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‘Violence Interrupters’ Answer SOS in South Bronx

The whiteboard at the SOS South Bronx office displays the number of days since the last shooting in the territory SOS covers. (LAUREN FOSTER/The Bronx Ink)

The whiteboard at the SOS South Bronx office displays the number of days since the last shooting in the territory SOS covers. (LAUREN FOSTER/The Bronx Ink)

It’s hard to hold your breath for 108 days.

At Save Our Streets South Bronx, which launched in January 2013, a whiteboard in their Mott Haven office read “107” on Oct. 13 and “108” on Oct. 14. They dread when that tally of days without a shooting in their 20-block territory must go back to zero.

Save Our Streets, or simply SOS, originated in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in 2009 and has since expanded to 15 sites across the city. The City Council along with the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, the largest U.S. charity devoted to public health, have pumped millions of dollars into this unconventional anti-violence initiative modeled after Chicago’s CeaseFire program. Now called Cure Violence, the program was celebrated in the award-winning 2011 documentary “The Interrupters.” Cure Violence has been emulated in roughly 50 cities worldwide since its inception 15 years ago.

The cornerstone of Cure Violence is the work of “violence interrupters,” “credible messengers” and “outreach workers” who patrol the streets and nurture relationships with at-risk individuals, typically young people, in an effort to undo a culture of violence of which they themselves were once byproducts. A job flier for SOS South Bronx (they’re hiring) describes such responsibilities for violence interrupters as identifying youth who are gang members or at-risk for joining, finding tips on potential conflicts, mediating with those parties involved to prevent retaliations and diffusing “hot spots” where shootings are likely to occur.

The credibility of these paid staffers is rooted in empathy.

“What I like about Save Our Streets is it’s composed of staff and volunteers who are former gang members or drug abusers themselves, or people who have been incarcerated,” said City Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, a Democrat who represents neighborhoods such as Morrisania and Melrose. “The best person you can get to really understand what a young person is going through is someone who has been in that situation before.”

Gibson allocated $5,000 of her discretionary funds for the 2015 fiscal year to SOS South Bronx. Democrat Robert Cornegy of Bedford-Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights set aside $9,000. The Council voted earlier this year to expand SOS efforts from three neighborhoods to 15, including new posts in the 44th, 46th and 47th precincts in the South Bronx.

Jeffrey A. Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, echoed Gibson’s assertion that knowing the streets is key for SOS employees. “They have to have some connection to the community that doesn’t make them seem like an outside meddler or do-gooder,” explained Butts. Researchers at his school are currently evaluating the Cure Violence model and its implementation in Crown Heights and the South Bronx. “Some of the programs have successful employees who’ve never been arrested, but they might be the son of a well-known gang leader,” he said.

SOS is guarded about disclosing details on its organization. An SOS staffer said the program’s parent organization, the Center for Court Innovation, clamped down on news media access after The Mott Haven Herald published the criminal record of an SOS interrupter. Robert Wolf, director of communications for the Center for Court Innovation, denied that claim but said “everyone is tied up here” and would be unavailable for interviews indefinitely. SOS staffers have been instructed not to participate in interviews without approval from the Center’s Midtown Manhattan office.

Butts, whose center at John Jay received more than $1 million from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation and $750,000 from the city council to study Save Our Streets through 2016 in conjunction with the Center for Court Innovation, explained the concern over public scrutiny.

“These programs do get very skittish. There have been lots of stories about some of the dominant political infrastructure forces running to the media to explode the situation when something goes wrong,” Butts said.

“Cure violence does not conform with the dominant political culture surrounding public safety,” he added. “So when you’re talking about crime and violence in a public policy arena, people immediately think of policing, prosecution and punishment. This program does not fit that model, so you start off with immediate opposition from the people who think conventionally about public safety.”

In the South Bronx, SOS outreach workers are unarmed and identifiable by their red T-shirts. Although sanctioned by the city, they operate in communities where cooperating with police work is a serious taboo. Despite often being privy to criminal activity, SOS explicitly refuses to have contact with police.

“You have a disconnect with a lot of young people who don’t trust the police and don’t think police are there to serve the public and to protect them,” Councilmember Gibson said.

This wall of separation between law enforcement and social workers is not unusual.

“I was visiting some police departments in Washington, D.C., and they said they keep in touch with outreach workers at these types of programs, but only at the highest level,” Butts said. “They might hear, ‘Things are really heating up in this neighborhood’ or ‘We’re getting rumors that something is about to go down between this crew and that crew,’ but no individual names, no tip-offs and certainly no post-incident information to help the investigation find a perpetrator. As soon as you do that, word gets out and the whole program is dead.”

