at least four of the criteria, he or she was eligible to be included as a participant in the SOS program.
Many participants were offered case management services as well. Community partners could refer SOS participants to case management services through a variety of channels, including violence interrupters, clergy members, program workers, school staff and criminal justice partners. Case management included working with participants to determine their strengths and needs and then helping connect them with appropriate services and support as needed (e.g., education, housing, mental health, and counseling resources).
SOS was based on a comprehensive violence reduction and prevention model that was both crisis-based and prevention-oriented. Part of its prevention strategy involved spreading the message of nonviolence throughout the neighborhood and then engaging high-risk community members to change norms around gun violence. Through street outreach and violence interruption, public education and community engagement, and the organization of clergy and youth, SOS attempted to engage and empower the community to take a stand against violence and to change attitudes about the neighborhood’s role in reducing gun violence.
SOS employed outreach workers (OWs) and violence interrupters (VIs) who were “credible messengers.” In the Cure Violence model, credible messengers are culturally appropriate individuals who live in or near the targeted neighborhood, who are known and respected by high-risk community members, who may have had some personal history of gang-involvement or incarceration, or who are at least well-known to those with such personal histories (Cure Violence n.d.). These individuals serve as role models for other community members because they have either been perpetrators or victims of gun violence and they have since transformed their lives in a positive way.
Finding the right people to hire for the SOS outreach team was a challenge. SOS leadership learned that traditional job posting approaches (e.g. websites such as Monster and Idealist) yielded candidates with educational credentials but without the practical street experience needed to be credible messengers. SOS managers had more success recruiting staff through community partners. They spoke in churches, posted flyers in barber shops and beauty salons, and discussed the need for staff with community leaders. The program made it clear that they would consider anyone who might be a good fit for this unique program.
SOS tried to maintain a staff of three full-time OWs, four part-time VIs, and one hospital responder, all of whom were managed by one full-time Outreach Supervisor. The Outreach Supervisor ensured that the workers were carrying out their tasks correctly and properly entering their participant contact data in the Cure Violence database. The Outreach Supervisor also helped workers meet their participant contact goals, helped the team find a balance of “street credibility with corporate professionalism,” and helped ensure that they implemented the Cure Violence model with fidelity. Each OW managed a caseload of 15 participants. SOS initially planned OW caseloads of 60 high-risk participants, but the program quickly discovered that 60 was too many. Outreach Supervisors were asked to carry a caseload of four participants, while VIs and the hospital responder did not carry specific caseloads.
In 2013, SOS began to support the hospital responder position with funding from the New York City Council. The hospital component was not supported by OJJDP funds. The hospital responder was originally intended to reduce retaliations and the re-admittance rate of people who had already been injured. When someone came into the hospital with a wound attributed to community violence, the hospital’s social worker would immediately contact the hospital responder and the responder would assess the situation and offer services to the wounded individual. The responder would then either stay in the hospital to defuse any conflicts that may erupt between those waiting for the patient or would go out in the neighborhood to work with related individuals to lower the likelihood of retaliation. By 2014, the hospital responder’s catchment area grew to be larger than that of SOS. The hospital component covered calls from the 71st, 77th, and 79th NYPD precincts. The program explained that this expansion was done at least in part to justify the expense of retaining this staff position.*
* The structure of this position continued to change and develop over the course of the grant period and beyond. By late 2015, SOS was collaborating with three non-profit agencies to fill this need. Coverage for the area was divided into shifts and agencies would rotate shift coverage. If an incident happened during a shift that an agency believed could be better mediated by an outreach worker from a different agency, that other agency would be contacted to help out.
Contact with program participants by the outreach team was part of their weekly tasks. OWs were required to make eight contacts per participant per month. For example, two home visits, two office visits, two street visits, and two referrals. In addition to working directly with high-risk participants, the program involved community residents in SOS’s work by inviting them to post-shooting responses and community events (e.g., rallies, marches, basketball games, talent shows, etc.). On a typical day, OWs and VIs spent a majority of their time canvassing the streets of their target area. This allowed them to maintain connections with key individuals and to ensure that they could mediate conflicts as necessary.
Outreach workers helped participants set and achieve educational and vocational goals for themselves. OWs were responsible for regularly reporting participants’ activities on their caseload. They worked to connect participants with services (e.g., referring them to GED or skill-building programs, providing court guidance and parole and probation support, assisting them with resume creation and job applications, etc.) and create positive relationships with those identified as most at-risk for gun violence. Their personal experience allowed them to speak to youth currently involved in gun violence and mentor them by teaching non-violent responses to conflict. Ultimately, OWs were sure to let participants know that they would not be judged but would instead be supported when they were ready to make sincere attempts to change their circumstances.
Much like outreach workers, VIs spent a majority of their time in the community mediating street conflicts and helping to prevent retaliatory violence. When VIs made contact with individuals who appeared to fit the high-risk criteria for program participants, they developed relationships with the individuals and eventually referred them to OWs for further services and case management. VIs learned about potential conflicts in many ways, including being approached on the street about a fight already occurring or about to occur, interactions with neighborhood residents, and phone calls with community members.
