Photo from a vigil in memory of Tyvien McLean in July 2020. Photo by Jade Wilson. 

One year ago, on October 22, former gang member David Johnson told Durham City Council members that he was a victim of violence, that he had encouraged others to acts of violence, and that he had committed violence in the past.

Today, Johnson supervises Durham’s Cure Violence program that’s known as Bull City United (BCU). The county-funded team of “violence interrupters’’ and outreach workers are trained to resolve outbreaks of violence on the streets before they happen. BCU started working in gun-plagued neighborhoods in 2016 with the goal of approaching violence as a public health issue not unlike cholera or influenza outbreaks.

On October 30, city and county leaders will receive their first quarterly report from BCU to determine if the former gang members trained and deployed to stop gun violence in the neighborhoods where they live have been effective at persuading their neighbors to stop shooting one another in some of the city’s most impoverished communities. 

Johnson thinks the key to changing high-risk individuals’ behavior is having someone who will believe in them, who believes they can change and helps them to realize that a life of crime is not the only life.

“A lot of people don’t know that. I didn’t know that,” he told city council members last year. “This program has changed my life completely. It saved my life. It saved my kid’s life. I had spent my life in prison since I was 16. I started [with BCU] as a guy recruiting others. Now, I’m a supervisor, trying to get others like me.”

According to a Durham City-County interlocal agreement to expand BCU to four gunfire-prone neighborhoods, the local initiative is modeled after “CeaseFire,” an anti-violence program that was originally developed in 2000 and implemented in Chicago neighborhoods where there were high incidents of shootings and gun murders.

The CeaseFire model relies on data-driven strategies normally associated with disease control by detecting and interrupting conflicts, identifying and treating the highest risk individuals, and changing social norms in the communities where they live.

“After continued investment over the decade, along with focused strategies, the program evaluators noted a decline in neighborhoods…where the Cease-Fire [sic] model was implemented,” according to Durham’s interlocal agreement.

Durham’s model will celebrate its fifth anniversary next month. BCU views gun violence through the lens of public health: a deadly epidemic with clusters breaking out in at-risk neighborhoods capable of spreading to other vulnerable communities.

Johnson leads a team of six who have been working in the city’s most violent communities to change the mindsets of young people who are at high risk of committing violence by mediating conflicts before the incidents escalate. The initiative also offers a battery of services—from mental health to substantive employment initiatives to cure the gun violence epidemic.

Last year, BCU reported that between March 1 and September 12 of 2020, 556 shootings were reported throughout the city. Only 63 occurred in BCU’s target areas: McDougald Terrace, which in 2015 was deemed the most violent neighborhood in the city, and Southside, the city’s second-most violent neighborhood.

“Give me a hundred people, and I can change the violence trends in Durham,” Johnson told the city council during last year’s October 22 work session.

In January, City Council members reviewed the overall decline in gun violence in McDougald Terrace and Southside and then voted to give the county up to $935,488 to hire 18 more people and expand the Cure Violence model to four other areas in the city that are also perennially bedeviled by gunplay. The new target areas of treatment are Cornwallis Road, a section of Southside that was not part of BCU’s target area, Oxford Manor, along with Liberty and Elm Streets.

Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton this week told the INDY that he has called for and championed the expansion of the BCU initiative as a non-policing element of a multi-faceted, comprehensive approach to addressing Durham’s scourge of gun violence.

“Their work is challenging and potentially dangerous and isn’t for everyone,” Middleton said. “While it is customary to measure the efficacy of tax-funded initiatives with metrics and outcomes, a unique element of [BCU’s] mission is to intercept and eliminate incidents before they happen. I call it the work of headline prevention.”

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel told the INDY that he recently walked through McDougald Terrace with BCU staffers who are working in the neighborhood and with several of the new people who have been hired to work in other communities.

“I got a chance to talk to them for quite a while and to hear ambitions for their work,” the mayor said. “I continue to think that this is a really important strategy to break the cycle of violence that we’re seeing in Durham right now.”

While talking with the INDY this week, Wendy Jacobs, co-chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, offered a couple of caveats about the upcoming BCU report. The county has not yet filled all 18 positions, and that “this is challenging work that takes special skills” with “people [who] need to be trusted community members from the neighborhoods where they are working.”

Jacobs noted that the new hires will undergo extensive training and said she believes in the evidence-based model of resolving conflicts and connecting people to the resources they need—be it help with mental health and substance abuse, or finding good jobs.

“These approaches are not quick fixes,” Jacobs added. “This is about investing in relationships and the people in our community trying to address the root causes of gun violence and treating it as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement issue.”

