MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Crime is being labeled an epidemic in communities across the country. The Shelby County Health Department, at the forefront of fighting epidemics, has now set its sights on crime in the Bluff City.
“Violence is a public health issue. It affects all of us,” said Dr. Bruce Randolph with the Shelby County Health Department.
The health department is armed with a $1 million grant from the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice to tackle crime. It is turning to the CURE Violence organization approach, treating crime as infectious disease and targeting communities where crime is more rampant.
“Violence is contagious,” Randolph said. “It can be transmitted, and therefore it could be interrupted and detected. So their approach is, they try to detect and interrupt conflict before it manifests and grow and spread.”
Their theory is a murder is the result of a chain of events that preceded it. If you can intervene earlier in that chain of events, you can prevent deadly outcomes.
“The recent incidents where one young man shoots another young man at school, that could have easily exploded into a retaliatory situation,” says Randolph. “Thirteen-year-old shoots another 13-year-old. The 16 or 18-year-old brother is gonna take retaliatory action.”
The model calls for having interrupters in the streets. They have street cred and are willing to use it to change things. After a shooting, they are the ones who show up to talk down revenge.
“They’re in the hospital and just kind of talk to them and see where their heads are and if there’s any indication that, hey, you know what this is going to lead to some retaliatory action or response. Then they try to talk them out and try to see if there’s another way that we can resolve this,” said Randolph.
Brent Decker, the chief program officer for Cure Violence Global, says this approach is key to making the program work.
“Having staff from the community working with folks they already know, in a way that is non-judgmental, really focusing on the violence and trying to find support,” said Decker.
It’s very similar to 901 Bloc Squad, a program started by the City of Memphis back in 2012. Members work in the streets to quell situations before they turn violent.
“We try to go in and try to build relationships out and help our guys and girls resolve their issues before the guns come up,” says Delvin Lane, who helped grow 901 Bloc Squad from five workers to now 25.
On any given evening, you will find the squad in hot spot locations, talking to young people and families. They know the players and often know when something is about to go down.
“They been working in the community for long time,” said Lane. “We have people who were in Street Ministries for multiple long years, building relationships, changing thousands of lives. We got ex-gang members and drug dealers that know the city. We got ex coaches.”
There are now even women interveners.
“A lot of young ladies like to talk to other young ladies when they are going through situations and trials,” said Lisa, a female worker with 901 Bloc Squad. “And you also have a lot of young men that can trust young ladies, and they may not feel like they can trust other men.”
For the Cure Violence initiative to work in Shelby County, recruiting will be key. But case managers and social workers will also make sure people have basic needs so they don’t have to resort to crime.
“Some shoes, to be able to go to school, if I need some assistance to get a driver’s license, to get a birth certificate or whatever any type of thing that intervention will help someone,” said Randolph.
The program will start in the Whitehaven, and the request for proposals will soon go out for organizations who want to take a lead in starting up Cure Violence in Shelby County. Training will start the first of the year.
Based on what’s happened in other cities, the Cure Violence Program has been turning things around.
“Reducing hot spots, reducing shootings per square mile, reducing actual homicide numbers and shooting numbers in a community,” said Decker. “Like you can see reductions and you can see changes in the number of folks that are dying, the number of people showing up in the hospital.”
The health department’s job is to monitor everything.
“So these won’t be volunteers, this would be paid individuals. And their job will involve work in all times of the day and different hours, because a lot of things that happen often happen after midnight,” said Randolph.
We asked Randolph how the program will make a difference in the crime that we’re seeing in our area.
“It’s very important that we understand that this is one of numerous approaches that must be implemented to address the problem,” Randolph said. “The hope is to eventually expand to other communities and offer mentoring type programs in homes, churches and schools. We got to do something, and everybody has a role to play.”
The health department says some cities that have implemented the Cure Violence approach have seen a 50 percent reduction in their crime rate.