When mediating conflicts, VIs separated individuals involved in a conflict and attempted to convince them to avoid violence as they also helped to resolve the issue at hand. During this process, VIs informed the parties involved about the potential consequences of gun violence on their own families, as well as on the families of their potential victims. Sometimes, before the mediation could get fully underway, VIs would first need to identify and remove the “loud mouth” of the group (i.e., the instigator urging others in the group to pull out their guns). Once this individual was identified, the VI would take him to the side and attempt to convince him to leave the situation. After this individual was removed, VIs could calm down the group and mediate the conflict. While there was some inherent physical risk in being a Violence Interrupter, VIs reported feeling safe for the most part. If they did not, VIs had to rely on their instinct and experience to realize when they had to walk away from conflicts.
OWs and VIs utilized a variety of strategies to connect with high-risk individuals and gain their trust. First, they always approached youth with respect and patience. They also wore fashionable attire, such as sneakers and trendy clothing, when they approached possible participants to engage them in conversation. In 2013, the SOS uniform was an Adidas brand jacket emblazoned with the SOS logo. Branding themselves this way helped to convey SOS’s message of non-violence and served as an ice breaker. Implementing these strategies helped program staff to be perceived as credible messengers and to build relationships with youth. By the end of the evaluation period, the OWs and VIs reported that they were being very well received by potential participants. In the beginning of the project, the workers did not always receive positive reactions from community members.
SOS staff agreed that using credible messengers to do outreach and interruption work was essential to their work. OWs and VIs with street experience and prior justice system involvement were able to empathize with youth in unique ways. Hiring and supervising such unconventional workers, however, created challenges for SOS leadership. New hires did not always have state identification or other official documents needed to complete the hiring process. Staff members were often previously incarcerated and had no formal training. Many had never worked in a structured office environment before and this required some adjustment time. They were also unfamiliar with the type of paperwork associated with employer-provided medical benefits. Many had never had health insurance. Some members of the outreach team were not computer literate. Even basic tasks like completing paperwork and entering data about their participant contacts proved challenging.
Maintaining an appropriate work ethic both in the streets and in the office was a challenge for the team. SOS hired credible messengers because they had a special ability to navigate the streets and were knowledgeable about the habits and practices of street crews and cliques. Once they began working for SOS, however, they had to adjust to the professional culture of office work. “Code-switching” back and forth between the street and office environments caused complicated psychological, emotional, and social issues for some staff members.
To help support the outreach staff and alleviate some of these job-related stresses, SOS leadership brought in clinical social workers to speak with the outreach team workers for 30 to 45 minutes each week. Some of the social workers were volunteers from King’s County Hospital. These therapeutic opportunities allowed staff to talk about how past trauma in their own lives may have affected their work. With support from SOS leadership and modeling by the Outreach Supervisor, most of the workers developed strategies for maintaining a good street-office balance, but at least one staff member became overwhelmed during his tenure and made the decision to leave the program as a result of the trauma encountered during this work.
SOS launched a public education campaign soon after the program opened. The campaign consisted of distributing posters and flyers throughout the community to promote their anti-violence message. According to community residents, the most effective advertisement was the Cure Violence poster depicting a young boy holding a sign that read, “Don’t shoot. I want to grow up.” These types of posters raised community awareness about the effects of gun violence. SOS encouraged local businesses to hang other posters in their storefront windows and to update them every day—“It has been __ days since our last shooting.” Eventually, however, the program took on the responsibility for the updates. Each day, an SOS intern from AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps wrote the current number of days the community had been without a shooting. Sending an SOS intern to update the posters on a daily basis helped SOS to build and strengthen its relationships with local businesses.
The language used on public education materials was specifically crafted for the Crown Heights community. Using graphics, pictures, and drawings was important in the design of posters and flyers because many Crown Heights community residents had low reading levels and their ability to understand public education materials was important. In addition to posters and flyers, SOS implemented the “Hair Me Out” campaign in neighborhood barber shops and beauty salons. Every week, SOS asked barbers to discuss a particular topic with their patrons to help them think more broadly about causes of violence (e.g., “share a time when you avoided a violent conflict”). “Community Conversations” was another SOS initiative that ignited group dialogue on the issue of gun violence. SOS also started “Arts to End Violence,” an art contest that included a gallery opening and street festival.
The program asked AmeriCorp interns to attend community meetings (i.e., community board meetings, precinct community council meetings) to distribute public education materials and to share information about the program. On average, interns attended four or more of these meetings per month to maintain relationships with stakeholders in the neighborhood. By the end of the evaluation period, community meeting attendance decreased as the AmeriCorps-funded internship came to an end and SOS was more established.
Community residents began to acknowledge the program after witnessing the day-to-day efforts of staff members. When SOS first started, it seemed as if there were no voices in the community protesting violence. SOS staff noticed a change in attitudes about violence over the course of the evaluation period. People would see SOS staff out in the community and say, “Thank you. It’s getting better. We want it to get good, but it’s getting better.” Staff reported that community members were also solving conflicts on their own rather than calling SOS to help control violence. Mobilizing community members had long been an aspiration of the outreach workers. Some team members even wanted to start a community empowerment campaign, such as “Everyone is an interrupter,” that would give neighborhood residents conflict resolution training.