At first glance, BCU’s “violence interrupters” don’t appear to have many success stories to share about stopping gun violence.

Following shootings last month that killed three people, including two 20-year-olds on N.C. Central University’s campus, Durham police reported 32 homicides for the year. Last year, there were 22 during the same time period, and 26 in 2019. Likewise, there have been reports of 579 shootings this year. Last year there were 688, and 493 in 2019.

Gun violence in the city has probably been exacerbated by an increase in firearm thefts, particularly from vehicle break-ins, police reported last month.   

Investigators say there were 261 firearms reported stolen to the police department between January 1 and August 31, a four percent increase during the same period last year when 258 guns were stolen, and up 15 percent from the 233 guns stolen in 2019. 

More than 50 percent of the weapons were taken from vehicles and the majority of the vehicles were unlocked and parked in residential neighborhoods. 

But last month, Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael told the INDY that gun violence this year has been on a downward trajectory. Shooting incidents in the city have decreased by 16 percent, while the number of people shot has gone down by 12 percent when compared to the same time period last year.

Last year, on November 12, Schewel and former police chief Cerelyn Davis hosted a press conference to address the rising tide of gun violence after a drive-by shooting killed a 15-year-old boy, Anthony Adams, on East Main Street. Davis noted the emergence of another troubling trend: the majority of the city’s gun offenders are juveniles.

Johnson, the BCU supervisor, pointed to why younger people are becoming involved with deadly gunplay.

“They are not in school [because of] this pandemic,” he explained. “Fourteen and 15-year-olds, they’re not in school. Their parents are working, so they are not going to school at all. They are out here on the street.”

Supervision and guidance of BCU falls under the purview of Joanne Pierce, Durham County’s general manager of health and well-being. During last year’s City Council work session and before their vote in January, Pierce sounded a cautionary note, telling the elected leaders to pay attention to the systemic issues at the at the root of the gun violence, including racism and divestment in Black neighborhoods.

“[BCU] intervention cannot solve a crisis generations in the making,” Pierce said. “This is not about the moral failings of individuals. It’s about the moral failings of institutions that have allowed these issues to fester.”

In his call for collaborating with the county to fund BCU, Middleton said the city is facing an “optical challenge” in the eyes of Durham residents who are wondering why their elected leaders are not responding to gun violence with a greater sense of urgency.

“There is nothing more important that a government can do than protecting its people,” Middleton said during a city council work session days before the January vote. 

“Gunfire is going to go off in this city tonight, whether anyone is hit or not,” he said the night before council members voted 6-1 to expand the program model. 

The BCU presentation to city council members pointed to studies that indicate “serious or fatal emergency room visits are typically the second visit from the same [gunshot] victim,” and that up to 45 percent of patients treated for violent injuries will be injured again or die of fatal injuries within five years.

Between January and June of 2019, there were 60 participants being treated by the BCU model. Many of the participants had multiple risk factors, including gang involvement, a prior criminal history, street activity associated with violence, and they carried a firearm.

The at-risk individuals’ participation in the BCU model resulted in 91 percent finding employment, while 79 percent showed “gun-related behavior change.” The program also reported that 87 percent of the conflicts that were either personal altercations or gang-involved were “successfully resolved.” 

But for a great many residents, BCU’s previous success, however admirable, is not enough. For the past several years stopping the scourge of deadly gun violence has been a top, albeit failing priority for Durham’s elected officials, activists, and faith-based leaders alike. It’s the Damocles sword that hangs over conversations about defunding the police and calls for more police on the streets. 

Indeed, with the continuing deaths of so many African American men and boys, by other Black men and boys, it’s a challenge to define a low point in the blood bath.

It should have been in 2019, when nine-year-old Z’yon Person was killed in a drive-by shooting on August 18, while riding in the back seat of his aunt’s Ford Escape with other children for a late night treat of snow cones. 

It could have been last year in July when 10 people, including three children, were shot in a single night. One of those children, 12-year-old Tyvien “Ty” McLean, died from a gunshot wound to the head.

“They’re very, very reachable,” Johnson told council member Middleton, who asked if BCU’s team can get to younger gang members who “have no code” and are led by so-called “original gangsters” who are as young as 19. 

“With the right people, everybody is reachable,” Johnson added. “I would recruit the highest ranking guy in Cornwallis [Road apartments] that’s trying to get out [of] the life and he’s going to take care of the little kids he knows. I know the head Crip in Braggtown. I know the head Blood in Cornwallis. I know the head Crip in Cornwallis. You got Bloods and Crips in Cornwallis. I can reach them with the right staff.” 

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