SOS South Bronx employs three interrupters and three outreach workers, all middle-aged, to engage a territory composed of four public housing complexes and about 20,000 residents. They work full-time Tuesday through Saturday, with shifts running as late as 2 a.m.

In Crown Heights, interrupters underwent 40 hours of training in direct consultation with Cure Violence experts in Chicago, according to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. SOS South Bronx is also in frequent contact with Chicago, allowing for a uniform implementation of the model.

Crown Heights had a homicide rate for those aged 15 to 24 nearly four times the city average in 2011, at 41.9 homicides for every 100,000 people in that age bracket, according to a report by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (The department is now an advisor to SOS.) Fordham / Bronx Park and High Bridge / Morrisania in the South Bronx were also in the top-five neighborhoods most plagued by youth gun violence. Whereas SOS Crown Heights developed a successful “Youth SOS” program driven by student volunteers, efforts to duplicate that youth engagement in the South Bronx have foundered.

“The youth are disempowered and basically have no opportunity. One of biggest frustrations from a social work perspective is when you’re not addressing the core causes behind these issues,” said Markus Redding, a professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work who has worked extensively in non-violent conflict resolution. “It’s going to be very similar to what we do in the court system, which is reacting to what’s there but not getting at root causes like better education.”

The Crown Heights program reported recruiting 96 community members between January 2010 and May 2012 to participate in the SOS mission. All but one of these recruits was male, 94 were black and two were Hispanic. An SOS South Bronx official said his team has fostered about 25 such relationships.

Researchers led by Butts have interviewed roughly 200 people about gun violence in neighborhoods with and without SOS programs, and they are analyzing shooting data in these test and control areas. Butts would not give any tentative findings — their work began in February 2014 and will conclude around August 2016 — but he did outline basic variables that impact Cure Violence:

“To what extent are public institutions well-coordinated? Do social services people talk to the schools? Do law enforcement know their own community? How do neighborhood residents feel about their access to necessary support? Are police seen as an outside occupying force?”

The SOS South Bronx office displays posters advocating to end gun violence. (LAUREN FOSTER/The Bronx Ink)

The SOS South Bronx office displays posters advocating ending gun violence. (LAUREN FOSTER/The Bronx Ink)

SOS South Bronx has struggled to form alliances with institutions in the area. An exception is the Bronx Christian Fellowship, a church in Mott Haven where Rev. Que English has collaborated closely with SOS efforts. English reiterated the need to solve violence through means outside law enforcement.

“There’s an idea in these communities that if a cop kills us they’ll get away with it,” she said. “It’s circulated throughout generations. I once heard a 5-year-old say, “I don’t like cops.’”

Religious figures are a core component of the SOS strategy, according to literature distributed at the program’s Mott Haven office. One form reads, “Faith-based leaders are encouraged to preach against gun violence from their pulpits.”

What would it take for programs such as SOS to thrive in the pastor’s community?

“My first thought is a miracle,” English responded. “If we had a wish list, it would be ongoing community awareness and a lot of media coverage because we need to get the word out on violence to turn the tide.

“It’s going to take a while, and there’s no quick answer,” she added.

Anti-violence initiatives are not new in New York City. In 1979, Curtis Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels, whose red berets and jackets became trademarks of the amateur pseudo-police force that patrolled the subway amid a rash of violence. That operation was controversial for its vigilante approach, instructing volunteers to make citizens arrests and even providing them training in martial arts. The Guardian Angels do not accept volunteers with gang affiliations or serious criminal records.

But Redding and Gibson support the inclusion of ex-convicts in SOS South Bronx.

“With the prison industrial complex — we have more people incarcerated in the United States than any other country in the history of the world — there’s such labeling and the stereotyping of anyone who has committed a crime,” Redding said. “That lack of a second chance is very frustrating.”

In areas of Chicago where Cure Violence has been implemented, shootings are down 75 percent, according to Crown Heights saw a 6 percent drop in shootings from January 2011 to May 2012 — the first year and a half of SOS activity — while comparable Brooklyn neighborhoods saw increases of 18 to 28 percent in that period. Experts say it is premature to conclude a cause-and-effect relationship between SOS efforts and diminished shooting rates, but they point to these data as cause for optimism about the efficacy of Cure Violence.

Still, Chicago is far from eradicating its gun epidemic or the culture behind it. The city has suffered 329 homicides in 2014, the Chicago Tribune reported, following 440 in 2013.