Although the neighborhood as a whole was very involved in SOS and responded well to the program, over the course of the evaluation period, SOS realized that community members did not understand every aspect of SOS’s involvement. Part of this was due to the fact that the different events that SOS held reached different parts of the community (e.g., art shows versus shooting responses). Some residents complained that there were no resources in their neighborhood when in reality, they just did not always know how to access them.
The SOS Program Manager directed community engagement and mobilization efforts that worked in conjunction with SOS’s public education strategy. SOS encouraged the entire Crown Heights community, including schools, hospitals, senior citizens, tenant’s organizations, merchants, and artists, to participate in their anti-violence activities. Program activities included public post-shooting responses, community discussions around violence, prisoner re-entry resource fairs, and other anti-violence events aimed at gaining community engagement and support for the intervention. SOS also encouraged community members to have conversations with people in their neighborhood about issues related to violence, talk with the young people on their blocks, and know the statistics on violence.
Post-shooting responses were a significant piece of the Cure Violence community engagement strategy. According to the Cure Violence model, program workers must respond within 72 hours of a shooting with some type of public event. SOS was able to host a shooting response event after every shooting in their target area over the course of the evaluation period, but they sometimes struggled to comply with the 72-hour requirement. Initially, SOS was coordinating quick responses with an emphasis on getting them done rather than having them well attended. SOS constantly worked to find the right balance between attendance and promptness.
After a while, SOS shooting responses developed a pattern where the same people always attended and leadership wanted to reach a wider audience. Program staff experimented with various methods to advertise shooting responses (i.e. blog posts, e-blasts, text blasts, Facebook, Twitter, phone calls to volunteers, and posting flyers). Event schedules moved around relative to the time of shootings themselves to ascertain what times attracted the most attendees. If shooting victims were well-known and well-loved in the community, a response event might have up to 100 attendees. In the case of one homeless man who was shot, the only attendees were SOS staff. On average, around 35 people attended any given post-shooting response.
In addition to attending shooting responses, residents had other ways to work with SOS. Volunteers could distribute fliers about gun violence in the community, work at barbecues and other events sponsored by SOS, and help in the Mediation Center office. SOS was generally successful in engaging community members with their work. In 2012, for example, over 100 people volunteered with SOS at least once and 45 to 50 attended the volunteer appreciation ceremony held in their honor.
During a particular lull in shootings in early 2012, SOS staff decided to focus the program’s efforts on long term changes in social norms. The peaceful streak did not last long, however, and the team returned once again to its focus on outreach and interruption work. The program continued to wrestle with finding an appropriate balance in its crisis-based work with the long term goal of changing community norms around violence.
CLERGY ACTION NETWORK
Involvement of faith leaders in violence reduction work is a component of community mobilization under the Cure Violence model. Early in the Crown Heights demonstration effort, SOS hired an official Clergy Liaison to organize the program’s work with the faith community. Faith-based leaders represented another type of credible messenger for violence reduction work. In 2012, SOS created the Clergy Action Network (CAN). The network of 180 faith-based leaders in Crown Heights and nearby neighborhoods worked to support and spread SOS’s message of non-violence. The network produced a book, Praying with our Feet, focusing on the non-violent philosophies of clergy members. More than 30 members regularly attended the events coordinated by CAN.
Building the network required a lot of relationship development, as each member was accustomed to focusing only on the needs of his or her congregation rather than the larger community. For example, they did not always know about the high crime rates in various parts of the community. To maintain positive relationships with communities and the police, the clergy liaison routinely attended meetings of NYPD’s 77th Precinct Clergy Council.
Clergy involvement helped to increase attendance at post-shooting events sponsored by SOS. At a shooting response for a one 17 year-old gunshot victim, nine CAN members brought along 50 of their congregants. This type of public involvement in SOS’s efforts refuted the community’s prior perception of clergy as not caring about issues outside their own congregations and being un-involved in outreach efforts. Staff members at SOS, however, reported that the program began to scale back the involvement of CAN members in shooting responses as the demonstration project progressed. The visible participation of many clergy members began to appear overwhelming and SOS did not want to give the impression that the program events were strictly faith-based.
CAN also hosted three to four clergy breakfasts throughout the year. At these events, clergy from the Crown Heights community were given the opportunity to learn more about SOS and CAN, as well as to meet other like-minded clergy. The Clergy Liaison led these breakfasts and strategized with the local clergy in attendance about how to best work with the community and with youth to prevent violence. These events were opportunities to generate clergy interest in future events and recruit volunteers for various CAN sponsored projects.
CAN coordinated other events for the community as well, such as conflict resolution trainings, parenting classes, and resource fairs. In October 2013, the Clergy Action Network hosted an event called “Power-Filled Me” to give neighborhood youth an opportunity to open up and discuss their struggles in a forum where youth were the focal point. At this event, 50 guests listened to a panel of 15 young men in their late teens and early twenties as they discussed a variety of topics, including their experiences as teenagers and their priorities for neighborhoods. The adults in attendance were asked to refrain from speaking so they could learn from what the young men had to say about the difficulties they were facing.
