JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With 18 murders in the city of Jacksonville in the first six weeks of 2019, city leaders are looking for solutions to make the violence stop.
In recent years, the city has invested in ShotSpotter technology and a bullet comparison database, which leaders say have helped reduce the number of shootings: after 443 people were shot in Jacksonville in 2017, the number of victims dropped to 380 in 2018.
As police and prosecutors search for the shooters, the community looks for answers.
“You need the right combination of strategies in a neighborhood to make sure you can get ahead of some of the challenges overall,” explained Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams during a recent interview.
As one key factor in these crimes is gang violence, the I-TEAM found that the sheriff, state attorney and mayor are turning to a program that has been successful in some of the nation’s largest cities.
The program, known as Cure Violence, has worked in cities including Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. It treats crime as a public health issue, sending highly trained ex-cons who the program calls “violence interrupters” into dangerous areas. Their task: to identify those at risk for being a shooter, or getting shot.
The I-TEAM traveled to one of those cities using the program -- Philadelphia, a city that has struggled with crime for decades – to see how Cure Violence is implemented and see its impact.
“This whole strip right here, it goes down. This is a hotspot for murders,” said Colwin Williams, one of the program’s violence interrupters in Philadelphia. “A young woman got murdered right here over an argument,” he continued.
“You’ve got to be credible. I’m an O.G. They respect me,” Williams told us, explaining the respect came from the fact that he previously lived a life of crime, spending 19 years in prison for robbery & kidnapping.
Now out of prison, he works full-time for Philadelphia CeaseFire, the Cure Violence program there. The program treats crime as a public health issue, and the ex-con Williams used medical terms to describe the program's approach.
“You take part of the germ, part of the virus, you culture it and you shoot it back into the community. You build the immune system up,” Williams said. “You can’t keep putting Band-Aids on something that needs surgery.”
Williams and other members of the Philadelphia CeaseFire team reach out to young men in dangerous communities, mentor them, and guide them away from guns.
Chris Long, 15, is one of the teens on the program’s list.
“There’s too much crime and stuff,” Long told the I-TEAM. “To have somebody come and get me and try to talk to me and help me be better at my life, I appreciate that.”
Robert Warner is the program manager for Philadelphia CeaseFire.
“We do this every day. All day, every day. Like, people really look up to us,” Warner said. “And if they see that we’re doing good, they want to do the same thing.”
The team of violence interrupters from Philadelphia CeaseFire not only work the streets, they respond to hospitals, for every person who gets shot. In the case of a homicide, they talk with friends and relatives of the victim.
“We out here every day,” Warner said. “Every day. Even on our off days. If we get calls, we still gotta go.”
The same model is used in other Cure Violence programs across the country, each funded with local, state and federal grants, as well as donations. Independent studies have shown success in targeted areas in some of the other communities: a 56 percent reduction in killings in one Baltimore neighborhood, and a 73 percent reduction in shootings in a Chicago neighborhood.
In Philadelphia, gun violence is down 30 percent, just two years after the program started.
“Guys like us, we’re not afraid to talk to the guys that are doing the shooting,” Warner said. “Because we once were the shooters. We’re not afraid to push them the right way.”
“I did a lot of things in this community to hurt it,” said Quinzel Tomone, a supervisor with Philadelphia CeaseFire. “So I wanna give back to the younger guys. I was actually out selling drugs at the age of 13, 14.”
Tomone offered what he saw as the reason behind much of the violence in his city.
“The majority of the killing that’s going on here doesn’t have a lot to do with drugs,” Tomone said. “It has to do with beefs.”
Jermaine McCelveen is fresh out of prison after serving decades for murder in an armed robbery. At the time, he was only 16. Now, he volunteers with Philadelphia CeaseFire, to show teens there’s another way.
“Enjoy being a kid. Enjoy being a teenager. Have fun,” McCelveen said.
The I-TEAM asked Warner, the program manager, if the Cure Violence model could work anywhere.
“Yes,” Warner responded. “You just have to get the right training and the right guys to be willing to go out on the streets to talk to people.”
As we walked through the city with Williams, neighbors we spoke with were willing to support anything proven to stop the violence.
“It’s a community thing. We all gotta work together, man,” said Roosevelt Davis, a community activist. “And half of the kids running around are our neighbors, sons, nephews. It’s not hard to get ahold of them. We just all gotta stand up together.”
Despite support like that from the community, it’s still an uphill battle on dangerous terrain, and the work of the violence interrupters isn’t always well-received by the people they target.
“It’s not easy; we’re not perfect,” Williams said. “But we show them that struggle builds character.”
These former criminals feel they can give back, and that people like them can make a difference even in the most deadly neighborhoods.
“The major piece is being able to identify their trauma, their pain, and what they are up against,” Williams said.
We asked Williams if it is hard to get people to listen and cooperate.
“At the end of the day, nobody wants to die,” he responded.
Can it work in Jacksonville?
Following the visit to Philadelphia, the I-TEAM met with State Attorney Melissa Nelson and showed her what we found when we looked at the Philadelphia CeaseFire program.
Nelson and her team of prosecutors believe young men who are members of violent gangs are behind a large number of shootings in Jacksonville. The I-TEAM wanted to know what Nelson thought was at the root of the killing and violence in the city.
“Disrespect for life, a lack of hope for their own lives,” Nelson said. “The kids who are involved in this group violence, those who we’ve sat down with and talked with, they themselves admit they don’t expect to live themselves past 18 or 19 years old.”
In fact, Nelson said many of the gang members her team investigates wind up dead before they can be prosecuted.
Others, such as Henry Hayes, who was convicted of killing toddler Aiden McClendon in a drive-by shooting, will be spending the rest of their lives behind bars. Hayes is one of the gang members who has been seen in videos posted on social media talking about, and displaying, guns.
“We see these drill videos, essentially rap videos, homemade videos being made and the lyrics are related either to a past homicide and/or are threatening a future shooting,” Nelson said. “We’re actually able to connect shootings to those videos and they are both inciting violence and igniting violence.”
Nelson, along with Mayor Lenny Curry and Sheriff Mike Williams, recently released a gang violence reduction strategy with a number of potential solutions, including an implementation of the Cure Violence program. Nelson is meeting with members of the Cure Violence team next week to see if it is the right fit for Jacksonville.
“The pride they have in the work they’re doing and the difference they’re making was very encouraging to me,” Nelson said. “The people on the ground in Philadelphia where you visited clearly believe they are making a difference. They said the folks they work with trust them, and that matters. And so that’s very encouraging.”
The I-TEAM asked the state attorney if that trust is something that might be hard to achieve if you’re wearing a suit and tie, or a badge.
“Well, they have a lot of credibility because these are people who have shared life experiences and that matters.”
Nelson said she is cautiously optimistic that Cure Violence may be the prescription the city of Jacksonville needs.
“Man, if this works here …” Nelson said, ending the sentence with a smile.