Cure Violence team evaluating Jacksonville's problems

Violence interrupters meet with mayor, state attorney, sheriff

By Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Days after a violent weekend, a team of violence interrupters is in Jacksonville meeting with city leaders about possible solutions to crime.

Managers with Cure Violence began their assessment Tuesday morning at Jacksonville City Hall, meeting with State Attorney Melissa Nelson, Sheriff Mike Williams and Mayor Lenny Curry.

Cure Violence is a program developed in Chicago that has fanned out nationwide. Researchers and case workers try to stop violence by treating it as a public health problem. The regimen uses ex-cons to identify young men at risk for being shooting victims or perpetrators. Cure Violence team members also respond to hospitals to speak with recently injured shooting victims and families of those killed in homicides.

According to research, some target neighborhoods saw an approximate 70 percent reduction in shootings.

"This is really a boots-on-the-ground, innovative approach to interrupting some of these repeat acts of violence that occur," Williams said. "You shoot at me, I shoot at you and then my brother shoots back. That happens a lot here."

Meeting face to face with Jacksonville’s leaders, Cure Violence team members spent Tuesday morning at City Hall, discussing the program and how it would work in the River City’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

"It’s a great model. It works. It’s community driven, so it starts in the community and goes out," said Cure Violence manager Marcus McCallister. "So we hire people from the neighborhood, from the community who have the relationships and have the credibility to do the work."

Williams, Curry and Nelson have been researching the message and expressed support for bringing it to Jacksonville.

"It was fantastic to sit and listen to the presentation and look at the results and the statistics," Nelson said. 

Curry said he will find the money to fund the program if he is convinced it will help curb violence in the city.

"It’s about budget priorities and, as I told the people four years ago, I would make public safety my top priority," Curry said. "We need to invest to make our city a safe city."

The I-TEAM traveled to Philadelphia three weeks ago to see Cure Violence in action. There, a team going by the name Cease Fire Philadelphia, was able to cut down on shootings in target areas.

“You’ve got to be credible. I’m an O.G. They respect me,” said Philly team member Colwin Williams, explaining the respect that came from the fact that he previously lived a life of crime, spending 19 years in prison for robbery and kidnapping. “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. You can’t keep putting Band-Aids on something that needs surgery.”

Cease Fire Philadelphia program manager Robert Warner said the program will work in Jacksonville if the right people get involved.

“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.”

Following the visit to Philadelphia, Nelson told the I-TEAM she was very confident in the methodology used in Cure Violence programs. She said she supported building a team in 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.”

City leaders did not have a timeline on when they’ll decide if Cure Violence is the right fit for Jacksonville, but they showed immediate interested in the program's joint Gang Reduction Strategy. One Cure Violence team member estimated the cost to start the program in Jacksonville would be about $400,000 for the first year. That money would come from local, state and federal grants, and possibly donations. The team member said if the funding is secured, they are prepared to get the program up and running in a matter of months.

Government agencies, community partners and providers, and business and community leaders are invited to learn more about Cure Violence at workshops at the Kid's Hope Alliance at 1095 A. Philip Randolph Blvd. One workshop was held 2-5 p.m. Tuesday. There is another opportunity to join the workshop from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday.

At the first workshop Tuesday afternoon, Cure Violence representatives showed their thought process. The audience was overwhelmingly in favor of starting an office in Jacksonville, including community activist Ben Frazier, with the Northside Coalition, who’s been critical of how the current administration is handling crime.

"The bottom line is that what we have tried before is the suppression model, which says that we increase the police budget for three years in a row, which says we increase the number of police on the street. Well, that clearly has not worked," Frazier said. "We’ve got to do something that changes behavior and this program addresses that issue."

The city has also invited resided to learn about the Cure Violence program at two public meetings. The first public meeting will begin at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Legends Center Auditorium at 5130 Soutel Drive. The second public meeting will start at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Mary Singleton Center at 150 East First St.  

More information is also available at cureviolence.org.

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