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Alternatives to Policing: These Unarmed Groups Stop Violence Before it Starts

Issue 282

A profile of two Brooklyn community organizations that run violence-interrupter programs.

Lydia Wei Sep 19, 2023

On October of 2022, Hassan Nixon was attending a repast for a friend who had recently passed away. Friends and family members were gathered outside on the street in the chilly autumn air, finding solace and community in each other’s presence, when suddenly the sound of gunshots broke out. A group of kids had passed by, shooting, and an attendee at the repast was shot. 

Nixon was chilled by what had happened. The very next day, he walked over to Elite Learners’ Brownsville offices to see what he could do to help his community. 

Nixon had initially heard about the organization while serving time in prison for drug-related offenses. “I used to put a lot of negativity in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in my years coming up,” said Nixon. “I wanted to see what I can do to help change the narrative. As you get older, you start being more conscious of what’s going on and the impact that you have in your neighborhood. And then being in prison also, you just see there’s so much negativity in there with the youth, what’s influencing them.”

The youth that violence interrupters work with tend to appreciate having someone to talk to who is from where they’re from and can empathize with their struggles.

Now, Nixon works as a violence interrupter with Elite Learners, a nonprofit founded in 2015 that provides community programming and anti-violence initiatives. Elite Learners has 20 violence interrupters who work between Prospect Lefferts Garden, East Flatbush and Brownsville. 

“A lot of people don’t trust police. Nothing good really comes from reaching out to police. People here are killed by police,” says Nixon, who responds to calls to help mediate potentially violent situations in his assigned catchment area in Brownsville. 

Andre Mitchell was already doing anti-violence work in 2003 when a stray bullet killed an eight-year-old in his neighborhood. The next year he founded Man Up!, a nonprofit that provides youth programs, employment training and anti-violence work similar to Elite Learners. 

Man Up! has catchment areas throughout Brooklyn, including Brownsville, East New York, Canarsie and Bedford Stuyvesant. Its office in East New York is lively: As families pick up their kids from the summer youth programs, parents talk to the staff, catching up on what their children did that day. Young men stop by the office, saying “Hotep!” to the workers. 

“I mean, I lived out here my whole life,” Mitchell told The ­Indypendent. “So it wasn’t like I was expecting for someone to come from afar and help us because it wasn’t happening. So I like the fact that we, the people who actually have been out here that are closest to the problem, are the best ones to create a solution.” 

A Public-health Emergency

Organizations such as Elite Learners and Man Up! follow the Cure Violence model, which treats violence as a public health emer­gency and aims to shift away from heavy policing. The program was founded by epidemiologist Dr. Gary Slutkin, one of the first figures to promote violence interruption work in the 1990s. It debuted in West Garfield Park in Chicago, where it helped reduce shootings by 67% within its first year, according to the Cure Violence Global organization, founded by Slutkin.

In New York City, there currently exist around 30 nonprofits doing Cure Violence work, which can range from job training to reentry services for formerly incarcerated individuals to anti-­violence initiatives.

The crisis management system of Cure Violence focuses on “interrupting” the spread of violence by hiring credible figures within the neighborhood — either former gang members or individuals who have experienced the criminal justice system — to act as violence interrupters that mediate conflicts. These violence interrupters, who are unarmed, speak directly with at-risk individuals and attempt to stop shootings before they occur or respond to shooting scenes to prevent further retaliation.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, who has vowed to lead the “most progressive” prosecutor’s office in the country, credits his work with community-based organizations Elite Learners and Man Up! in helping reverse the spike in gun violence from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to the DA’s office, homicides declined by 8% in Brooklyn between 2021 and 2022, and shootings declined by 13%. Additionally, East Flatbush was highlighted as one of the most notable neighborhoods, seeing a 50% decrease in gun violence; Brownsville and East New York also saw decreases of 18% and 12% respectively. 

‘This Work Is 24 Hours’

Man Up!’s Jeremy Arce (left), director of crisis management, and David Mann, director of hospital response.
Owen Schacht

Staffers at Elite Learners and Man Up! work with adolescents and young adults who live and go to school in the neighborhood, many of whom endure poverty and other issues at home. 

Violence interrupters might take kids to basketball games or help them look for work. One youth didn’t want to go to school because he didn’t have any clean clothes to wear. Robinson provided him with some of his own clothes, as well as a place to stay. 

“This work is 24 hours,” says Hassan Nixon. “Some of these kids call me at 12, one o’clock in the morning; they hungry, or they somewhere they don’t want to be. ‘Could you come get me?’ and I come pick them up.” 

“We see these kids outside every day. Some of them might just be chilling on the basketball court and we just sit,” Nixon told The Indy. “I sit down, I shoot the breeze with them, and they ask me questions and I don’t ever lie to them. I tell them exactly who I was and what I’ve been through, and some of them, they’d be curious, they ask me, What made you want to change? And I always let them know, it’s for y’all.”

The youth that violence interrupters work with tend to appreciate having someone to talk to who is from where they’re from and can empathize with their struggles.

“They think that they’re the first person that went through something. So it’s like, I may use my past just to get that connection so they can relate, tell them how to get out of these situations,” said Andre Robinson, a director of the crisis management system at Man Up!. 

“You have to be consistent with your conversation with them,” continued Robinson. “Plenty of people tried to have conversation, plenty of people came in and out of their lives acting as if they were going to really truly help them.”

