Uphill battle for Cure Violence after violent weekend

'Violence interrupters' have spoken with hundreds since program started

By Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Following a violent weekend in Jacksonville, the pressure has, once again, intensified on city leaders and police officers to cut down on crime.

One of the ways they're trying to do that is through a program called Cure Violence. Team members hit the streets at the end of May in two target areas: Northwest Jacksonville and the Eastside. The neighborhoods were chosen because they have the highest numbers of shootings and homicides.

Two weeks after hitting the streets, Cure Violence supervisors said they've made progress.

But over the weekend, at least five people were shot, three of whom died, according to News4Jax records.

As of Monday, there have been 73 homicides within the city limits during 2019. That's up from 58 homicides at the same time in 2018.

"Half these guys don't want to live this lifestyle," said Kim Varner, a retired Jacksonville police officer who experienced the brutality both professionally and personally.

In 2015, his 25-year-old son Kim "Desi" Varner Jr. was shot and killed on the Eastside. The man's suspected killer was gunned down a week later.

News4Jax spoke with Varner after the shootings and he vowed to make a difference.

"We have got to take it to the streets," Varner said in 2017. "We've got to stop sitting behind a desk. We've got to take it to the streets."

Varner is now one of the supervisors for Cure Violence's Eastside office, labeled the Noah's Ark Project. He and his team work the streets to find people at risk of becoming shooters or among those shot.

"We get out there every day. We try and form a relationship with people in the community, let them know that we care about them, that we're going to be out there with them every day, putting our lives on the line going out there," Varner said.

According to City of Jacksonville records, since the workers hit the streets on the Eastside, Cure Violence has made 360 contacts, handed out 974 flyers and booklets and put in more than 500 hours.

Its sister center in Northwest Jacksonville, called Bridges to Cure, made 801 contacts, passed out 1,229 flyers and booklets and spent more than 500 hours on the streets.

"I actually work in the neighborhood where I grew up," Varner said. "That's why it means so much to me."

In response to the violence over the weekend, Verner Sr. asked people to be patient.

"Give it time," he said. "It's been two weeks."

He pointed out that none of the shootings over the weekend happened in the target area of the Eastside.

Varner and the other violence interrupters said they know they have a lot of work ahead.

"I've got every bit of confidence in what we are doing, and I think you'll see the numbers starting to drop," Varner said. "It probably won't stop, but you will see them drop."

Last week, there was a shooting in Northwest Jacksonville, within the target zone. Violence interrupters said they were on the same street hours before it happened. It shows they have an uphill battle, but they're optimistic they can save lives.

There will be a community kickoff event for the Eastside office on June 28 at A. Phillip Randolph Heritage Park.

Interrupters stressed they do not give information to police and prosecutors, saying the information they receive is confidential.

Copyright 2019 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.