In addition to working with the community, the Clergy Liaison helped to support the SOS team. For outreach workers, it was difficult to be the sole providers of support to mothers whose children (participants in the program) were shot and killed. The Clergy Liaison was able to provide emotional support for the SOS team and to organize the network to provide support for families in times of crisis. Members of the SOS staff believed this support helped them to preserve the stability of each individual working for SOS.
Faith-based leaders proved to be very useful to SOS’s community mobilization effort because they could spread the message of nonviolence to hundreds of congregants at a time. Clergy members also played an important role in helping people to navigate the mourning process when they lost a loved one to violence. By hosting positive events like resource fairs or neighborhood marches and participating in shooting responses, clergy showed members of the community that they cared about how their daily lives and not just matters of faith.
SOS supplemented the Cure Violence model with a unique youth component–Youth Organizing to Save our Streets (YO SOS)–which trained young people to become organizers and advocates against gun violence and to work on resolving conflicts in their neighborhoods. It engaged high school students between ages 14 and 17 with the capacity to be leaders on gun violence issues. The program included service learning opportunities, case management assistance, and small stipends. YO SOS participants, called Youth Organizers, came to the program with varied backgrounds and experiences. They were not always members of the highest-risk populations in the neighborhood. Some had been personally involved in gun violence, but others were simply interested in a leadership opportunity focused on gun violence.
YO SOS operated in annual cycles following the school year. A program coordinator planned twice-weekly workshops and occasional trips for participants (e.g., trips to Albany and Washington, DC to speak with lawmakers), and the program followed a unique curriculum created especially for YO SOS and the youth of Crown Heights. YO SOS adapted ideas from existing models, including Rites of Passage, Brotherhood/SisterSol, H.O.L.L.A!, and Cure Violence. Workshops engaged youth in discussion topics (e.g., what is violence, and where do you see violence in your life?) and challenged young people to come up with creative ideas to deal with violence and to talk with their peers about the topic. Participants helped to guide the development of the program and the choice of discussion topics. The curriculum allowed for unanticipated topics as new issues arose, and the program encouraged youth to be involved with other anti-violence efforts and events occurring in Crown Heights.
YO SOS youth participated in special projects during the school year. The first big effort was the Kingston Avenue Winter Windows Project. The project began as a collaboration between SOS and the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and allowed youth to work with local merchants around the holiday season to decorate their windows with messages of peace. Community members noticed the efforts of YO SOS participants working positively in the neighborhood and enjoyed the decorations that resulted from their work. SOS hoped that seeing young people organizing to stop violence would inspire the highest-risk youth of the neighborhood to change their attitudes.
When the Chamber of Commerce lost funding to continue the project the following year, SOS took on sole responsibility to sustain it. Local businesses enjoyed the chance to have youth decorate their store fronts and they hoped the effort would become a yearly project. During the 2013-2014 program cycle, YO SOS added a social media component to the window project by incorporating a mirror on the windows. They encouraged people to take a picture of themselves and post it to social media using the hashtag “#selfiesforsafety.”
YO SOS staff spent the first part of each year preparing youth for a big Spring event. The theme of the event changed each year. During 2012-2013, YO SOS was involved in the Mediation Center’s “Arts to End Violence” project. Youth were responsible for mingling with the crowd during the art gallery opening and discussing the event. To prepare for this event, youth practiced engaging in conversation with adult residents and learned how to articulate their feelings about gun violence. The following year’s Spring project focused on organizing classroom projects in public schools to start conversations about violence. YO SOS youth surveyed their classmates about gun violence and how to raise awareness. Additionally, YO SOS helped youth do a short asset mapping project to identify the anti-violence resources available in their schools and in their neighborhoods.
YO SOS staff helped find summer jobs for neighborhood youth, despite having no additional funds to pay students. Some of the jobs were with local art programs and the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. During the 2011-2012 cycle, Youth Organizers secured 15 summer jobs and internships. The number decreased to 13 summer jobs and internships in the 2012-2013 cycle. This component of the program proved to be challenging for the YO SOS program to sustain.
Youth Organizers also participated in larger SOS-sponsored events. When SOS sponsored block parties in the neighborhood, YO SOS participants ran their own table and engaged with community members. By attending such events, the youth were able to practice speaking on behalf of SOS and explaining the program’s mission to community residents. By the second year of the program, YO SOS was collaborating with 21 different organizations to spread its anti-violence message.
For a young person to be selected for the YO SOS program, they needed to meet the age requirement and live in or near Crown Heights. The residence requirement was imposed partly to ensure that youth would have a manageable and safe commute home after workshops. It also helped to maximize participants’ knowledge of the neighborhood. Participants also had to demonstrate a sincere interest in the topic of gun violence. They could have been interested in an after-school program with an anti-violence focus. They may have lost a family member to gun violence. They could have considered engaging in gun violence themselves in the past, or they may have simply become frustrated with the scope of gun violence in their community. The program tried to admit youth from varying backgrounds and experiences. Upon entering the program, coordinators conducted intake interviews with each youth. They asked about the participants’ demographics, educational backgrounds, family situations and personal histories.