Robinson told The Indy about Jason, a 21-year-old who joined Man Up! three years ago. At that time, Jason was affiliated with a gang and gravitated toward the street. ­Jason’s father was killed when he was young and his sister was later shot, and “when things happen and you’re angry and you’re young, you look to push that anger somewhere, though it comes out the wrong way,” says Robinson, who was the one that found Jason and welcomed him into Man Up! Jason has become an active participant in the organization — he even hosted and spoke at Man Up! panel held for people who were victims of gunshots.

Preventing Crime in Real Time

The crisis management system relies on an innate understanding of the way crime often unfolds in low-income neighborhoods. Workers with both Elite Learners and Man Up! pointed out that violent incidents often blow up from minor conflicts that are publicized and exacerbated on social media.

“Street credibility is a real thing,” explained Jeremy Arce, a director of crisis management with Man Up!. “If someone says, ‘Man, somebody just disrespected that dude and slapped him,’ now you open up the window for someone else to maybe put their hands on you or disrespect you the same way. That’s the mindset, right? That’s what brings in the retaliation.” 

The interrupters from Elite Learners and Man Up! shared experiences during which violence nearly broke out from a simple incident — a dispute over gambling in a park, a brush against someone while leaving the corner store, something incendiary said on social media. In each case, the workers located the individuals involved and spoke with them to try to deescalate the situation. 

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez credits his work with community-based organizations Elite Learners and Man Up! in helping reverse the spike in gun violence from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Nixon recounted an incident from February, when rumors had circulated that one man’s girlfriend was seen with another man; the man who thought he was being cheated on got a gun and shot the other man, injuring him. The following day, Nixon sent all parties involved, including the girlfriend, a text saying to give him a call. 

“I’m well respected in my area. If I ask them to call, they’re going to call me,” said Nixon. He scheduled time to speak with everyone separately and heard their perspectives. Nixon then brought the three together to talk in a safe, public space, a community center in Brownsville. 

The incident had been a misunderstanding, they discovered, exacerbated by the rumor mill. Nixon made sure that such was understood by all parties, and they agreed to move past it, preventing further retaliation.

Many of the violence interrupters follow the youth they serve on social media in order to keep up with them and try to discern whether fights or arguments will erupt. By choosing to first converse with people who might commit violent crimes, violence interrupters help them avoid harmful encounters with the police, who almost always arrive on scene once a crime has already occurred.

“What we’re trying to do is build a relationship where it’s not just, lock up everybody and let the judicial system sort them out,” said Patrick Griffin, an outreach worker supervisor at Elite Learners. “We want to …  change a person’s life before they become incarcerated for the rest of their life or, even worse, lose their life.”

Distrust of the Police

The NYPD acts “almost like an occupying force in your community,” Andre Mitchell told BK Reader in 2020.

For Man Up! and Elite Learners, keeping members of their community out of the criminal justice system is critical: In neighborhoods such as East New York, Brownsville, East Flatbush or Bedford-Stuyvesant — all of which experience high rates of police misconduct complaints, according to a study by the ACLU of New York — crossing paths with the police can lead to harmful or life-threatening incidents. A separate study, conducted by the Police Scorecard Project, found that between 2013 and 2021 over one million arrests were made in New York City for low-level, non-violent offenses and that Black people were 6.7 times more likely than white people to be killed by police.

A data dashboard published by the nonprofit New York City Criminal Justice Agency showed that of the 92,000 people arrested last year in the city, 2,505 were arrested five or more times. What’s more, the most serious charges that most people in that repeating group faced were misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

Camara Jackson, the founder of Elite Learners, said that the organization has been called by community members about shootings and domestic and school-based violence, as well as by businesses that have conflicts in their ­establishments.

General distrust of the police in heavily patrolled areas means that workers with Elite Learners and Man Up! respond to a wide variety of calls: “I had an elderly person call my office because he fell in his apartment,” Jackson told The Indy. “He didn’t want to call the police and he called us, and we sent a violence interruption team directly to his apartment, and the guys aided him and we called an ambulance.”

“Sometimes kids run away and the parents don’t want to call the police and they call us, and we’re in the streets looking for these kids,” Jackson added.

Violence interrupters recognize, though, the difficulties of the work. “We can’t save everybody,” said Robinson, reflecting on the young man to whom he loaned clothes for school. “He found a new group of friends and started hanging out with them and didn’t want to come to school anymore. Unfortunately, he was one of the ones that I couldn’t help.”

Nixon also highlighted the emotional toll of attending the various events that are organized in response to shootings, where they experience parents grieving the children they’ve lost to gun violence.

Ultimately, the organizations cannot function fully outside the system. For example, if an active weapon is present at the scene, violence interrupters with Elite Learners and Man Up! cannot immediately respond, since their workers are unarmed. In these cases, callers must be referred to the NYPD.

Organizations such as Elite Learners and Man Up! provide a crucial glimpse into a different future by illustrating that there are ways to ensure safety beyond militarized police forces and mass incarceration. Though the work is difficult, violence interrupters hope that more neighborhoods across the country will be able to adopt their non-violent methods. 

“We want to live in healthy communities, like everybody else,” Mitchell says. “We just want to be left alone. We want to be able to take care of our families.”

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