Can intervention squad of everyday people curb Newark crime?

By Luke Nozicka | For NJ.com
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on July 21, 2016

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka speaks to reporters Thursday at City Hall about a new way the city is trying to reduce crime in the South and West wards. Aqeela Sherrills, right, is serving as director of the program.

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NEWARK — In the hopes of reducing crime in the city's South and West Wards, officials are turning to nontraditional leaders to bring change. 

During a press conference Thursday afternoon at City Hall, Mayor Ras Baraka said he hopes to continue expanding a small pilot program brought to the city last year by Aqeela Sherrills, who in the early 1990s helped arrange a peace treaty between the Bloods and the Crips, prominent rival gangs. 

The program is a simple concept, really: As of now, nine community members in the South Ward and eight in the West Ward work as "mediators and interrupters" to reduce crime before violence occurs, Sherrills said. The 17 people are expected to build relationships with their area's youth and assure families crime victims know about resources available to them.

The city is calling the group the "Newark Community Street Team," and Sherrills is its director. 

Traditionally, "we deploy police officers, but not therapists or social workers" who are trained in assisting those who have experienced "deep rooted trauma," Sherrills said. This program works differently.

Sherrills said members of the street team are on call 24 hours a day and aid in preventing criminal retaliation. They meet with the Safer Newark Council to identify "hot spots," or areas that see more crime, such as shootings, robberies and assaults.

Jessica "Jayda" Jacques, a 32-year-old who mentors youth in the city's South Ward, described the group of workers as "interventionists and activists," who are well respected within their communities. 

She said the workers help young students get to and from school through "safe passages," walking with them to prevent robberies and other potential danger. The workers frequently carry bus cards in case kids need a ride home and money in case they don't have food. 

"These kids don't want to rob," she said during an interview before the press conference. "They don't have money and they have empty refrigerators, so they steal so they can eat at night."

She said she starts working the passage at University High School on Clinton Place about 9 a.m., spends time with various clients throughout the day and is back at the school from about 2 to 4 p.m. 

"The kids see us and know us," she said, adding that the group worked with more than 50 youths last year. "And ultimately we become family."

Jacques, who worked with documentary star Darel "Creep" Evans to help at-risk youth before his shooting death in December 2015, pleaded for others to follow in the workers' footsteps to bring the city together — whether it be city officials, police or those from rival gangs. 

"We used our relationship to bring the gangs together," Jacques, a known Blood, said of Evans, a former Crip who was featured in the 2009 Sundance documentary series "Brick City," about gang life in Newark.

"My kids don't have a dad right now because of this violence," Jacques said of her 7-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.

The workers are paid $15 an hour and generally log 25 hours a week, said Sherrills, whose 18-year-old son Terrell was fatally shot in 2004 when a stranger "mistook the young man's Mickey Mouse sweater for representing gang colors," according to his Californians for Safety and Justice profile. 

The Victoria Foundation and Prudential Financial are the program's primary donors, Sherrills said. He said he is glad the companies took risks in investing in the program. 

"With all that is happening across the country, it is easy for us to direct more resources towards law enforcement, but it takes someone to have really significant insight to understand that we can't arrest our way out of this problem," Sherrills, who lives in Watts, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, said. "We have to have a joint strategy that engages residents — especially if you want it to be sustainable — that it engages residents as well as law enforcement."

Baraka said the social workers are resourceful in reducing crime, considering about 60 percent of the city's violent crimes stem from personal disputes. 

"If there (are) personal disputes, there has to be a group of people that get between the personal disputes and begin to mediate or interrupt the type of conflicts that are going on in our communities," he said, noting that just four percent of the city's population commits more than a majority of its violent crime. "This is an incredible program ... and I believe it will be successful."

The growth of this program comes after several initiatives aimed at involving the public in reducing violence, including the Baraka administration's announcement last month it would be tapping civilians to assist the police department in monitoring the city's surveillance cameras.

As for Jacques, she said the group can "literally" decrease the crime rate by helping youth get jobs and placing drug addicts in treatment programs, among other grassroots initiatives. 

"It's not a game," she said. "It's not Monopoly, it's not Uno — it is real. We can do it."

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