Posted on 13 May 2011.
New York is one of the latest states to try an anti gun violence program called Ceasefire—here it’s called Operation SNUG— guns spelled backwards.)
The Ceasefire model was developed in Chicago 11 years ago, and has since been replicated in more than a dozen cities across the U.S.
Over the past year, ten Operation SNUG programs have sprouted up in New York State.
Ceasefire and SNUG use teams of outreach workers to diffuse potentially violent situations. They’re mediators. Their goal is to reduce gun violence by talking with young people at risk of shooting or being shot.
Harlem SNUG team members say they’ve prevented at least 25 shootings since they started work in January. Now, they’re concerned, as the New York program’s funding is due to run out in the fall.
Supporters of Operation SNUG believe this program works– but as Gianna Palmer reports, success is incremental, and depends on workers who can reach one person at time.
Dedrick Hammond has lived in the St. Nicholas public housing complex in Central Harlem on and off since 1989. When he leaves his building on a sunny Thursday in May, plenty of his neighbors are outside enjoying the weather.
Hammond, is over 6 feet tall and dressed in black, with a quiet but commanding presence. He greets everyone he passes.
Not all of Hammond’s dealings have been friendly. He’s 32 now but when he was about eleven he started hanging with a crew. He says crews are less formal than gangs— usually they start with kids who grew up on the same block.
Hammond’s crew was called “M &M”— short for Money and Murder. He says he never murdered anyone, but he got into a lot of fights, earning the nickname “Bad News.”
He’s been in prison three times, once for robbery and twice for violating his parole— serving a total of eight years. He’ll tell you there’s a serious disconnect between street violence and the reality of doing time.
Operation SNUG team members march in the Harlem's Mother's Day Parade. Gianna Palmer/Columbia Radio News
“One thing we believe in the streets is that when we fighting, we fighting for everything that’s right. But in the end, when we get taken away and we get that time, and that jail, and that prison cell, that’s when everything begin to be a reality now, because everything you was fighting for, and stay away from, and protect, you’re away from it,” says Beloved.
Hammond— the kid once known as Bad News— came back to his neighborhood a changed man. These days he goes by the name Beloved.
He’s part of the Operation SNUG team in Harlem, monitoring youth crews in a two-mile “target area” : Lenox to St. Nicholas Avenue, between 127th and 155th street. He and his co-workers spend hours walking these streets, developing relationships with teens and twentysomethings, and, at times, mediating or heading off potentially violent situations.
Beloved says his background resonates with the young people he talks to. “When they start understanding my life style, and how I was living, and how I used to be, it start making them get an understanding like “hold on, hold on, maybe I could listen to you.”
Beloved personifies what the Chicago Ceasefire model calls “The Right Workers with the Right Skills.”
His boss is Robin Holmes, who directs Harlem’s Operation SNUG and helped select the the team. She says the hiring process was far from typical.
“Normally, in a regular professional interview you wouldn’t ask, “Have you ever been to jail before?” But those are the things that you ask. “Have you ever been incarcerated? What’s your take on gangs, have you ever been involved in a gang before?” You know, those kinds of questions came up,” explained Holmes.
Interviews in January led to eight Harlem SNUG hires: seven men and two women, aged 27 to 60. All of them are intimately familiar with street life.
These types of hires are central to Ceasefire and SNUG’s success, but they can be a hard sell says Sudhir Vanketsh, a sociologist at Columbia University, who’s done extensive research on gang culture.
“When you take ex-gang members and ex-drug dealers and people like that, in an American mindset, you eventually lead to a lot of skepticism, and people start to wonder whether this is a kind of a vigilante justice, and you start to lose support,” said Vankatesh.
Vankatesh also points out that Ceasefire’s local approach isn’t so new. He says African American neighborhoods have been mediating their own conflicts informally for over a hundred years. He says this started because, historically, black residents couldn’t count on the police for help.
Ceasefire leaders today are quick to say their model is not trying to replace law enforcement.
Frank Perez has worked for Chicago Ceasefire for almost 10 years.
He oversees Ceasefire programs as they’re implemented across the U.S. He says police have their job, and Ceasefire programs are trying to do something different.
“Law enforcement comes in when somebody breaks the law and holds that person accountable. What we are attempting to do is get to that person before they break the law,” said Perez.
This approach comes from Ceasefire’s founder, Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who designed the program with a public health strategy in mind. Ceasefire and SNUG approach violence like an infectious disease, treating individual flare-ups along with ingrained behaviors that put people at risk.
Ceasefire programs initiate anti-violence public education programs, much like public health campaigns. They also build relationships with both local clergy and community organizations.
