Homicides are Up? Here’s an Alternative to More Police and Incarceration

Calling for more police on the street and more people behind bars is satisfying because it’s easy; what is most effective is messy and requires work

Photo by Rux Centea on Unsplash

By Pam Bailey

The latest example of “pack journalism” (the tendency of media to jump en masse on one topic/event) is the coverage of increasing gun violence across the country. Among the dominant narratives are calls to beef up police patrols (reversing the recent progressive push to “de-fund”) and lock up the troublemakers. In fact, in an editorial, The Washington Post claims the latter solution is “as obvious as the constant crack of gunfire on too many city blocks in the District.”

But how many of these pundits have personal, lived experience with the dynamics that breed gun violence? And how many possess expertise informed by actually being on those city blocks the Post writes about, interacting with and trying to intervene in the lives of the teens and young adults responsible for today’s violence?

In this blog post I talk to two D.C. residents who have both. James Dunn and Anthony Petty were incarcerated for murder for 20+ years, released thanks to D.C.’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, and now work for District programs designed to prevent today’s young adults from following in their footsteps. Spoiler alert: More police on the streets, they say, will do nothing to change the forces that drive gun violence in the first place. The “real” solutions are messier and more complex.

Cure the Streets

James is an outreach worker with Cure the Streets, a program of the District attorney general’s office that uses “a data-driven, public-health approach to treat violence as a disease that can be interrupted, treated and stopped from spreading.” It fields two types of team members: violence interrupters, who identify brewing conflicts and intervene to try to resolve them peacefully, and outreach workers, assigned to individuals at high risk of violence to help manage and defuse their “triggers.” James is an outreach worker in the Truxton-Eckington area of Ward 5, one of six neighborhoods targeted by the pilot program.

Photo provided by James Dunn

“I share my experiences because I thought like [my clients] at one point in my life. I let them know I can relate to where they are at now, but I have to be very careful about what I say and how I say it,” he explains. “When they hear I did 30 years in prison and just came home, some of them think that’s cool — that I have ‘cred’ in a way I don’t want them to think.”

“When I share my story, I am very careful not to glorify it. I try to make it harsh and painful because that’s what it was. It was hell.”

James’ goal is to leverage his natural credibility to open the way for a dialogue. “But it’s very challenging because they don’t want to change. Why? A lot of them are scared, although they won’t admit it. And a lot of it stems from insecurity and low self-esteem.

“In the streets, you’re always living your life for other people, trying to impress them,” James continues. “Let me give you an example of what I used to do and how I countered it. I was always made fun of for being light-skinned — and it could be brutal. I was labelled soft, a punk and scared. So, I was always trying to prove I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t a punk, I wasn’t a sissy. That’s the way I went through my childhood and young teens. It triggered a lot of my decisions. And all the fights, the proving myself with violence, was traumatizing, although I couldn’t diagnose myself at the time.”

No one helped James navigate out of that negative spiral, but he eventually helped himself. And fortunately for him, his personal breakthrough came early enough in his incarceration to avoid the same fights to prove himself that defined him on the streets. That self-help came in the form of a book called SOS Help for Emotions, which focuses on the ABCs: act, belief system and consequences. James began challenging the voices in his head saying, “They made me do it.”

James credits a lot of his success to his faith

“A lot of the stuff that’s going on in the communities stems from the same problem, a belief system that says if X happens, they have to do Z,” James explains. “And that’s not true; they have choices, and the decisions they make have consequences.”

James is quick to add, however, that the solution sounds deceptively simple.

“A lot of these kids are just reflections of the parents, the grandparents or even further back. The parents think or act a certain way, so it becomes not only the norm, but the role model. So here I am, trying to tell a kid about irrational thinking and then they go home and are back in the midst of irrational thinkers. When I go to a kid’s household, and see what some of them have to live, it hurts. It’s the ripple effects of poverty, their attempts to medicate their pain with drugs, everything that’s been done to people over the years. It just snowballs.”

