The Impact of the Credible Messenger Program on the Decline of Gun Violence in the City

HOST INTRO:

As New York City’s crime rate continues to decline, we still spend billions on crime prevention. The majority goes to the NYPD, the court system, and correctional facilities, but a tiny percentage goes to one surprising program. Former gang members and the formerly incarcerated mediate conflict before shots are fired and police are called in. They’re called Credible Messengers. After a decade of working under the radar, this program is getting more attention. Sarah Gibson reports from Queens:

((SOUND: ambi of office, phone ringing))

SG1: When you enter the credible messengers office in South Jamaica, the first thing you notice is that everyone is wearing orange. Daron Goodman says—there’s a good reason. (0:11)

Goodman1: If you ever been hunting they make you wear these bright orange hats, and you’re not supposed to shoot at us right? (laughs) (00:07)

SG2: Goodman is in charge of a group of messengers whose daily job it is to scan the neighborhood for signs of a brewing violence and intervene. He says the orange reassures people. (0:10)

Goodman2: We not here to do you no harm, we here to mediate, and bring peace, and that’s our uniform. (0:06)

SG3: Before this uniform, Goodman wore a prison jumpsuit. He spent 15 years behind bars, and that’s not surprising for a credible messenger. The idea here is that people who were once part of street life have credibility with their neighbors who are the likely victims and perpetrators of violence. Many messengers have spent time in prison but not all. Carolyn Dixon is known in this neighborhood simply as “Ma”. She has gray dreadlocks and is wearing an orange hoodie with a peace sign.(0:20)

SG: Can you tell me about why you do this work?

Dixon1: Because I lost my son to gun violence May 5, 2014, over a parking space. He was murdered in front of me. (pause) So I believe that no one else knows a family or a mother’s pain or a father’s pain unless you’ve been through it yourself. (0:26)

SG4: Dixon’s son was murdered just two blocks away from this office, and since then, there have been no gunshot deaths in this area. Some of the decline is thanks to the police. But even when the NYPD is doing its job, it’s by nature re-active. Credible messengers have to be proactive – the idea is to de-escalate so that no one has to call the NYPD and arrests someone. But it gunshots have already been fired, Dixon is on the front lines: (0:20)

Dixon2: We’ll get a text that someone got shot, we try to find the family members, we show emotional support, and we try to stop retaliation. (0:11)

SG6: So, what does success for Dixon look like? If she does her job well – and crime decreases, the NYPD reports won’t show much. That’s good, mostly. But it makes it hard for researchers like Jeffrey Butts who want to evaluate what works. Butts has spent years studying this. He says the credible messenger sites can be disorganized and inefficient, but they’re still a good investment, especially when you consider how little Credible Messengers cost the city. (0:26)

Butts1: You could double the salaries of every person that works in these programs and it would still be a good buy. I would say the justice approach – the policing and prosecution approach – probably costs four times as much. (00:11)

SG7: Mayor de Blasio’s office seems to agree. His new budget proposal includes 4 million more dollars for this program. Butts says this is sorely needed to improve training for incoming messengers: (0:12)

Butts2: You need more than just the credibility of your former life. So you need to take former gang members and kind of teach them how to be social workers on the street. (0:06)

SG8: Back in Queens Doran Goodman and Carolyn Dixon say, some of that funding needs to go to messengers’ wages which, for full-time employees, start at $32,000. They both think it’s time to get the kind of respect that’s given to police: (0:14)

Dixon3: Because we do work just like police; we just don’t carry a gun. (00:04)

Goodman3: We don’t wear no bullet-proof vests, no protective armor and we out here mediating conflicts from the front end. So we’re gonna take that chance- like my daughter needs to come outside and play. So the work I do is, making that possible. (0:15)

SG9: And that additional training researchers talk about? Turns out, eighteen credible messengers are getting that, right now. Carolyn Dixon and other messengers from across the city are attending the first college-accredited class specifically designed to provide training and support for this work. It’s at the New School, and Dixon says, it’s the most important class she’s ever taken. Sarah Gibson, Columbia Radio News. (0:25)

 

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