“Why do we have more guns than people?” Jacobs questions.
This piece was generously supported by the and in collaboration with the
By Evan Cobb
“Close your eyes and imagine a city without violence,” Steven Jackson, program manager for the Cure Violence program in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said at a city committee meeting this past summer. Cure Violence approaches violence as an epidemic that health strategies can address, one of many programs across the Midwest that aim to address a few of the root causes of the epidemic of gun violence afflicting the United States.
Lynn Coleman, a lifelong resident of South Bend, Indiana and a former police officer, is another person who brings their experience to bear on this epidemic. Coleman walks down the hallway to his office at Memorial Hospital, greeting those whom he passes in the halls with a hello or an inquiry about a loved one. Coleman serves as the trauma liaison for victims of gun violence at this level II trauma center.
“When I came on the job as a police officer, [a] young rookie cop in 1977, every now and then we would get calls of shots fired,” Coleman said. “We weren’t getting that call three or four times a day. We weren’t getting, you know, 19, 20 [people] killed a year.” South Bend saw a painful trend in the city over the past three years. According to the South Bend Police Department’s statistics, there were 23 fatal shootings in 2020, 19 in 2021, and 25 in 2022. Compared to 2018, when there were 9, and in 2019 when there were 11. As of April 2023, there have been seven fatal shootings; one of the victims was 11-year-old T’yon Horston, along with 24 other victims of gun violence.
Coleman’s role and that of the trauma team is to meet with those impacted directly. “To provide support for the patients and their families while they’re [victims] here in the hospital. To create and develop a relationship with them to try to understand what happened, why it happened, and what can we do, as a hospital system, to work with [the] community to try to mitigate some of this [violence],” Coleman said.
The program which Coleman takes part in aims to address some of the causes of homicide. In 2020, a 30% increase in homicides nationally, according to FBI and CDC statistics, was recorded and highlighted an ongoing epidemic across the country. In 2020, three Midwest cities – South Bend, Indiana, and Michigan’s Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo – witnessed some of their most violent years due to guns, just part of a 30% increase in homicides nationally according to FBI and CDC statistics. Addressing gun violence in America is a task that requires immediate action to reduce the cycle of violence, along with long-term investments in the community to cultivate changes in housing, healthcare, education, and stricter firearm regulation.
Coleman’s meetings with victims of violence and their families work to disrupt the cycle of violence and highlight the support that may be available. “We don’t want to see a patient here today. And six months later, four months later, two months later, back here again,” Coleman said. He engages with each individual and family to avoid losing more community members. “Because if I shoot you and kill you, or wound you badly, disabled you for life. Now we lose you,” Coleman said, and “I end up going to jail for 35, 40, 50, 60 years. So you lose me too.”
“The ripple effect of that goes on and on.”
Across town, in the basement of a South Bend counseling office, Connect 2 Be The Change holds group therapy for young adults impacted by gun violence. TaKisha Jacobs, cofounder and the director of the youth-to-young adult program of Connect 2 Be The Change, works alongside professional therapists who volunteer to support the program. These sessions often challenge participants to make healthier choices by thinking through their decisions and to help steer participants out of the cycle of violence. These sessions also address a common lack of access that communities impacted by gun violence often experience.
Tragedy changed Jacobs’ life. “My son was shot and killed in 2017,” Jacobs said. “And it changed my life.” Her son, Abdul Cross, who was 15 then, died at the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Hospital in Indianapolis nine days after being shot.
Jacobs’ loss reflects an alarming trend throughout the nation. In 2020, in a review of the Center for Disease Control’s data, University of Michigan researchers found that firearm-related injuries became the leading cause of death among people ages 1 to 19 years in the United States due to homicides rising 33.4%.
The death of Abdul disrupted her family further. Jacobs’ oldest son, Darius Marshall, retaliated. Marshall is currently serving a sentence for aggravated battery.
Challenging ways of thinking resulting in snap decisions and violence is a critical component of what the organization offers participants, referred to as Change Agents within the organization. Jacobs recalls many participants harboring a combative mentality of me or you in the organization’s early days. “We have been conditioned to live like that. But we can literally stop it. So like having them, try things. Try and make the conscious decision to say, ‘You know what, I’m not gonna do that.’” Jacobs and the organization work to move past the fight-or-flight mentality and think long-term. They offer the Change Agents opportunities to try new experiences and highlight their value for themselves, their families, and their community.