Lil Bibby, a 19-year-old at the forefront of the hardcore rap movement in a city nicknamed “Chiraq,” spoke in January on New York’s HOT 97 hip-hop radio station about gun violence in his hometown.

“In the last couple of years everybody got guns now, man. There ain’t no more fist fighting or arguing anymore, just guns,” Lil Bibby said. “Guns come out right away. There are kids, 13 or 14, playing with guns, and there ain’t no big homies telling them, ‘Stop this.’”

Several months later, HOT 97 debuted “Hot N—-” by the then-19-year-old from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, named Bobby Shmurda. The song is now ubiquitous on New York street corners, and it was blaring on repeat from a stereo across the street from the SOS South Bronx office on the day the whiteboard showed No. 95.

“Hot Boy,” as it’s called on the radio, reflects a pervasive gun culture that SOS staffers are fighting desperately to reform. Seven of the song’s first 10 lines, and most thereafter, draw on boastful anecdotes dealing with guns.

Although experts such as Redding note the peril of discounting underlying political causes behind crime, Save Our Streets is premised on changing a cultural mentality — as Butts put it, “accepting violence as normal behavior.”

“It’s not an easy thing or a quick thing, but I think it’s the only way you fix this problem,” he said. “If we continue to see community-level violence through the lens of a war on crime, it will just be a war on crime forever. It takes someone bold enough to say maybe there’s a new way to think about this problem.”

To keep urban shooting tallies like the one on the Mott Haven whiteboard low, must interrupters patrol violent street corners indefinitely?

“The foundational idea behind this model is that you implement it for three years or 10 years  — some period of time  — and you slowly shift away the social norms in support of violence, then you’re done,” Butts said. “There’s no need for people to be constantly funding programs to stop cigarette smoking: that cultural shift has already happened in this country. It’s the same thing with violence.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Crime, Culture, Southern Bronx0 Comments

No closure in cop sexual assault case

The parents of a Bronx girl who was sexually assaulted 16 months ago by an NYPD officer grimaced in the gallery yesterday when the judge announced that closure would have to wait at least another month.

Sentencing was expected Wednesday, Sept. 24, for Modesto Alamo, 38, who pleaded guilty in July to sexually abusing, forcibly touching and endangering the welfare of a 13-year-old girl. Alamo resigned from the police force upon his May 24, 2014 arrest. Instead, Judge Laurence E. Busching of the Bronx Supreme Court said he would issue a sentence and determine Alamo’s sex offender category Oct. 23.

Bronx Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Militano petitioned Wednesday for Alamo to be designated a Level 2 sex offender, for “moderate risk or repeat offense,” arguing that his betrayal of a position of trust justified the heightened classification.

Defense lawyer Solomon J. Schepps argued that the victim “was the one who established the relationship in the first place” through a series of non-sexual text messages. Schepps also claimed there is no precedent for holding police officers to the higher standard Militano endorsed. He encouraged a Level 1, “low risk,” designation.

It has been a “lengthy, stressful, disappointing process,” the victim’s mother said in the hallway after yesterday’s hearing. She added that her daughter, now 15, receives counseling and has changed middle schools since the incidents. Although the parents have been fixtures at Alamo hearings, they said they try to shield their daughter from news of the case.

“It is ridiculous that he gets away like it,” said the mother, who sobbed in the courtroom when the prosecutor described the abuse. “He was never in custody.”

Alamo arrived in court in a long-sleeve T-shirt and blue jeans, donning a baseball cap upon leaving the courtroom to obscure photographs of his face. Busching denied a special request from The New York Daily News to photograph today’s proceedings.

Schepps and Militano declined to comment.

In the criminal complaint, the victim is said to have referred to Alamo as her boyfriend. She initially reached out to Alamo for help with a bullying situation at school, Militano said in court and the two exchanged frequent texts for several weeks.The complaint states that Alamo visited her multiple times in her apartment lobby, first on New Year’s Day 2013, where he kissed her and groped her rear end. Alamo also sent the teenager lewd photographs via text.

The victim’s mother said outside court Wednesday that it was Alamo who initiated contact in November 2012 when he complimented a picture her daughter had uploaded on Instagram.

Alamo is released on bail of $1,500.


Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime0 Comments

Pelham Parkway To Be Converted to Apartment

A Bronx horse stable was purchased by the developer Mark Stagg, who plans to convert the Pelham Parkway property into an apartment building. The New York Daily News reports.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Dept. of City Planning Envisions New Neighborhood in South Bronx

An underused 57-block stretch between Grand Concourse and Highbridge in the South Bronx could be developed into a new neighborhood called “Cromwell-Jerome” based on intersecting avenues of those names, the Department of City Planning told The New York Daily News on Tuesday.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

South Bronx Receives $1.25M Gift From Gas Giant

The Venezuelan-owned CITGO gas company announced a $1.25 million gift for South Bronx social programs on Friday, after having given $7.3 million to the South Bronx since 2007. The New York Daily News reports.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

With Few Watching, Assembly Race Nears Finish Line

From left, Campaign Manager Aaron Carr, Field Director Rachel Harris and volunteer Sandra Cordero strategize Sept. 7 at Michael Blake's campaign office on 168th Street and Boston Road in Morrisania. (DANNY FUNT / The Bronx Ink)

From left, Campaign Manager Aaron Carr, Field Director Rachel Harris and volunteer Sandra Cordero strategize Sept. 7 at Michael Blake’s campaign office on Home Street and Boston Road in Morrisania. (DANNY FUNT / The Bronx Ink)

When The Bronx Ink asked Assembly hopeful Marsha D. Michael about following her for a day on the campaign trail, her response was atypical of someone two weeks from a hotly contested primary election.

“How did you hear about me?” Michael’s email began.

Indeed, the race to fill the vacant 79th District Assembly seat has received scant coverage from local news media, to the extent there are any. One can walk for blocks in the district — which includes the South Bronx neighborhoods of Claremont, Concourse Village, Crotona Park, East Tremont, Melrose and Morrisania —without finding newspapers for sale. This scarcity reflects the severe political disengagement in these beleaguered communities, where an intriguing race for state office has been met largely with shrugs.

Six candidates will face off in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary. The winner will vie in the general election on Nov. 4 against the Republican candidate, Selsia Evans. Evans ran for the same seat in 2012 on the Conservative Party line, garnering less than 1 percent of the vote in the overwhelmingly liberal district. In 2010, the last 79th District race without an incumbent, the Republican candidate mustered just 3 percent of the vote.

The seat has been vacant since January, when then-Assemblyman Eric A. Stevenson, elected to the office in 2010, was convicted of taking $20,000 in bribes in exchange for helping to build an adult day care center in the South Bronx. He is serving a three-year prison sentence. He was the second representative from the 79th district to face corruption charges. In 2003, the Assembly member occupying that seat, Gloria Davis, resigned after pleading guilty to bribery.

The perceived frontrunners this year are Michael, a State Supreme Court law clerk, also running on the Working Families Party line; George Alvarez, CEO of a Bronx-based political consulting firm; and Michael Blake, a prominent aide on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign who then worked in the White House on minority-owned small business development. Also on the ballot:  longtime community resident Lanita Jones, entertainer Frederick Ricks and school aide Raul Rodriguez.

A map in Michael Blake's office of the 79th Assembly District, which includes the South Bronx neighborhoods of Claremont, Concourse Village, Crotona Park, East Tremont, Melrose and Morrisania. (DANNY FUNT / The Bronx Ink)

A map in Michael Blake’s office of the 79th Assembly District, which includes the South Bronx neighborhoods of Claremont, Concourse Village, Crotona Park, East Tremont, Melrose and Morrisania. (DANNY FUNT / The Bronx Ink)

Aaron Carr, Blake’s campaign manager, said he expects between 4,000 and 4,500 primary ballots to be cast in a jurisdiction of 60,000 registered voters. The 79th District is consistently near the bottom for election turnout in the state, and, as with most electorates, seniors will be a dominant force on Election Day, Blake staffers predict.

Voters here have strikingly little to go on by way of campaign platforms. Whereas candidates vying for the open 52nd District seat — which includes downtown Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights — outline robust policy goals on their Web pages (candidate Pete Sikora, for example, offers 10 issue areas detailed in more than 4,000 words), Michael’s website lists “solve problems” as her first priority in Albany. The site elaborates, “She will be our full-time Assembly Member with a full service community office to help people and solve neighborhoods problems.” In total, Michael’s online platform is 138 words. Blake’s is 188.

Asked to identify the biggest policy divide between Michael and his candidate, Carr said, “I mean, it’s a Democratic primary. There are a lot of similarities. I think the real question is who will be most effective.”

Blake, however, contended that substance is on his side.