YO SOS limited each participation to one year of involvement in order to reach as many young people as possible. Recruitment for the pilot (2010 to 2011) program was done via community partners, schools, and outreach workers. It started at the beginning of the school year and lasted approximately six weeks. The effort resulted in seven participants. The second cohort (2011 to 2012) was recruited via school visits and youth referrals, and that group included 17 participants. For the 2012-2013 year, YO SOS recruited 26 new members, mainly through classroom visits. By 2013-2014, formal recruitment was largely unnecessary and YO SOS received most of its referrals from high school teachers already familiar with the program. Recruiting males remained an ongoing challenge for the program. There were always more females than males expressing interest in the group.
Students involved in YO SOS were eligible to receive a stipend of up to $225 for their participation. Stipends were awarded at the end of the program, but youth participants lost $5 of the original amount for each unexcused absence. Overall, participant retention was high throughout the course of the program. Many participants were disappointed that they could only be a part of YO SOS for one year. YO SOS instituted a graduation ceremony at the end of the program to give them something to work toward as well as a way to mark the end of the experience.
In response to the continued enthusiasm of YO SOS alumni, the program started a Facebook group. YO SOS staff posted information about upcoming YO SOS and SOS events that alumni could attend, and they used the page to keep in touch with program graduates. The ongoing communication resulted in many YO SOS alumni attending neighborhood events. Organizing a full alumni event was more challenging, however, as many of the alumni were busy with school or away at college.
YO SOS faced many other challenges. Initially, it was even difficulty to get support from the SOS team. The regular staff at the Mediation Center did not always appreciate the value of getting youth involved who were not connected to violence themselves. Eventually, the SOS team became very supportive. The young people motivated the SOS workers with their excitement about the program and their sense of purpose proved inspirational.
Office space was a struggle for YO SOS. In its first year, the program rented space from a church located a few blocks away from the Crown Heights Mediation Center. The space was a good fit because youth could use it any day, even non-workshop days. Just before the 2013-2014 program year started, however, the church space became too expensive and YO SOS had to relocate. Weekly meetings were held in the Mediation Center, with other meetings happening in a privately owned community space. Neither space was perfect for the program. The Mediation Center was a more inviting environment, but it could not offer private space for YO SOS to meet. The community center was more private, but it was never as welcoming as the Mediation Center or the church space.
The most difficult challenge facing the program was always funding. Specifically, how would YO SOS continue when the OJJDP funding ended? The Mediation Center made a commitment to finish out the academic year with the 2013-2014 cohort of YO SOS youth, but the City government did not appear to be interested in funding the program itself. Some staff members believed the City was reluctant to fund YO SOS directly because that addition would have made SOS’s budget higher than the budgets approved for other New York City sites running Cure Violence programs. SOS argued that YO SOS was working to enhance the Cure Violence model and that it was successful. Fortunately, OJJDP was able to provide at least some continuation funding for a new cohort of 19 students for the 2014-2015 school year.
YO SOS was an important pilot project for the Crown Heights neighborhood. Youth opinions on gun violence are rarely heard in public discussions and staff believed that many of their youth participants began to shift away from violence as a result of their contact with the program. Staff members reported that they heard about young people taking it upon themselves to talk their friends out of violent situations. Participants began to see themselves as peacemakers in a way they had not before. Many young people started identifying themselves as part of the program within their schools and embracing the “Youth Organizer” identity in other aspects of their lives.
YO SOS staff also believed that the program helped Crown Heights residents overcome the stigma of living in a “high-violence” area, a perception that may have even been reinforced by SOS’s presence in the neighborhood. The youth program highlighted positive changes being made in the community and young people celebrated their ability to help stop violence. The neighborhood began to take pride in YO SOS’s youth organizers and the youth began to embrace their new role and their impact on the community.
SOS TEAM TRAINING
When outreach workers and violence interrupters were first hired by SOS, they received training from the national Cure Violence team. In addition to educating staff on the components of the Cure Violence model, the training included role-playing situations that could occur during outreach and interruption work. This training helped the team adjust to their new roles in the community. Before being hired by SOS, staff were accustomed to going out to the streets and talking to youth as members of the community. After SOS hired them, their dynamic with young people in the neighborhood shifted slightly. The staff needed to engage youth in conversations about violence and not just interact informally.
Booster trainings with Cure Violence were required every few months. During these boosters, the Cure Violence staff from Chicago would double-check SOS’s data, attend staff meetings, and canvass the community with the street team. In between official trainings, the outreach supervisor conducted role playing with the team to continue to reinforce appropriate techniques and help staff avoid making mistakes on the street. If outreach workers had questions between trainings, they could meet with the outreach supervisor, project manager, or contact the Chicago office directly. Direct access to Cure Violence proved problematic at times, as some OWs would take their questions and issues straight to the Chicago staff without asking the Crown Heights project manager. The managers of SOS had to intervene to stop this from happening.
