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Advocates push for program to 'interrupt' gun violence in Grand Rapids. Here's how it works.

The Cure Violence Global model treats community violence as a public health issue.

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — As city leaders plead for an end to gun violence, some in Grand Rapids are continuing their call for the implementation of an evidence-based approach to prevent violent crime. 

The city first started considering Cure Violence Global (CVG) in 2012, when a group of representatives from Grand Rapids visited a site in Chicago to learn more about the program that treats community violence like a public health issue. 

It’s a model that’s been used in cities of varying sizes throughout the country, even in other countries, and worked successfully in many places to aid in the prevention of gun violence. The Chicago-based program founded by Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who formerly worked for the World Health Organization, functions separate of local law enforcement. 

The program involves employing teams of ‘violence interrupters’ and outreach workers, who come directly from the communities they serve and often have histories that include violence.

“The people we hire were once a part of the problem and now they are seen as a part of the solution, which goes a long way with individuals in the streets,” said CVG global trainer Marcus McAllister, who started as a 'violence interrupter' about 17 years ago in a suburb of Chicago.

CVG trains local staff members to do the following: detect and interrupt conflict, identify and treat the highest risk and change social norms. The team utilizes crime data to inform its approach and determine target areas. 

It’s a model that makes sense to JD Chapman Jr., executive director of Realism is Loyalty, a local nonprofit that mentors at-risk youth. In a year where there’s already been 20 homicides and 13 of those gun-related, Chapman, who has advocated for bringing the program to Grand Rapids for several years now, says time is once again of the essence.

“Violence has ripped this community apart for years and it hasn’t really been addressed,” said Chapman, who has attended CVG trainings and acted as a guide during a 2018 CVG assessment of the city.

Within City Hall, Second Ward City Commissioner Joe Jones is the primary advocate for bringing CVG to the city, and he said he’s optimistic that could happen soon.

“It's closer now to reality than ever before. I've personally taken it upon myself to try to find resources to support the implementation of Cure Violence,” Jones said.

Those resources are largely outside of City Hall. The program is estimated to cost about $750,000 per year, which includes salaries for seven employees, training and ongoing technical supports from CVG and evaluations performed by a local university. CVG typically contracts with cities for at least three years of implementation. 

City Manager Mark Washington earmarked $75,000 in this year’s budget for an evidence-based crime prevention program like CVG. The city said the police department's strategic plan to be released on Aug. 11 will help inform how those dollars are spent. Jones said he expects that the money will go toward Cure Violence.  

Beyond that, Jones said he is looking to the county and philanthropic partners for financial support. 

“I think that now there is a greater need and a greater appetite to engage even more," Jones said, noting the ongoing GRow1000 Youth Employment Program, which the city launched shortly after the unrest on May 30 following a protest of police brutality.

Chapman and Annie Vandenberg of the local MOMS Demand Action chapter are also launching a community call to action to help secure funding. 

In 2018, the city contracted Cure Violence for $7,500 to conduct a several days long assessment, the results of which were then presented to the City Commission last summer. At that time, CVG advised that the city’s southeast side be the focal point of the program. Despite the city not moving forward with the program, it has remained top of mind for people like Jones and Chapman as a beneficial tool to preventing gun violence in the communities they serve. 

“There's people that are on the ground and been on the ground for years that have been suggesting different possible solutions to reducing violence and reducing gun violence, and the powers that be just don't listen," Chapman said. 

This renewed push comes at the same time as community members are calling for the defunding of the police department and for that money to then be re-invested in the communities most impacted by issues tied to systemic racism.

Jones has called for the re-imagining of policing in Grand Rapids. He says CVG could play a role in that. 

“I want to suggest that not enough attention is focused on prevention. When, if you think about it, if we focus more on preventing something then it possibly won't happen," Jones said. 

McAllister, with CVG, said staff are able to interrupt violence in ways that law enforcement cannot. 

"If you think about law enforcement, they are not paid to go in anybody's community in anybody's city, to walk around and ask 'Has anybody been disrespected?' It's not their job. It's not something that they would do or are trained to do, and last I checked somebody getting disrespected is not against the law, but with the team that we hire and the way we approach violence...we understand that the first point of disrespect eventually can turn into a homicide or shooting," McAllister said. 

The idea is for either a pre-existing community organization or a newly created one to carry out the CVG model. Realism is Loyalty and the Urban League of West Michigan, where Jones is the president and CEO, have both been previously floated as potential hosts for the program. However, CVG has also worked with local health departments to implement the program in other cities, and Jones says he is in conversations to determine if that could be the case here.

Advocates of the program's implementation all agree that it won't be a cure all, but it will be a method the city hasn't tried to address a problem it's yet to solve. 

“One thing can't solve every problem. But I do believe that Cure Violence is an initiative that if implemented in this city, will have great success just because of how the model is designed," Chapman said. 

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