“I think we should be clear: There are significant policy differences,” Blake said in an interview on Labor Day. “I am the most qualified in this race, and no one else is talking about policy issues. They’re saying, ‘I’m going to fight for you,’ but there’s nothing behind that.” When pressed to define this substance advantage, Blake and Carr do not cite proposals, but rather point to experience like Blake’s work as a consultant for the non-profit  job developer Green For All.

“They are basically proposing the same things I’m proposing,” Alvarez acknowledged. The difference, he said, is emphasis: He and Michael prioritize education, Blake focuses on job creation, he contended. “I completely disagree with the idea of producing jobs if the community isn’t prepared for them,” Alvarez said.

In Bronx Community Districts 3 and 6, roughly equivalent to the 79th District, 60 percent of residents have a high school degree and just under 12 percent have completed college. Third graders in the geographic district covering the 79th seat had a 33 percent average pass rate on standardized tests in 2012, compared to a 60 percent state average. July unemployment in Bronx County was 11.2 percent, outpacing the city and state rates of 8 percent  6.6 percent, respectively.

Michael and her campaign manager, Bennie Catala, did not respond to repeated interview requests.

District 79 is conducive to “machine-style politics,” giving Democratic Party leaders considerable clout, according to Ben Max, executive editor of The Gotham Gazette, a news website that specializes in local politics in New York City. Michael has Democratic Party backing, with endorsements from Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx County Democratic Party Committee and more than a dozen unions, political groups and elected officials.

New York City Council Member Vanessa L. Gibson, whose district overlaps with much of the 79th, is among Michael’s backers. Gibson did not conduct a formal review of candidates before announcing her endorsement, according to her communication director, Jamie Gilkey. Gilkey said Michael and Gibson became close after Michael supported Gibson’s winning 2010 Assembly campaign and her successful 2013 bid for the city council.

“Part of why the 79th is struggling is because it has had leaders who have had problems,” Gilkey said. “So when it comes to making an endorsement, you can’t just look at an issue checklist.”

Gilkey rejected Max’s characterization of South Bronx politics.

“It’s not just a matter of union and party bosses — that old image. It’s more than just a smoke-filled room. A lot of people have come together and have confidence in what Marsha would do in the Assembly,” he said.

Blake’s opponents challenged his eligibility to run for office, charging that he did not meet state residency requirements: candidates must have lived in New York State for five years prior to the election and in the district in which they are running for office for the 12 months immediately before the election. Though Blake was born and grew up in the Bronx, he spent nearly a decade in Chicago and Washington working for Obama. A Bronx Supreme Court judge ruled Aug. 15 that Blake met the requirements to remain on the ballot, putting a legal close to four months of carpetbagger allegations.

Still, other candidates have continued to paint themselves as more authentic Bronxites than Blake. A tweet posted on Marsha Michael’s Twitter account on Aug. 13 used the hashtag “#residentvoter = me,” subtly reminding followers that Blake was registered to vote in Washington until last year.

Blake has attempted to emulate the historic Obama 2008 campaign, using “hope” and “change” slogans on campaign posters and aggressive door-to-door canvassing. Like Obama, he has also raised vastly more money than his opponents — about $230,000 by Sept. 1 compared to roughly $67,000 for Michael and $41,000 for Alvarez. Of 702 donations disclosed by the Blake campaign, 22 percent give an address in New York State. Public records indicate Blake received contributions of $500 in April from David Axelrod, a chief strategist of both Obama presidential campaigns who is based in Chicago, and $250 in July from Jon Favreau, the president’s former chief speechwriter who listed a Washington  address.

George Alvarez campaign posters are ubiquitous in the 79th District, including at this corner store on Prospect Avenue in Morrisania. (DANNY FUNT / The Bronx Ink)

George Alvarez campaign posters are ubiquitous in 79th District storefronts, including this corner store on Prospect Avenue in Morrisania. (DANNY FUNT / The Bronx Ink)

The Alvarez campaign has gone after Latino voters, who outnumber black residents in the 79th District by more than two-to-one but are traditionally less inclined to vote. Many storefronts in Morrisania and Melrose display “Elect George Alvarez” posters in their windows, although numerous shopkeepers said they don’t know much about the candidate and would not equate the poster placement with their backing.

With the 79th District’s recent troubles, Blake argued that diminished weight ought to be given to endorsements for Michael.

“We have to remember, this seat is open because of corruption,” he said. “Why would you want to elect people that are tied to the system?”



Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Vanessa Gibson lost a 2010 Assembly race and won a City Council race in 2013. She was victorious in both elections.

Posted in Featured, Morrisania, Morrisania, Politics0 Comments