Initially, all staff trainings were done in Crown Heights and developed specifically for this site. After SOS Crown Heights became part of the consortium of New York City Cure Violence sites, however, the trainings became less specific to Crown Heights. Chicago still came to New York City to do booster trainings, but trainings were scattered around the city and based on the needs of the other sites as well.
During the project’s CBVP funding, SOS leadership added a motivational interviewing training component for outreach workers (Rollnick and Miller 1995). The technique complemented the SOS model and was approved by Chicago for use in Cure Violence sites. This shifted the function of outreach worker to become more similar to professional case managers and less like peer support counselors or mentors. The training was reportedly very helpful to the staff.
Soon after SOS Crown Heights launched, New York City began funding new community-based violence reduction programs. Agencies funding the new initiative included the New York City Council, the Mayor’s Young Male Initiative (YMI), and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). As the city expanded these efforts, DOHMH became the designated provider of technical assistance and oversight for all city-funded Cure Violence programs.
The centralized approach presented new challenges for SOS. Greater expectations of shared goals and strategies introduced complexity. SOS struggled to adapt its approach to the City’s guidelines. Although the many initiatives across New York City shared the basic goal of violence reduction, each program operated in a distinct neighborhood culture and sometimes employed unique tools and tactics. It was difficult for programs to get past these differences and to agree about core components. For example, tensions arose when several program sites tried to order public education materials together as a way to lower costs. Staff quickly found that they had different ideas about how the materials should look and the messages they should convey.
Possible Effects on Crime
The John Jay research team collected crime data from the New York Police Department to assess the project’s possible effects on reported violence. The data covered the years 2004 through 2014, or six years prior to implementation and four years during SOS (2011-2014). The data included shootings, homicides, arrests, and complaints all coded at the level of U.S. Census Tracts. The research team compared data for the eight census tracts in the SOS program area with another eight census tracts in a similar area of Brooklyn that was not served by a specialized violence reduction program during the grant period. This comparison area was identified early in the evaluation project. It was similar in size, demographic make-up, the incidence of violent crime, and other neighborhood factors such as the presence of public housing properties and parks.
SHOOTINGS AND HOMICIDES
After a sharp decline between 2004 and 2006, the number of shootings in Crown Heights rose through 2010. The total number of shootings decreased slightly between 2010 and 2014 (from 14 to 12 per year), but the figure varied from three to 16 during the entire project period. These numbers clearly justified the implementation of SOS in the Crown Heights neighborhood, but they do not indicate that the introduction of the program changed the trend substantially.
Similar shooting trends were observed in the matched comparison area. Between 2004 and 2010, the number of shootings ranged between 13 and six per year with no clear direction, either an increase or decrease. Shootings spiked in 2012 and then declined through 2014 (5 shootings in 2014 versus 13 in 2012). Thus, both the program area and the comparison area experienced a similar pattern of shootings during the course of the CBVP grant period. Homicides ranged between one and four between 2004 and 2014. Similar to the trend in shootings, homicide trends failed to reveal a program effect. A similar trend was observed in the comparison area, with homicides falling after 2011, much like in the Crown Heights program area.
The total number of arrests in Crown Heights between 2004 and 2014 remained relatively stable, but the number of arrests in 2014 (150) was less than the total in 2004 or at the time of program implementation in 2010 (164 and 155, respectively). A similar pattern was observed in the comparison area, although the overall number of arrests per year was higher in the comparison area.
When all arrests in Crown Heights were separated into arrests that did or did not involve the presence of a weapon, similar and stable patterns were observed again in both the program area and the comparison area. The total number of arrests with a gun in the comparison area was almost the same as in the program target area (varying between 40 and 60 per year), while the total number of arrests with no weapon present was higher in the comparison area.
The evaluation found one possible indicator of effectiveness when total arrests in Crown Heights were examined across categories of offender age. Total arrests of 16-24 year olds (the focus of the SOS program) appeared to be decreasing between 2004 and 2014, with 83 arrests in 2004, 67 in 2010 and 55 in 2014. By contrast, total arrests of 25-34 year olds appeared to be increasing, with 30 arrests occurring in 2004, 32 in 2010, and 51 in 2014. The study cannot rule out the possibility that these age-related trends were influenced by the effect of the program.
Crime complaints (i.e. citizen reports) appeared to be declining between 2004 and 2014 in both Crown Heights and the study comparison area. In Crown Heights, a total of 155 complaints occurred in 2004, while 98 occurred in 2010 and 94 were reported in 2014. In the comparison area, a total of 321 complaints occurred in 2004, with 194 in 2010 and 141 in 2014. Since the decline in complaints preceded the program intervention date in Crown Heights in 2010, and because the pattern was present in the comparison area as well, the analysis of complaints failed to support the effectiveness of the program.
Finally, when complaint data were disaggregated by estimated offender age, it was apparent that the total number of complaints involving perpetrators between 16-24 years old increased in Crown Heights between 2004 and 2014. The same trend was observed for offenders between 25 and 34 years of age, however, and the patterns were similar in the comparison area.