The services Cure the Streets offers are not just psychological; practical barriers — ranging from education to employment — can seem just as insurmountable to the individuals who struggle with them. I asked James for an example:

“Everyone’s situation is different. So, we set goals. One of my participants, who’s just 19, came home from DYRS [D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services] following a robbery, but he was out driving without a license. He could get locked up again for that, since he now has a record. He was like, ‘Man, I tried to sign up [for the test]. I’ve been calling; they don’t pick it up.’ He had excuses for everything, and I knew it was the insecurity kicking in, masquerading as bravado. I have connections at a driving school, so I made the appointment, arranged to pay for it. Took him there personally. Now he has a license. The next goal is to get his GED. He’s insecure about going into a classroom setting because he feels his level of education is low and he doesn’t want to be embarrassed. So, I’m trying to find a tutor. Money management is another thing. He has a job, fortunately, but no one teaches these kids about the advantages of building credit and how to do it, for example.”

If you think that sounds like intensive support, you’re right. That’s why James is seeing success. “Sometimes,” he says, “clients require support 24 hours a day at first. I care about these people; I don’t want to lose them, see them go down a hole. So, I take calls anytime they need to call me. That’s why I try not to take on too many. Right now, I have six participants assigned to me. They tell us we can have up to 15, but that’s impossible to handle well.”

The goal is to transition clients from high risk to low and stable in 90 days, but there is no hard and fast stop. James has worked with some clients for nine months.

“As long as they continue to communicate, and we can show we’re helping, we stay with them.”

In the ideal world, James would also help some of these people change their surroundings — including the people in their community and the role models most available to them, he notes. “But that’s not always possible if you’re a teenager. You can’t just move. If your mother lives in that neighborhood, that’s probably your only available residence. It’s hard, then, because some of these kids have done stuff in that neighborhood to antagonize others and now, they are a target, walking a very thin line. That’s why I try to teach kids early on to surround themselves with people doing the same thing they know they should do. And to redefine what friendship means.”

Is the CTS approach always successful? Of course not. But as James says, “If I can help one, I feel good about it. One of my participants came home [from prison] and immediately, he went back in the streets. He is an older dude, 35, and had done two sentences, and hadn’t made any money before he went in. I was like, ‘Listen, that ain’t the way man.’ So I took him on. I helped him get his commercial driver’s license and now he’s driving and doing extremely well. That’s what others need to see: a success story. If we can show them a 20-year-old who got a CDL and is now on the road making $1500, $2,000 a week? That’s what will get them to say, ‘man, I’m done with [drugs, etc.]. I don’t want to get killed. I don’t want to go to jail.’ Sometimes it just takes some rational thinking from someone they know isn’t the police. Somebody who, at some point in his life, he aspires to be like. I can say, ‘If he can do it, if I can do it, you can do it.’”

Credible Messengers

Anthony’s work as a credible messenger with D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) is similar, but focuses specifically on helping children and teens already caught up in the “system” change their attitudes and behaviors (and circumstances, to the extent possible).

Photo provided by Anthony Petty

“I go to the DYRS facilities before the kids go home, try to get them into school, get them jobs, hook them up to other programs before they go back on the streets,” explains Anthony, who is technically an employee of the East of the River Clergy-Police Community Partnership, which contracts with DYRS. “You could say a credible messenger is a mental health-slash-social worker-slash-violence interrupter-slash-big brother-slash-father figure. It’s a little bit of everything. We talk with them, learn their likes, their dislikes, their challenges. Why are they having problems in school? How can I help them succeed?”

His primary clients range in age from 12 to 21, but if he wants to be successful, Anthony says he has to see the entire family as his focus. Because, as James pointed out, it’s the family that shapes the kids. When I interviewed Anthony, he had a caseload of seven kids. Although he can officially work with them only until they age out of DYRS, he says his personal commitment is broader than that.

“It’s like my mentees in the D.C. Jail, in the Young Men Emerging Unit [to which he was assigned before his release],” he says. “I still correspond with all of them, because you build relationships. You don’t just build a relationship for two years and then drop it. For me, it’s like a lifelong relationship. I’m going to stay involved in their life, because I want to see them prosper. I want to see them progress from being the kids they were when I first met them to becoming upstanding citizens in society.”

Anthony recalls once being told by one of his own mentors, “Why learn from your mistakes, when you can learn from mine?” That’s his mantra now, to his charges: “I’m right here before you, telling you that I went through the same things you’re going through now, the juvenile facilities, the group homes, the shelters, the court system. I went through it all. So why not learn from me?”

