Newark-based violence prevention group seeks to bridge gap between police, social services

Community-based violence prevention groups want their work to be taken just as seriously as police work  and want the funds to match.

That’s why a new national organization called the Community Based Public Safety Association was launched Thursday in a virtual press conference with support from mayors in Newark and Los Angeles. The association will be an organization of other community-based public safety groups around the United States and will push for funds and public information programs.

“This is evidence-based work,” said Aqeela Sherrills, the executive director of the association. “This is not willy-nilly work that we’re doing just out in the field. We have evidence-based results. We have community support in terms of our work. Now it’s time for significant investment.”

Sherrills is also the president of the Newark Community Street Team, which is an example of a community-based violence prevention group created in 2015 under Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration.

The group hires and trains people who were incarcerated or have survived violence to reach out to those at the greatest risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of violence. Outreach workers have befriended and built trust with high schoolers in Newark to diffuse disputes and given residents access to therapeutic counseling.

Community-based violence prevention programs could be part of the strategy in the push to divert money from police departments to social services. This past summer, the City of Newark said it would divert 5% - or $11 million - of the public safety department’s funds to build a social services headquarters called the Office of Violence Prevention.

The Newark Community Street Team, which will run the office, was praised by the city’s outgoing public safety director, who said it would mean cops wouldn’t have to respond to as many calls about minor home disputes or mental health issues.

“Usually, police departments are tasked with being in communities to solve social ills that have been in our community for decades,” Baraka said. “And they’re just not equipped to do so. Some of them come with the lack of training and sensitivity to be able to deal with these communities in the first place. And some of them are just outright racist.

Homicides have decreased in city’s South Ward, where the Newark Community Street Team has worked, according to a report released by the association on Thursday. Although homicides remained about level in the city’s South Ward at about 30 between 2016 and 2018, there was a sharp decline in 2019 with just 16, the report said.

It’s hard to calculate just how many homicides were reduced because of a community program, the report said. Mayor Baraka said crime has been reduced in Newark from a combination of “targeted policing” and strategies from community-based public safety programs.

A June 2020 study conducted by UCLA showed intervention workers at the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development were associated with a 41.2% reduction in gang-related retaliatory homicides and aggravated assaults in the South Los Angeles area from 2014-2017.

One of the association’s goals is to make collecting data about outcomes more uniform. The association’s report said many groups don’t have the resources to adequately track data while also working on outreach, which is usually a round-the-clock job with low pay.

“We’ve got to professionalize this profession as well, just as we do with law enforcement officials who have union jobs,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

The criminal justice system is punitive, the association’s report said, while groups like the Newark Community Street team are supportive. Police are in charge of responding and making arrests, while community violence prevention focuses on intervening to interrupt the chain of retaliation.

It’s part of a new approach that also shifts the framing of violence. Instead of looking at is a crime problem, community-based public safety programs look at violence as a public health crisis. One expert on the association’s panel called punishment as a response to violence a “medieval tactic” that doesn’t affect change in behavior.

“This is a public health problem,” said Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who once worked for the World Health Organization. “This is a problem of behavior, that is, in a way learned and contagious.”

It can be difficult to work in law enforcement for those who have been convicted of a felony. But the Newark Community Street Teams champions hiring those who have been incarcerated since it helps case workers find common ground with the people they are trying to reach.

Julius Thibodeaux, a program manager at the California-based Advance Peace who has served time, said without community-based violence reduction programs, many people like him wouldn’t even be offered services like therapy until after they commit violence.

“I know first hand because I didn’t receive these things when I was in school and I was acting up and fighting,” said Thibodeaux. “I was simply punished or threatened with punishment. Never knew what it even meant to be in an anger management class or emotional intelligence or any form of any conflict resolution.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-03-29 02:22:28 -0700