The study attempted to analyze programmatic data to see whether they would support the effectiveness of the program in Crown Heights. The research team collected data about program activity from the database maintained by the Mediation Center during the course of the grant period. The data covered 2010 through 2013, which encompasses the period of full grant activity and program implementation. The data included outreach activities, community mobilization activities, distribution of public education materials, mediations, and records of conflicts in the community.
The number of participants in the program remained steady for each year between 2010 and 2013, with around 60 participants. The first full year of program implementation (2011) had the highest number of participants in the program (81) and the most referrals to outside services (112). The number of new enrollments decreased from 36 in 2010 to 17 in 2013 as the OJJDP grant came to an end. In-person contacts with participants decreased steadily each year, from 1,643 in 2011 to 1,324 in 2013.
Community mobilization was measured through the number of shooting responses, the number of community events, and how many people attended each of these types of events. The most shooting responses occurred in 2010—a total of 24. The number decreased to 14 in 2011, 21 in 2012, and 8 in 2013. By comparison, the number of community events held by SOS rose steadily between 2010 and 2013. In 2013, the program reported a total of 26 community events compared to 11 in 2011.
Compared with all previous years, 2013 had the most community events (26) and the fewest shooting responses (8). The SOS program held a number of “Peace Marches” between 2010 and 2013 with more than 100 participants in each march. Total attendees at shooting responses ranged from 556 in 2011 to 627 in 2012, but the number declined to 163 by 2013. Total attendees at SOS community events, however, rose from 2011 to 2012, suggesting that community recognition of SOS improved from when the program first began.
Conflicts in need of mediation were discovered by SOS staff nearly equally through personal contacts and from street knowledge. Conflicts were attributable to various causes, including gang “beefs,” personal altercations, competition over narcotics and drug sales, domestic violence, and simple robbery. Together, gangs and other personal altercations accounted for up to 75 percent of all conflicts resulting in SOS outreach efforts. The most common risk factors for participants to become involved in conflicts included being involved in gangs, having a history of violence, and being between 16 and 25 years of age.
Staff members from SOS carried out mediations in a variety of ways. The most common method was one-on-one conversation. Other common forms of mediation included the facilitation of small group interactions and third party interventions. Mediations by phone were used least often—only 9 between 2011 and 2013. Most conflicts (77%) were reported as being resolved. SOS estimated that half of all mediated conflicts could have led to shootings.
Staff members and the leadership of SOS believe the program’s efforts were successful in reducing gun violence and changing community norms. Inevitably, the program began with a slow start, as it can take several months to locate and renovate suitable office space, hire employees, and create the supervision structure necessary to operate effectively. The nature of the SOS intervention itself adds complexity to the start-up. Outreach workers depend on the strength of their personal relationships with participants to affect violence in the community, and participants are not very trusting. Building these new relationships takes time and patience. In SOS’s experience, it takes a year for new programs to identify staff and then establish a team with effective community contacts.
SOS also struggled to situate the program within the space of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center. As the SOS team grew, the Mediation Center was not always able to help all the people who learned about the Center from SOS and then came seeking assistance finding work, housing, and other public benefits. The SOS team continued to operate separately from the Mediation Center staff, but the dynamic of the Center changed as SOS grew and became a more visible presence in the office.
There were also times during the early phases of the project when the SOS leadership hierarchy was confusing to the front line employees. The differing responsibilities of the SOS director, SOS program manager, and the outreach worker supervisor (OWS) were not always clear. At times, the duties of the OWS and the program manager were indistinguishable. The qualifications of these two positions, however, were quite different. The OWS needed an equal balance between a street mentality and office professionalism in order to maintain a level of authority over the outreach team. If the OWS could not do both well, program staff could begin to ignore the leadership hierarchy of the program.
More difficulty derived from the fact that the Cure Violence model did not carefully define the roles of program director and program manager, which created confusion for outreach workers as they interacted with both positions as well as the OWS. All of these roles are important for the smooth functioning of a Cure Violence program. There are lots of details for a program director to handle that could otherwise overburden the program manager. Budgets for future Cure Violence replication should account for the varying roles and responsibilities. In addition, SOS staff argued that future budgets should account for dedicated administrative support, a position that was not included in the CBVP grant.
Many SOS staff identified the professional development and support of outreach workers as a crucial need for future programs. Inevitable complications arise when a program is designed to operate with a staff of formerly incarcerated individuals with little to no work experience. Moreover, almost everyone on the SOS outreach team had suffered traumatic experiences at some point in their lives. The effects of past trauma, combined with a lack of previous professional experience, made it challenging to run the SOS program. Staff often failed to come to work on time. They did not respond consistently to emails from their supervisors. The Mediation Center eventually sought and received additional federal funding to implement the “Make It Happen” program for staff members, a program that helps victims of violence to overcome trauma. Bringing these resources to the SOS violence interrupters and outreach workers was seen as very helpful and some staff believed this support should be a routine part of the Cure Violence model.