“I was groomed to lose; I was raised [in] survival mode,” Yafinceio ‘Big B’ Harris, a connections coordinator at Urban Alliance, said. “The system did what it did. It exists. Can’t escape that, [and] probably always will. But what are we going to do about it?” Harris serves as one of the outreach workers at Urban Alliance, an organization involved with the Group Violence Intervention (GVI) program in Kalamazoo.
GVI programs work to demonstrate that collaboration between community partners, law enforcement, and social service workers can reduce violence in their communities. The program uses an evidence-based strategy that started in Boston known as “Operation Ceasefire” during the 1990s. GVI uses focused deterrence methods to focus on the most at-risk community members. Outreach workers and law enforcement connect with these individuals to offer a way out and let them know that their actions are being monitored by law enforcement.
Harris has engaged in community outreach for over a decade, but he was walking a different path when he was younger. “I swore I’m gonna die fast getting money instead of growing old and being broke,” Harris said. “But during that journey, I started to pick up on reality.”
Harris’s background is crucial to his work as an outreach worker in a GVI program. Trusted partners in the community are an effective way to connect with those impacted by gun violence and provide a message to reduce violence in conjunction with law enforcement, who will pass along a custom notification to those deemed high risk. A custom notification “is a letter from the chief of police,” David Juday, Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety assistant chief, said. The letter notifies the individual that law enforcement and GVI outreach teams know who you are. This process happens shortly after shots are fired as the team works to get in front of retaliation. “If you are caught with a gun, and we know that there is a high probability that if you get shot today, that you or somebody in your group is going to shoot tomorrow or the next day,” Juday said. By reaching out directly and acknowledging the individuals’ situation, the team works to offer ways out of the cycle.
The Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety and the GVI program monitor fatal and nonfatal shootings and identify those involved. Kalamazoo saw a decrease in fatal shootings over the past three years. The city saw 13 fatal shootings in 2020, which decreased to 11 in 2022. When looking at data that separated group-involved shootings from others, the number dropped from seven to two fatal shootings in 2022. For non-fatal shootings, there was a slight uptick in group-involved shootings from 2020 to 2021, 75 to 77, but a drop to 66 in 2022.
Juday and Harris see trust and collaboration between law enforcement, community partners, and outreach workers as essential for the program’s effectiveness. They also recognize that it takes years to build trust with the community. “Law enforcement can’t arrest their way out of this situation,” Juday said. He continued, “both those groups, outreach and law enforcement, have to work together if you don’t have that. You’re in silos.”
“I think you have to imagine, sometimes just a little bit differently, because we’ve been dealing with something that’s not working for decades. So you’ve got to change the narrative at some point,” Jackson, of Grand Rapids’ Cure Violence program, said later in an interview. “You can’t keep doing the same thing expecting a different result.”
In 2020, Grand Rapids formally launched Cure Violence Grand Rapids, administered by the Urban League of West Michigan. The organization supports employment, housing, education, and health in the West Michigan region. That year, 38 individuals were killed in Grand Rapids, primarily by firearms. In the early days of 2021, the Cure Violence Grand Rapids team was announced and started to work in the community.
“Cure Violence was implemented in Grand Rapids in response to requests from the community. For many years in Grand Rapids, there have been discussions regarding using innovative, evidence-based violence reduction and intervention programs. The city is proud to support this initiative as one of the solutions that helps combat violence in our community,” Brandon Davis, the director of the Oversight and Public Accountability office for the City of Grand Rapids, said.
Cure Violence’s methodology focuses on detecting and interrupting potentially violent situations, identifying and changing the thinking and behavior of those at the highest risk, and changing the norms that support and perpetuate the use of violence. Nationally, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2022, signals support for programs similar to Cure Violence and an enhanced background check process for gun buyers under age 21, federal funding to implement state Red Flag laws, and other items.
Like GVI programs, Cure Violence programs utilize community outreach workers, often from the service area, that cultivate existing relationships. Cure Violence applies its violence interruption and reduction strategies to a specific target area. The program identifies gun violence as a public health issue and works to expand the narrative beyond individual actions of violence and shift social norms and behaviors.
Expanding the narrative is essential when addressing gun violence. The Guardian reported in 2017, “Four and a half million Americans live in areas of these cities with the highest numbers of gun homicide, which are marked by intense poverty, low levels of education, and racial segregation.” The article explains that even though only 1.5% of the country’s population resides in those areas, they are in the proximity of 26% of total gun homicides. This disproportionate concentration of gun homicides demonstrates the interconnectedness of the issues in communities around the U.S.