One of his current clients is a 15-year-old in a DYRS group home. Anthony says he is focusing on teaching the boy the leadership skills he’ll need when he goes home, back to the “hood.” “I can’t be with him 24/7,” Anthony explains. “When he gets around his friends again and they start telling you, ‘okay, let’s go do this,’ he’s got to stand strong. Look, kids will listen. They know everything you’re saying is right. Like James says, they just don’t have the mental fortitude to deny their friends. Their friends tell them there are rules: ‘If they do that, we’re supposed to do this.’ But I tell them no, nothing is etched in stone.”

Anthony knows “his kids” will fail the first, second, even a third time. “But they’ll find out that I’m going to still be there. I’ll be right there to pick them back up. Because I know they are going to make mistakes before they get to the point when they understand exactly what I’m trying to tell them.”

Some things never change; how do we break the pattern?

Like today, the primary crime-control tactic when James and Anthony were growing up was police, and more police. “These programs didn’t exist when I was growing up,” James told The Washington Post. “People I knew were murdered, subjected to all sorts of violence, yet no one pulled me to the side to help me call it what it was — trauma — and learn better ways to respond. Now, I can try to do that for the next generation. But we need more of us.”

James was in “training” for this work, even before he was released. “I did a lot of mentoring inside [prison],” he explains. “I used my story and the model I set through the way I was doing my time as a platform. When I finally came out of prison, a childhood friend had just been awarded a grant from Cure the Streets; my experience mentoring uniquely positioned me to be up for the challenge.”

Anthony’s story is similar in many ways — including starting mentoring before he was released. While he was being held in the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility during the court proceedings that would eventually give him his second chance to be free, Anthony was tapped to be a mentor for the Young Men Emerging unit for young adults aged 18–25.

Photo provided by Young Men Emerging

“There are lots of guys in prison now who could be an asset when they are released, who could do the type of work we’re doing now,” notes James. “Many people, once they’re home from prison and have re-oriented their way of thinking, have a ‘grind’ — a drive. They want to get busy, earn an income to start supporting their families after being dependent all those years, and use the skills they have — which, let’s face it, people who haven’t been ‘inside’ [prison] don’t have. If we can create jobs for those type of individuals, we know they’ll take off running.”

But we need to value the work — in ways that count

The District recently passed the Second Look Amendment Act, which allows individuals who committed a crime before the age of 25 and have been incarcerated a minimum of 15 years to petition the D.C. Superior Court for freedom. It’s estimated that about 400 incarcerated D.C. residents are eligible, with the first hearing scheduled for October. This is an ideal opportunity to make good on President Biden’s pledge to help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully reenter their communities and to use D.C.’s Mayor Muriel Bowser’s beefed-up budget for community-based (non-police) violence interventions.

But it can’t just be about hiring more. It also has to be about paying workers like Anthony and James a salary that honors their unique expertise and allows them to truly build new lives that can sustain their families — not just eke by.

“Nationwide, none of us are receiving what we should [in pay],” Derrick “Baba” Rogers, program director for a city-funded anti-violence group in Milwaukee, told The Trace. His workers, hired at a starting salary of $40,000 (which various media articles say appears to be the norm), put in 40-hour plus weeks, then work side jobs using what little free time they have.

That’s also true for James and Anthony.

“This job is draining, both mentally and financially,” James says. “I really want to help kids avoid my trajectory. Part of me wants to stick with it. But that’s asking me to be mediocre the rest of my life. I don’t want to have to struggle just to make ends meet every day. And I want to break the cycle of dysfunction in my family. I ain’t no young man; I’ll be 50 this year. I can’t wait.”

That’s why, on top of his outreach caseload, James is working to create other income streams. Every morning, he studies for two to three hours for his commercial driver’s license, with an eye on starting his own trucking fleet that could employ returning citizens. He’s also learning real estate from his sister and exploring how to use the reading about investing he did in prison — both to grow his own money and to help the Black D.C. community do the same.

But…what a shame to wear out and then lose people like James and Anthony. This kind of work should pay people commensurate with their importance, allowing them to sustain their vital connections over time. Just how serious are we about reducing gun violence? It’s time to value these frontline workers the same way we do Olympian gymnasts.

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More Than Our Crimes

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 26 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org