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Gun Violence Can Be Diffused By Community Members Called 'Violence Interrupters'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

New York recently declared a state of disaster emergency over rising gun violence. The governor's office has announced several initiatives to address the situation, and one of them is hiring more of what's known as violence interrupters. These are community-based organizations that diffuse tensions before and after shootings occur. Well, how well do these actually work? NPR's Jasmine Garsd has been spending time with some of these organizations.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: God must have a sense of humor is what Queen Arroyo (ph) keeps telling me because she grew up here in the Redfern public houses in Far Rockaway, New York City, and all she could ever think about was leaving.

QUEEN ARROYO: The poverty, the pissy elevators, the pissy staircases, the violence.

GARSD: Arroyo speaks about the violence as if it was an entity of its own, which Far Rockaway, one of New York City's historically underserved communities, has always dealt with. But it got worse during the pandemic, at one point reaching the highest number of shootings the city had seen in a decade.

ARROYO: Last year this time, it was homicide after homicide. Yeah, that was it for me. That was - I came out here with indignation, a righteous indignation. I came out here angry.

GARSD: Arroyo works for a nonprofit organization called Rock Safe Streets. Among other things, they are violence interrupters trained to mediate conflict before it escalates. She and her team ramped up their presence at the Redfern houses. As we walk, she tells me cautiously but proudly that they went nearly a year without a shooting. Residents greet her warmly, and you can tell she is the daughter that returned. She loves this place, and it loves her back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi, baby.

ARROYO: How you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How you doing? Hi.

ARROYO: How your daughter doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: She's doing good. Thank you.

ARROYO: Good. How you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi.

GARSD: One woman hugs her and whispers something in her ear. Arroyo's demeanor changes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Somebody dead.

ARROYO: It was a shot. It was a gun. They got shot in the chest.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Somebody dead, girl.

ARROYO: They died.

GARSD: Not here in the Redfern Houses but a 10-minute drive - a 19-year-old man, the latest in a list they wish wasn't growing so fast. As gun violence rises in cities across America, programs like Rock Safe Streets have become a favorite cause of politicians promising a reprieve. They've been around for decades. The question remains, do they work? I ask violence mediation supervisor Rosalyn Mason how she measures success.

ROSALYN MASON: A model for a successful mediation to me is one day at a time because they could agree not to do anything and then wake up the next day and be like, everything that they agreed to the day before yesterday - that can go out the window.

GARSD: Rock Safe Streets is modeled on the cure violence method pioneered in the aughts in Chicago. Early research has found it does work in decreasing violence in places like New York and Philadelphia. But experts warn these programs aren't some magic elixir to fix the problems that feed the violence - lack of economic opportunity, gun control, better housing. And then there's the question of whether or not this is actually a job law enforcement should be doing.

EUGENE FINLEY: The community relationship with the police is none really right now. Nobody in the community is going to relate to any cop.

GARSD: Eugene Finley, better known as Floss, is a violence interrupter with Rock Safe Streets. He says he can do the work police simply cannot right now. It's a credibility issue.

FINLEY: I grew up here. I know the people that's doing it. I can get this close to the person that's about to shoot somebody before he shoots somebody.

GARSD: And one of his tasks is to stop a shooting incident from escalating into a cycle of revenge. Floss himself spent 17 years in jail, and he says the big difference between him and police is...

FINLEY: There's not one day I ever been on this job that I worry. I'm used to it. I grew up in this.

GARSD: He says he's been noticing law enforcement is increasingly afraid of his community. And how can you protect what you fear? Over at Highland Park in Queens, Natasha Christopher is worried constantly.

NATASHA CHRISTOPHER: You know, I haven't had a good night's sleep in nine years since my son died.

GARSD: When he was 14, her son Akeal was shot not far from here. His homicide was never solved. Christopher now works with a violence interruption program called the God Squad. She's kind of the last stop. When there's a deadly shooting, she's the family outreach specialist, and she co-hosts a support program.

CHRISTOPHER: This is a club that nobody wants to belong to. This is not a club that I wanted to belong to.

GARSD: Christopher echoes what research has found so far. Violence interruption programs can work. They have to be properly funded, and better police community relations are key to curbing violence. But most of all, as she raises her two remaining sons, she feels a sense of urgency.

CHRISTOPHER: I not only fear for my son being shot by someone that looks exactly like them. I have to worry also about my kids being killed by the police.

GARSD: On days when it feels like too much, Christopher comes to this park to relax. She watches the kids play. She likes to watch the planes from the nearby airport.

CHRISTOPHER: When I see the planes, I'm always wondering, is these planes going to some beautiful, tropical island? That's all I be thinking - a nice, tropical island. I would give anything to go to a nice, tropical island right now.

GARSD: But she says as he died, she promised her son Akeal she'd find out what happened to him that night. And she has people, moms to help here. So she knows she might never go. That's the thing about the violence. Once it touches you, it is just so hard to leave it behind.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Queens, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMPRESARIOS' "SIESTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.