Gun Fire Will No Longer Be Met by Silence in NYC | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Gun Fire Will No Longer Be Met by Silence in NYC

Derick Scott grabbed the large brass bell from a fold-out table and raised a bullhorn to his mouth. People gathered near the site of a shooting in Crown Heights last month for rally against violence. "We're going to ring this bell for every victim that has been shot in Crown Heights," he said.
Crown Heights Journal
Gunfire Will No Longer Be Met by Silence
Published: December 10, 2010

Derick Scott grabbed the large brass bell from a fold-out table and raised a bullhorn to his mouth.

People gather near the site of a shooting in Crown Heights last month for rally against violence.
“We’re going to ring this bell for every victim that has been shot in Crown Heights,” he said.

As Mr. Scott, 40, heaved the bell and bellowed into the bullhorn last month, a crowd of about two dozen people surrounding him chanted, “No more.” It took them nearly two minutes to complete the task. There had been 66 shootings in that Brooklyn neighborhood so far this year; a few days earlier, a 23-year-old man was hit by a bullet near Troy Avenue and St. John’s Place, a few feet from where Mr. Scott stood.

The bell-ringing last month was the most dramatic moment of the roughly 30-minute “shooting response,” as the event is called. Organized by the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, the response is part of a new effort to fight gun violence in Crown Heights called Save our Streets, or S.O.S., that is modeled on CeaseFire, the antigun violence program developed at the University of Illinois in the 1990s.

CeaseFire significantly reduced shootings in some of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods, a study by Northwestern University in 2008 found, and the program has been replicated in Baltimore and Kansas City, Mo., though with mixed results, according to observers. In 2008, it was adapted for Basra, Iraq, and in the coming months, nearly a dozen areas in New York State will start programs modeled after CeaseFire. Crown Heights is the first.

Responding to shootings is the most visible part of that effort, which is based not on traditional law enforcement-style programs but on a public health approach to fighting disease. In this case, the disease is shooting, S.O.S.’s director, Amy Ellenbogen, said.

Since April, when the responses began, S.O.S. has organized more than 20 events on street corners where there have been shootings. Clergy members, politicians and residents are invited for a “demonstration of their outrage,” as Ms. Ellenbogen called it.

S.O.S. also has a squad of four outreach workers who go to areas where there have been clusters of shootings: areas where drug deals, for instance, and arguments over women and gambling have led to repeated gun violence. Their goal is to fundamentally change how those most likely to use guns think about doing so.

“We find out what their needs are — anything that’s going to gear them or shift them to a different mentality toward gun violence,” said Lavon Walker, one of the outreach workers. “We become like their bigger brothers, even closer than their fathers.”

The outreach workers have a caseload of 15 to 20 “participants,” each of whom are attracted by what S.O.S. is offering: help in finding a job or getting a high school equivalency diploma, for instance. The workers, who were trained by Chicago CeaseFire’s staff, regularly check in on their participants and mentor them.

Some of the outreach workers grew up in Crown Heights, and know the potential shooters. Some have spent time in prison or in gangs, so they can relate to the experience of those they counsel. At some point, they decided to turn their lives around.

For Mr. Scott, who supervises S.O.S.’s outreach workers and carries a small caseload, that happened after a stint in prison. For Mr. Walker, it was after he attended one too many funerals.

“A lot of people I grew up with were getting shot down,” he said.

On any given day, the outreach worker may act like an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and a crisis worker rolled into one, trying to dissuade participants from settling scores with guns.

Late one night, Mr. Walker recalled, he got a call at home. The caller said he needed to talk immediately — that he was “about to do something crazy,” Mr. Walker said. He went to see the man and reminded him that he had just finished his résumé and was in the process of getting a job.

“I said, ‘If you take that route over there and you get caught with this gun or, if you take that route over there and you’re the one who gets shot down, all these other things that are in place that could have happened for you, you’ll never know,’ ” Mr. Walker said.

Mr. Walker prevailed; the two made plans to follow up on the new job the next day.

S.O.S. also recently hired several people whom it calls “violence interrupters.” Unlike the outreach workers, they do not carry caseloads; their job is to prevent the next shooting. “They run to the crisis, they talk to the people there,” Ms. Ellenbogen said. “The only thing they’re armed with is who they are — their words, their story.”

Though it is too early to measure S.O.S.’s effectiveness, Ms. Ellenbogen believes that since it began, it has prevented nearly 20 violent conflicts.

In two Baltimore neighborhoods covered by such a program, homicides declined by 50 percent, according to the preliminary findings of Daniel W. Webster, a Johns Hopkins professor of public health who has studied the program, but it was not as successful in three other neighborhoods.

In Kansas City, despite a rocky start, the program, which is called Aim4Peace there, helped reduce homicides “significantly” in one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods, said Maj. Anthony Ell of the Kansas City Police Department.

“The key to it,” he said, “is you got to have the right people on the streets.”

In Crown Heights, that was a critical point for Russell Davis, who was involved in a recent shooting response.

Mr. Davis, 51, who grew up just a few blocks from the scene of the shooting, served 10 years in state prison for robbery and dealing drugs. When he got out, he said, he learned a trade — plumbing — and got his life on track.

He was unsure whether S.O.S. would yield results. Then he noticed who was behind the bullhorn. “I was upstate with him,” he said, pointing to Mr. Scott. “If he can stand out here, then maybe I can stand right next to him.”

Published Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010


More Stories