Future replications of the SOS program model should consider that the outreach and violence interruption positions can be exhausting jobs with a high burnout rate. SOS staff members reported that even individuals well equipped to be violence interrupters should probably do the work for about two years only. SOS leadership agreed that having a two-year plan for staff would also encourage them to have a plan for their post-SOS work lives. The violence interrupters (VIs) involved in SOS faced other challenges. The program in Crown Heights paid $17 per hour with full benefits including health insurance, but the VI positions were mostly part-time. Living in Brooklyn on $17 per hour, part time is extremely difficult. Some VI’s left the job because they could not cover even basic living expenses.
Staff at SOS worked late hours and had to keep very close connections to street life. Sometimes, they lived a bit closer to the streets than management would have liked, although that could also be an asset in some situations. The VI staff members were on-call virtually all the time. It was challenging to maintain this lifestyle when they had families and children. Leaving the house at three in the morning to mediate an ongoing gang dispute was an added source of stress for families that were already living in tough conditions. The strain that the position put on personal lives resulted in higher VI turnover than OW turnover.
Finally, some staff believed that SOS should have provided more training and resources for VIs and OWs on handling the effects of unacknowledged trauma among program participants. It was difficult for workers to refer participants to counseling and mental health services, leaving staff to devise their own solutions. Other New York City programs implementing Cure Violence (and other closely related programs) received funds directly from New York City to provide wrap-around support services for clients. At SOS Crown Heights, the OWs and VIs did not have access to this structure of support services (e.g., mental health services, therapeutic services, legal services, government services, employment services, etc.) and SOS staff had to make their own connections.
Neighborhood residents tend to be initially suspicious of new programs. When SOS started in Crown Heights, the community had already been exposed to many programs that opened up, made promises, and closed in two or three years. For a violence reduction plan to be sustainable, it needs to focus on the long-term and enjoy community support. Funding for a violence reduction model should support programmatic efforts without interruption for at least three years with an additional two years of funding for prevention work.
By the end of the CBVP evaluation period, SOS started to report differences in the general community. Outreach workers reported that during some of their neighborhood canvasses, people were starting to wave them off, as if to say, “We got this – we don’t need your help. We’ll call you if we need you.” Neighborhood residents may have been unprepared to handle all conflicts on their own, but it seemed as though the community was embracing the approach pioneered by SOS and making progress towards mediating conflicts in a non-violent manner. Workers at SOS argued that their program would be most effective if it changed its focus after the first three to five years—shifting from direct intervention to a training program for neighborhood leaders and volunteers who learn conflict mediation skills that they can use themselves instead of relying on paid outreach workers and violence interrupters.
Throughout the demonstration grant period, SOS Crown Heights struggled to find funds to sustain their efforts. Some believed that funders were more likely to award money to crisis situations than sustaining positive work so they could report that their funding drew people out of crises. SOS also recognized that their model for violence reduction did not appeal to all funders because it involved hiring formerly incarcerated individuals. This compounded the difficulty of finding additional funding.
After the CBVP grant expired in March 2014, SOS successfully obtained continuation funding through New York City’s Young Men’s Initiative (YMI) administered by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. YMI funding stems from many sources, including New York City’s Health and Hospital Corporation (HHC) and the Mayor’s office. The new funding sustained SOS through 2015 and into 2016, but at a reduced level of effort. SOS also continued to receive support from unpaid interns. In recent years, two individuals worked on the program’s blog, its social media presence, and a broader media campaign. The program was also able to enlist the help of three clinical social workers who offered to meet with staff members at no cost. These supports helped the program to run smoothly and efficiently. Of course, even unpaid staff members and interns still require supervision, direction, and training by SOS staff and the program’s funding challenges were not likely to end any time soon.
The funding awarded to SOS Crown Heights through the CBVP demonstration provided staff with the financial resources they needed to replicate the Cure Violence model and to become a role model for other Cure Violence sites throughout New York City. SOS also created a youth-oriented supplement program, YO SOS, to promote positive youth engagement and empower young people to work against violence in their community. During the course of the demonstration grant, SOS worked hard to hire credible messengers, maintain community trust, and balance the program’s crisis response orientation with its community mobilization work. They helped staff to balance their street lifestyles with office professionalism by providing in-office role models and social worker support. They gained neighborhood trust with daily outreach and by simultaneously implementing intervention and violence prevention strategies while also mobilizing the community to take an active role in stopping violence in their own neighborhood.
SOS staff members believe their efforts made a real difference. Relying on a proven model and investing significant resources into a small catchment area allowed SOS to focus on interrupting current conflicts and to change community norms in a way that would prevent future conflicts. During the evaluation grant, however, the available data about violent crime in the neighborhood failed to detect significant changes when compared with another neighborhood with similar characteristics. Whether this was due to the short time period allowed or to the actual absence of a program effect remains an open question.
Tomberg, Kathleen A. and Jeffrey A. Butts (2016). Street by Street: Cross-Site Evaluation of the OJJDP Community-Based Violence Prevention Demonstration Program. New York, NY: Research and Evaluation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.
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