After success in other North Carolina cities, councilor strives to bring model of healing from violence to Salisbury – Salisbury Post

By Natalie Anderson

SALISBURY — With community safety and gun violence high on the agenda of city and county leaders, councilman Anthony Smith says now is the time for a more holistic preventative approach in Salisbury.

Since 2015, Smith has championed the Violence Healing Model, founded in 1995 by Dr. Gary Slutkin, former head of the World Health Organization’s Intervention Development Unit. It was launched in Chicago and spread across the country over the next decade. Slutkin says the idea is that violence spreads like a disease – violence begets more violence – but using switches can shorten the cycle and change community norms.

Just as the city hires consultants to work alongside departments for strategic planning and design, Smith said the same should be possible for a program that addresses the root cause of violence.

“We should take the same seriousness and willingness to invest in something like this,” Smith said. “It shows how serious we are and our willingness to invest in a more holistic solution to the challenges we face with gun violence.”

A number of major cities across the country have implemented such a model, including Baltimore and New York. But cities closer to home have also implemented the program, including Greensboro, the City and County of Durham and Charlotte.

Smith said a growing number of community members are ready to discuss a Salisbury model, including Rowan-Salisbury School Board Vice-Chair Alisha Byrd-Clark and Pastor Tim Bates, who leads Man Up Mondays and the band Nightcrawlers. Smith said he also discussed the initiative with RSS Superintendent Tony Watlington. However, no formal commitment has been made by the school system.

Smith said he’s also had conversations with nonprofits that might host the program.

Ingram Bell is the Program Director of Gate City Coalition, Greensboro’s violence healing model. Bell is also a victim of gun violence, having been shot in the head in 2011. This incident sparked his advocacy to address the issue of gun violence in the community.

But it took community buy-in, she said. In 2017, a child was killed behind a primary school and this sparked the community organizing of such a model. In 2019, a double homicide prompted leaders to gather for a town hall meeting. Later that year, the city officially endorsed the Gate City Coalition by awarding the program $500,000. Now in its third year, the program continues to be funded.

Bell said it’s important that people known as “violence interrupters” are respected by the community. During this time, outreach workers help participants develop temporary, short-term, and long-term goals. Bell said there are about 35 current participants. Services include helping participants secure stable housing, educational and employment opportunities, and exit from probation.

“We start from within and strive out,” Bell said. “So if we holistically heal them from within and change their behavior, they become an agent of change. And that change spreads. So it also affects those around them.

Gate City Coalition is hosted by the non-profit organization One Step Further. Greensboro Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson is the executive director of One Step Further, although to comply with state law she recused herself in a vote on the contract and handed over coordination of this initiative to its Chairman of the Board. One Step Further provides a mediation center, youth court, alternative sentencing center, life skills for children, jails, and court diversion and pantry services.

“We thought it was a hit,” Johnson said.

In Greensboro, Gate City Coalition serves two target areas, including its Martin Luther King Jr. corridor and the Smith Homes area. A 2021 evaluation of the program by UNC-G showed that from January to June 2021, aggravated assaults and homicides were down in both program focus areas. A total of 84 aggravated assaults and homicides were reported in the MLK corridor from January to June 2019, with only 61 reported during the same period in 2020 and 32 in 2021. In the Smith Homes area, there there were 20 aggravated assaults and homicides reported. during this same six-month period in 2019, and only 10 reported during this period in 2020 and 12 in 2021.

During the same period, the report shows that members of the Gate City Coalition met with 456 people to make meaningful connections, help resolve conflicts and/or engage in conflict mediation. Staff said they mediated 141 disputes in and around the target areas.

“It is important to note that most initiatives take at least three years of implementation before questions of impact can be answered,” the report says.

Of the 31 participants who responded to surveys and participated in interviews during the evaluation, only 16 provided enough information to be included in the report. The results showed that 87% strongly agreed that the program had had a positive impact on their lives. About 14 respondents said the program helped them deal with their anger issues, 12 said it helped them get out of gangs or cliques, 10 said it helped them deal with drug use substances and nine said it had helped them with issues related to criminal records. When asked which aspect was most helpful, the top response was related to building personal skills, anger management, and advocacy. School support services follow closely.

The report also showed that a number of community engagement events had a much broader reach. A series of block parties during “peace week” in July 2021 reached at least 700 people. A pop-up community event reached 350 people, according to the report.

“Once they walk in and see that someone really cares about them and really cares about their well-being, they’re quick to recommend their friends to us,” Bell said. “They will come and talk to us instead of going out into the streets and protecting this violence outside.”

Johnson said the city’s investment is “a drop in the ocean” when even a single life is saved.

“I can’t put a price on that,” she said.

A 2020 review of John Jay College concluded that the evidence base for violence interrupters was “promising but mixed”. President Joe Biden’s administration has credited him with being an “evidence-based model” and has pledged to direct new funds and resources to violence switches in similar programs.

Following the city’s engagement, Smith said a team of analysts and experts from Cure Violence Global would conduct an assessment to get “a snapshot of the terrain” and offer suggestions for implementation.

“At the end of the day, curing violence isn’t really about catching the bad guys,” Smith said. “It’s about healing the community. It is about rebuilding the fabrics of the community. It’s about giving people access to resources.

Both Bell and Smith clarified that the program operates independently of local police. Bell said the police provide the interrupters with crime data and inform them of crimes in the program’s target areas. And while Interrupts can join officers at a crime scene, they interact with the affected community separately, and conversations about what’s going on remain confidential so as not to breach community trust. The goal is to prevent retaliation from the victim’s family.

“The police are needed. But community efforts like tackling violence are still needed too,” Bell said. “I think it’s an ‘both/and.’ It’s never one or the other… Healing Violence is pretty much a back-to-the-village type program, where we take care of our own.

Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes told the Post he was no expert on the model, but had seen great things with the city’s Cease Fire initiative, a partnership with Salisbury -Rowan NAACP who also uses volunteer de-escalators. The ceasefire has been the foundation for models of healing from violence in other communities.

“I’m not in a position to speak as an expert on violence healing, but I look forward to hearing and learning more about the model,” Stokes said.

Smith said an endorsement of the Stokes model would go a long way. He added that one of the results of using such a model is increased trust between the police and the community, as the model “changes norms in the community”.

Smith said he planned to take the idea to Salisbury City Council for discussion in March. He also created a Facebook group called “Bring Cure Violence to Salisbury”.

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