It’s the 27th annual Harlem Mother’s Day Parade…and Robin Holmes and the entire Harlem SNUG team are just behind a high school marching band.
Beloved helps carry a large banner that says “CHANGE THE NORM: Stop the Shootings and Killings in Our Streets.”
Much of their work happens at night, but—especially as a new SNUG group, it’s important for them to be seen by day, so the community knows who they are.
But even on occasions like this, there can still be trouble. The SNUG workers say shots were fired just before the parade started, a few blocks away.
“This is a good response to that right now,” said outreach worker Jimmy King. At 60, he calls himself “the old man of the group.”
“Let our community, let our young people know, that the shooting is unacceptable,” said King.
That’s Operation SNUG’s broader message. But workers also keep their ears to the ground about what’s happening block to block.
On another day, the entire team sits around a conference table at headquarters in Central Harlem. Karim Chapman is the outreach worker supervisor.
He tells his group about rumors that some kids are starting to sell their coats and cell phones.
Karim Chapman: Anybody know why they doing that?
Karim Chapman: Anybody, can somebody say it?
Beloved answers first.
Beloved: So that they can be fulfilled with metal, armor.
Chris Moore: They wanna be prepared.
Jimmy King: So that they can buy weapons?
Karim Chapman: Yes
The team debriefs like this daily, before hitting the streets to patrol their target area. This isn’t a 9-to-5 job. They work afternoon and evening shifts, but respond to shootings or threats at all hours.
Jon and James are two teens the Harlem SNUG workers have gotten to know over the past few months. They prefer not to say their real names for safety reasons.
The two wiry teens grew up together. They’re also in the same youth crew, and statuswise, they’re in the top 10 of more than 100 people.
They the SNUG team through Jimmy King: the “old man of the group.” He was their mentor before he joined SNUG.
Jon and James say SNUG has given them a new perspective on the types of conflicts that often lead to violence. They say it doesn’t take much for situations to escalate.
According to James, “It could be anything. Usually it’s over petty stuff.”
“You might not like the sneakers or something like that. Or my girl, your girl, it’s all stupid stuff,” said Jon.
Stuff that most teenagers are probably familiar with. But Jon says that when situations arise, the choice is between being violent or looking weak.
“I either ride, or I get rolled on. That’s about it. I’m going to do what I gotta do, or I’m just going to play the victim in every situation. And nobody wants to be the victim, it’s not a good look,” said Jon.
James agrees with him, and says the circumstances they grew up with taught them this way of dealing with conflict.
“Personally I didn’t choose this life, this life chose to me. I know that at the end of the day I have the opportunity to get out, so I’m gonna get out while I can get out,” said James.
The two teens differ on this point. Jon isn’t so sure this life is inevitable.
“I’m not saying for him it’s not true, but I kind of disagree. I think that everyone kind of has a choice before stepping into this. We didn’t have to become street …boys… I was gonna say the N word. But we didn’t have to become street boys, or street gentleman, or nobody had to become drug dealers or whatever. I think everybody has a choice,” said Jon.
SNUG’s ability to work with young adults- like Jon and James- on such a personal level is part of what appealed to New York State Senator Malcolm Smith about the Ceasefire Model.
“It was new, it was out of the box, it was very creative. And we knew that all that we had tried over time, it wasn’t working. So we had to do something different,” said Smith.
Smith pushed to bring the Ceasefire Model to New York after his own constituency in Queens was hit hard by a string of murders in 2008. Smith was even the one to coin the term SNUG.
Government funding from the start is not typical, says sociologist Sudhir Vankatesh. He says usually private philanthropists and foundations give Ceasefire programs their start-up money . Vankatesh says he’s interested to see what having a pipeline to Albany from the beginning could could mean for SNUG teams as they try to fund their future.
“One of the things that SNUG may be able to do in New York that other cities that have these kinds of programs find it hard to do, is to go back to a state legislature and say, listen you gave us money to reduce violence, to reduce crime, we did it, we’re doing it, now we need something to make sure this stays in the long run,” explained Vankatesh.
Senator Smith, for his part, seems willing to do that. He is scrambling to raise money before SNUG’s initial $4 million of state funding runs out this fall.
Vankatesh: If I had $4 million that I could spare personally, I believe in the program so much that I would actually put the money into the program.
Smith has appealed to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office, he’s visited Washington, and has reached out to private donors.
He says the New York SNUG teams have reported solid results so far, and he doesn’t want them to lose momentum. Smith says he has work to do, but he’s optimistic he can secure at least partial funding in time for Operation SNUG programs to continue their work, too.