Facebook launched a new feature a little over a year ago that lets users stream live videos. Since then, a number of violent videos, including an incident last week when a Cleveland man shot another man to death, have aired. As tech changes, interrupting violence gets more complicated. Now law enforcement and mental health officials in New York City are figuring out how to intervene when a crisis is happening in real time online. Kristin Schwab reports from the Bronx.
(Street and greetings sounds running under SCHWAB1 (0:16))
SCHWAB 1: It’s a rainy Saturday evening and I’m walking through the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx with Samuel Jackson. No, not that Samuel Jackson.
This 39-year-old grew up in the Bronx. Today, he’s what’s called a Violence Interrupter at Release the Grip, a program funded by the city to curb gang violence. Jackson is out canvassing. (insert sound) He’s trying to stop conflict before it starts.
JACKSON 1: What’s up brother you alright Chris?
SCHWAB 2: We pass Chris, a teenager Jackson clearly knows.
JACKSON 2: That’s another young kid right there. He’s another one I like to stay on top of cuz he’s like 16, I tell him to stay in school… (0:09)
(Street sound running under SCHWAB2)
SCHWAB 3: Stay in school. Make curfew. Keep out of trouble. Jackson repeats these affirmations to kids at every corner. As we wander back to his office, we stop at a passageway between two buildings. This is where Jackson broke up his first big fight.
JACKSON 2: It happened right there, by the benches. He had him on the ground. It was dark but I’ve seen the kid I knew who he was. I was like please put down the gun like don’t shoot him. He just came to his senses. He just got up and ran. I was like thank God. Who knows if I wasn’t there what woulda happened. (0:17)
SCHWAB 4: What would have happened—that’s what people are dealing with not just in person, but online. Video streaming services like Facebook Live allow us to be at the scene without physically being there.
At the entrance of Release the Grip, there’s a huge blue mural that says “Put down the guns.” We walk up to the front door and into the makeshift office. Jackson’s sneakers squeak on the linoleum. On a big whiteboard, in red marker, is the number 33.
JACKSON 3: We’re going on 33 days without nobody being shot. Our longest record is 167. We matched it and it happened again.
SCHWAB: That exact number of days?
JACKSON: Yes, yes. Unbelievable. (0:09)
SCHWAB 5: Jackson settles into a big leather chair, takes out his laptop and soon he’s scrolling through Facebook. His profile is peppered with posts that say things like “Stop the violence” and “Put the guns down.” But he’s really online to scour other people’s pages.
JACKSON 4: I’m mostly looking for high-risk things. I might see a fight video or I might see somebody arguing. Or I might see somebody depressed. But basically I’m looking for violence. I’m looking for people that’s had a bad, you know, they’re going through something. (0:16)
SCHWAB 6: This scanning is something the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City recently added to Jackson’s job description. The pilot program, called E-Responder, is being tested at 18 sites across the city. Jackson is trained to evaluate posts and, based on a set of criteria, label them low, medium or high risk. Then he intervenes by leaving a comment, sending a facebook message or, if it’s nearby, going out himself to break it up.
Jackson is the right guy to do this work. He knows firsthand how shiny violence can look to kids in this community because he grew up here. He was involved in a homicide and went to prison for seven years. Then he sold drugs.
JACKSON 5: You see the drug addicts. You see the police sirens. You see the ambulance sirens. You see the users, the abusers. The drug dealers. And I was just infatuated by it. (0:11)
JAVDANI 1: This is one of the reasons why we wanted to couple this program with real people in real places that have physical contact and connection with youth. (0:10)
SCHWAB 7: That’s Shabnam Javdani, a psychology professor at New York University, who helped build the E-Responder curriculum. She says community members like Jackson are critical to the program’s success.
JAVDANI 2: They have a real understanding of the reasons why violence happens and how violence can be prevented. And training about interrupting violence allow them to prevent that violence, that’s their first priority. And then if violence happens, allow them to debrief about that and get in touch with the kids. (0:17)
SCHWAB 8: There’s a big debate right now about violence on social media and what intervention looks like. Is it different online than it is on the street? Part of the problem is that researchers don’t totally understand how violence manifests online. Desmond Patton teaches social work at Columbia University. He works with data scientists to track how teens navigate on social media.
PATTON 1: Oftentimes young people are using social media as a GPS system to figure out where to go, who to talk to, who not to talk to, where’s the hot spot, where’s the safe spot.
SCHWAB 9: Patton says it’s not like kids wake up one day and decide to post a brawl on Facebook. There’s usually a pattern of negative behavior online and it’s up to other people to intervene early.
PATTON 2: There’s actually a life that’s unfolding on social media. Aggressive comments start from just petty arguments that unfold online. Oftentimes grief and pain comes before more threatening or aggressive posts. And emojiis and hashtags can be used as signals for violence to come. (0:18)
SCHWAB 10: Who’s responsibility is it to step in? Parents can only hover so much. Schools don’t have endless resources. Programs like Release the Grip are overworked. Some say, live stream platforms should be responsible. But the thing about live video is it’s live. Algorithms are great with words. If you Google “How to kill yourself,” the first hit will be the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. If enough people flag your statuses, Facebook will reach out to see if you need help. But if you make a video? Experts say we could be a decade away from being able to screen live video. Until then, people like Samuel Jackson in the Bronx will keep canvassing online and on the street.
JACKSON 6: I mean it’s working, but it’s a process. It’s day by day. You can always change it’s just that you’ve gotta wanna change for yourself. At the same time we’re here to help you if you need help. But it gotta come from within. You gotta wanna change for yourself.
SCHWAB 11: Jackson’s goal? To make it 365 days without a shooting.
Kristin Schwab, Columbia Radio News.