Cure Violence Global presents options to address gun crimes
Published 12:05 am Thursday, January 19, 2023
SALISBURY — In 2014, Salisbury City Council member Anthony Smith got a phone call he did not want to receive, but that call has driven him for years to do something about the gun violence in Salisbury.
The call was to notify him that 23-year-old Marquis Feamster had been shot and killed on Fisher Street. Smith had been working with Feamster to get him away from gang life, to turn his life around.
“The people that were after him wouldn’t let him go,” said Smith, “and he finally decided he was going to face them, tell them he wanted out.” Smith said he was told that in Feamster’s last conversation with a mutual friend, “he said if he didn’t come back, he wanted me to do something for these children.”
Smith said he promised himself he would, and this week, he is helping introduce the Cure Violence program to Rowan County as part of his effort to keep that promise.
Cure Violence Global is an organization that uses public health program models and disease-control methods to address and reduce violent crime, specifically gun violence. North Carolina has already deemed gun violence a public health crisis. By addressing the issue as a public health issue, rather than simply a crime issue, the approach to solving it becomes broader and more encompassing according to CV representatives, two of whom have been on hand to share the program with local officials and residents.
An introduction kicked off Tuesday morning with a partner breakfast followed by a “stakeholder” session, including Salisbury, Spencer and East Spencer and Rowan County officials, and an afternoon neighborhood tour hosted by Rowan County H.O.P.E.
Tuesday night, two representatives from Cure Violence made a “Cure Violence 101” presentation to to the public, outlining the basics of the program, including how it works and what it costs. Wednesday and Thursday have been broken down into smaller sessions for different stakeholders, including public safety departments, non-profits, and schools, among others.
Aric Johnson, national coordinator for strategic partnership out of Atlanta, and Demeatreas Whatley, program implementation specialist from Chicago, took about an hour Tuesday night to detail how the program works, explaining that the basic premise is treating violence as a health crisis rather than crime.
“We approach it the same way you would a health epidemic,” Johnson said. “Our goals are to interrupt the transmission, to prevent future spread, and to change both individual and community norms.”
Whatley explained that most of the staff are people who have come out of the life of violence, because those are the people who understand and can function inside that world. The program on the ground level has two types of staff — Violence Interruptors and Outreach Workers — and they usually team up to address problems. A violence interruptor is exactly what it sounds like, someone dialed in to the community tightly enough that they will be alerted to a potential shooting about to happen, and will go where the situation is unfolding to try to stop it.
“This is a dangerous job,” Whatley said. “Violence interruptors and outreach workers usually work in pairs, they don’t work in the field alone. And they need to be people this community trusts, who are connected and know what is going on, and who have a good name in the community so people will be willing to believe in them.”
He also noted that community organizations that want to participate need to understand the community they will be working with, and believe it is worth the investment.
“All locations we have are safe spaces,” he said. “Which means the buildings need to be open when things are happening, and that can be at 1 or 2 a.m. If you are going to say ‘I’m in bed I can’t come open the doors,’ then this is not the program for you. If you are going to say ‘you can’t come in here smelling like weed,’ this is not the program for you.” The program meets people where they are, it does not expect them to “clean up” before they are allowed to participate.
Geoff Hoy wondered about the price tag and how to try to show that the cost is outweighed by the savings. It would be hard to show how much money would be saved by not incarcerating people, not having to provide health care for someone getting shot, but he said he believes there must be money saved.
Former Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell pointed out that in trying to quantify the financial benefit of using the program, it would be worth considering how much people who formerly cost the county money in incarceration or other programs are now paying into the county by paying taxes.
The cost of the program can run $500,000 initially, and if it is successful and grows, it can be more expensive. But, Johnson said when you consider the cost of one severe gunshot victim’s medical treatment, it ends up saving communities money.
“I was an ER social worker,” he said. “One gunshot victim, who needed multiple surgeries, could end up costing over $400,000. So there are savings, yes, but it can be hard to quantify.”
If it is adopted and the Rowan County Board of Commissioners decided to budget funds for the program, Johnson said it would take six months “at least” to get the program up and running. The county would need to send out a Request for Proposals from community organizations who would administer the funds and the program, which would include providing space. CV helps interview and hire staff, and there is a 48-hour training for new Violence Interruptors and about every 90 days there is a training booster, and the program manager stays in close contact with the staff and the organization administering the program to be sure everything is running smoothly. But CV does not actually run the program locally. Johnson and Whatley also explained that the program is not city- or county-wide. Instead it is data driven and operates in the pockets where violence is highest.
“It is important to understand that many of the people who work in this program come from this kind of life of gangs or criminal activity or incarceration,” added Whatley, who himself spent about 17 years in prison before turning his life around. He has not only earned an undergraduate degree but his master’s. He said Blackwell’s suggestion is not only an interesting idea in terms of quantifying the cost benefit, but a reminder that those in the program can and do go from being people who cost the county and state money, to people who are contributing members of society.
Smith said more than anything, he does not want to have to continue to console grieving mothers, does not want to have to bury children. Salisbury, he said, is “a beautiful city, with so much to offer, but our young people are leaving. And when people think about moving, they look at crime statistics, and they don’t want to move places that have problems with shootings.”
“I’m tired of people calling my city ‘Shotsbury,’ ” Smith continued. “I want this to be an equitable, beautiful, peaceful place to life, where young people want to stay.”
When the program is followed, it can and does work. Ingram Bell-Haizlip, the program manager for Gate City Coalition in Greensboro, has three areas in the program she operates. In those three areas where gun violence and shootings have been historically high, she said Tuesday night “in our target area we have not had a homicide in 365 days.”
For more information on Cure Violence Global, including information about volunteering, go to the website at cvg.org.