Strengthening our mission against gun violence

Elsie Mccabe Thompson, President, NYC Mission Society | 4/30/2015, 11:44 a.m.
Let’s change the way we look at gun violence. Instead of simply calling it crime, we need to call it ...

Let’s change the way we look at gun violence. Instead of simply calling it crime, we need to call it what it truly is: one the most serious threats to public health in Harlem. As a resident of Harlem, this issue is personal for me.

Our Mission Society Anti-Violence Initiative is a critical part of keeping our community “healthy” and stopping the shooting before it starts. In fact, since the program started in Central Harlem in 2010, felonies involving dangerous weapons in the 32nd Precinct are down 50 percent. I want to tell you what we’re doing as an organization to strengthen this program to make sure it is viable for the long-run.

Our anti-violence program is based on the extremely successful CeaseFire Chicago/Cure Violence model, which created the idea of viewing street violence as a public health issue. Trained “street-credible” violence interrupters are sent out to mediate and negotiate disputes. These dedicated interrupters are persuading the people who are most at risk for engaging in violence to find peaceful solutions to their problems.

While our outreach workers are meeting people on the streets to prevent retaliation and de-escalate potentially dangerous situations, we are also working to change the game for our community as a whole. The model encourages “spreading positive norms,” and the bottom line is we are out there making sure everyone knows that violence is never the answer.

At the moment, there are some rumors swirling about our program that I want to dispel. I am writing to cut through the noise and let you know what we are moving proactively to ensure that our good work continues. We have launched a wide-ranging internal review to ensure that all of our current and former staff members’ concerns are heard. For now, our review has not turned up any instances of violence or gang membership. But you should be assured that our leadership at the Mission Society will act immediately to dismiss anyone proved to be currently affiliated with a gang, engaged in criminal activity or involved in violence of any kind.

The Mission Society is empaneling a blue-ribbon group of community leaders to re-interview all current staff members. This group will also make important recommendations that we intend to use to make our program even stronger. The bottom line is that we want to know of any instances of wrong doing by anyone associated with our program. If those allegations are proved, we will deal with them swiftly and decisively.

We are working actively with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to take concrete steps to build a foundation for success. As recently as last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio reaffirmed his commitment to this model, which is yet another validation of the important work we are doing.

It is clear why this program is important to not only protect but also strengthen. A scientific study done on a similar program in Crown Heights showed 20 percent fewer shootings than in similar neighborhoods. That program involved more than 100 mediations with more than 1,000 clients. Cure violence programs, as these types of intervention models are called, are proved to work. That is a simple fact, and it is something that everyone in Harlem can support.

Since its inception, our program has mediated nearly 900 conflicts in the community, and shootings have decreased 67 percent in our service area. Although our policy is not to make the details of these mediations public, we know definitively that by stepping in when we did, we prevented these situations from escalating. Violence is not a fact of life, it is not something that anyone should have to live with, and just like a disease, we should all be working together to find a cure.

No one wants our children to grow up on streets riddled with bullets. That is why the Mission Society Anti Violence Initiative is here—to support everyone in Harlem who wants a neighborhood where kids can play on the streets and not have to worry about stray bullets. The work we are doing will go a long way toward making Central Harlem the safe community we know it can be.