The Interrupter: How one city handled violence on the streets

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A shooting had just happened.

Ricky Aiken knew who was probably involved or affected. Gun violence was raging in West Palm Beach, Florida, at that time, and that’s why he was there.

He grabbed a van, booked a hotel room in Orlando and started loading up as many of the young men as he knew 

They were all members of a gang. He knew if he didn’t do something, they might retaliate against the person who shot their friend.

“On their mind was to retaliate,” he said.”When you get them out of it, it slows them down.”

Aiken is the executive director of a nonprofit group in West Palm Beach called Inner City Innovators. Their job and what Aiken does for a living is “violence interruption.”

When Aiken loaded those young men up to head to an Orlando hotel, it was 2015 and right in the middle of West Palm Beach’s most violent year of shootings and homicides. That year, the city saw 35 homicides — nearly as many as the City of Knoxville saw last year — although West Palm Beach has a much smaller population of only around 110,000 residents.

The group of kids that Aiken loaded into the van was the first group he worked with as an interruptor.

“Those young men in that group have now left that life behind,” Aiken said.

But there were still some in the gang who recommitted criminal acts or ended up shot. 

“We couldn’t save all of them,” he said.

A series of recent shootings in Knoxville of teenagers has led to the city trying to see what it can do about stemming the violence. Three teens who attended Austin-East Magnet High School were shot and killed in less this four weeks. 

The Austin-East community is still very much in mourning over last month’s loss of 16-year-old Stanley Freeman Jr., who was killed while leaving school, and 15-year-old Janaria Muhammad, who was shot outside her home. Justin Taylor, 15, was allegedly shot by a friend in January.

Authorities are still looking for the killers of Freeman and Muhammad. The FBI has offered a $5,000 reward in an effort to convince witnesses to come forward.

The incidents involving Austin-East students were only the most recent tragedies in the midst of an unprecedented surge of deadly violence that has touched almost every corner of the city.

There were 37 homicides in the city in 2020, more than the previous high of 35 in 1998. Since Jan. 1 of this year, there have been 13 slayings, all of them involving firearms. By way of comparison, at this time last year there had been only three homicides. 

Mayor Indya Kincannon has secured a $1 million emergency allocation to address the crisis and wants Cities United to play a central role in the response. A contract with Cities United is soon expected to be presented to City Council for approval.

The group, whose goal is to try and decrease shootings and homicides of young Black men ages 14 to 24, will be brought in as technical advisors. 

Cities United, a national initiative that has worked with more than 130 cities seeking to quell inner city violence, has surged to the forefront of local discussions since Kincannon has made it a lynchpin of her response to the slayings. Cities United has said the cost of their full services, if the city goes that route, would be around $75,000 for a full 12- to 18-month commitment.

Courtesy of Inner City Innovators.

The group has worked here before. In 2018, it helped lead the “Save Our Sons” conference that stopped in Knoxville. The City of Knoxville has roots with Cities United, going back to 2015, and the organization has helped draft and participate in neighborhood discussions on police presence and city services and resources.

A former local community activist, Andre Canty, formerly with the Highlander Center, now works with the group. He spoke with the Knox County Schools Board of Education last week about bringing in all parties of the community for a collective approach.

Battling gun violence is not new for Cities United.

They have helped with the Houston Peace initiative, driven by the Houston Health Department. They have helped formulate strategies in Oakland, Philadelphia and are now helping in Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd last year.

They also helped draft the Mayoral Village, the initiative in West Palm Beach to get gun violence under control.

Kevin Jones, coordinator for community initiatives in West Palm Beach, said he came aboard the city in 2014. Former West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio was concerned with the violence, particularly in three neighborhoods in the inner city.

City officials saw the number of homicides increase to 35 that year, Jones said.

“It had been awhile since we hit that number,” he said.

The mayor had first heard about Cities Unities at a League of Mayor’s meeting in New Orleans, so she called them to consult. They started coming up with answers as to who and why the shootings were occurring.

“What you find a lot of times is it’s retaliatory,” Jones said. “They may not talk to police. It’s retaliatory.”

He said they identified they needed to find “interrupters” — people who were on the front lines and could talk to the young men who might retaliate. To calm them down and not go to their guns.

He said it’s important to find people who grew up in the community. More importantly, though, you have to find people with “street cred.”

Jones said they banded together to come up with a holistic approach that included police presence, people on the street and partnerships with invested groups like the Urban League. They created a jobs program and for awhile some of the people on the streets could get a good-paying job working for the city’s Public Works Department.

They started mentoring programs and increased after school programs. They did all they could to get the kids off the streets.

“You’ve got to give them hope,” Jones said. “You’ve got to show them there’s another way.”

Enter Aiken, a “Hope Dealer.”

Aiken and Inner City Innovators have a simple motto: “Bringing Hope Back to the Hood.”

Aiken and his cousin, Terryon Chapam, were not happy with West Palm Beach in 2014. They saw the violence first hand and started going to city and community meetings to voice their concerns.

Then a 19-year-old man they knew, Johnny Davis, was gunned down walking on the street. It had become personal, and they knew they needed to do something. 

Courtesy of Inner City Innovators

They spoke with Jones, and soon they were conducting violence interruption work.

“A lot of times these kids don’t get to choose,” Aiken said. “There’s no good friend or bad friend. They are all in the same socioeconomic situation.”

He said they found that working in groups and targeting groups was better than focusing on individuals. He said they found you have to address “groupspeak” because there’s more power in groups.

They started doing community walks, regularly inviting the kids to join. They helped with jobs programs. They did mentorships. They started “Hope Dealer” mentoring, trying to inspire young men to lead. 

They started a violence crisis response team and got an app that alerts them when a shooting happens. The team then heads to either the scene of the crime or the hospital to talk with those who may choose to retaliate.

By 2018, there were only 18 homicides. Through the first half of last year, three homicides were reported.

He said they try to listen to these young men and boys and help them throughout the trauma they have had in their lives. Many of them do not even realize they went through traumatic experiences because it is the normal way of living in the hood.

He said for a place like Knoxville, it is integral to find that person or persons who knows and can relate to those in the community.

He said the hardest part is finding them. City officials may not even know who they are.

“There’s always somebody and the hardest part is finding that somebody,” Aiken said.

It’s also not an easy fix. It will take time. It will take work. It will take months and years.

“There’s going to be many sleepless nights,” he said. “Many late nights.”

Published March 9, 2021

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