“Why do we have more guns than people?” Jacobs questions. (The Small Arms Survey recently estimated that there are 393 million privately owned firearms in America, which means there are 120 guns per 100 people in the nation). The availability of firearms, a hot-button political topic, is one that researchers acknowledge as a critical factor in community gun violence. According to the meta-analysis of the research, “keeping firearms away from people inclined to use them for violence is challenging given widespread gun ownership in the United States, but it remains an essential part of any effort to reduce community violence.” To address the gun industry is beyond the scope of Jacobs’ work, and Indiana’s gun laws, which rank 30 in Everytown for Gun Safety’s strength rankings (Michigan ranks 24), set the standards for availability and access to firearms. In addition, Indiana’s recent move to allow residents to carry a handgun without a license, which was opposed by the state police superintendent and several law enforcement groups, to remove licensing for concealed carry continues down a path of deregulation.
A meta-analysis of research on violence reduction strategies from the John Jay College Research and Evaluation Center at the City University of New York identified promising strategies to prevent violence without law enforcement: improving the physical environment, strengthening anti-violence norms and relationships, engaging and supporting young members of the community, and confronting the gun problem. However, these methods offer opportunities for communities to make changes within their communities to work towards a safer future.
Measuring the effectiveness of community violence intervention programs can be tricky. Mixed results can be present depending on the data sourced. With the high levels of homicides in many cities in 2020, direct comparisons in 2021 demonstrated a decrease; however, there were nearly 200 more gun violence incidents in South Bend, 91 more aggravated assaults in Grand Rapids, and 170 more aggravated assaults in Kalamazoo from 2020 to 2021. These numbers illuminate the complexity of analyzing gun violence statistics and how different data segments can offer different insights.
In the third quarter of 2022, the south service area of Grand Rapids, where Cure Violence implemented the program, saw aggravated assaults drop significantly. “One of the very surprising and pleasant discoveries we’ve made is that after the third quarter, and there’s a report that’s just been published for the first three quarters of 2022, is that in the south service area, there is an 11.5% decrease in violent crimes,” Dr. Stephen Worst, who examines the data for the Urban League of West Michigan to measure the program’s impact and help shape the program to serve the community most effectively said. “And that’s so unusual that we’ve established a statistical significance between the efforts of Cure Violence, not causation. Causation can’t be assigned. But there is a correlation between the activity of our Cure Violence team and the decrease in violent crimes in the south service area.” When comparing 2022 to 2021, the south service area saw a 9.1% decrease in violent incidents last year. In the east service area of the city, there was a 22% increase year over year.
In the first quarter of 2023, there has been a 50% decrease in aggravated assaults compared to the first quarter of 2022 and a 45% decrease compared to the first quarter of 2021 in the target area that Cure Violence Grand Rapids operates.
Those who work in reducing violence also acknowledge that the data can leave out pieces of the story. Even with the positive trend over the past few years in Kalamazoo, Juday recognizes that the data overlooks parts of the story. “It’s so hard to gauge success by saying, you know, it’s just on the data,” Juday said. “But these guys [outreach workers] prevented probably 15 people from being killed. But how do you gauge that?” Juday sees shifts in community norms, such as community members calling in to report a gun that was used and was found on the street, as a sign of progress, too.
After years of effort, Jacobs is seeing progress. Even though there have been shootings in her neighborhood, Jacobs noted they were isolated incidents unrelated to groups and group violence. She believes young people are starting to be equipped with tools to remove them from the cycle of group violence.
“They’re getting jobs. There are some that are working and getting new cars,” Jacobs said. She sees room for growth in the group and her knowledge. “Take classes and learn as much as you can learn, get a business mentor, you know, like just learn all that you can learn from people, take all the classes that we can take. And as we’re taking those classes, we’re changing our mindsets. And as our mindset changes, our Change Agents‘ mindsets change, too.”
James Harris, the outreach manager at Urban Alliance, acknowledges that the individual changes are essential but also to look broader. “America has to take responsibility also for creating certain environments,” Harris said. “There has to be a community effort, a people effort, and I think that that’s happening here in Kalamazoo.”
“I’d like you to open your eyes and imagine our city without violence,” Jackson said in the presentation to the Grand Rapids City Commission. To make the imagined reality, layers of change must occur from the individual to the societal level. The immediate response from those working on the frontlines of gun violence reduction programs demonstrates a commitment and effectiveness to reducing community violence. However, these programs will continue pushing against environmental and systemic factors connected to rooted inequities and systemic oppression. “If we only talk about violence and fail to discuss the need for providing resources to break the cycle of violence, then this systemic issue will continue. We might fix immediate issues, but violence will continue across our nation unless we address these core issues, ” Davis said.
Evan Cobb is a photojournalist, writer, and filmmaker based in South Bend, Indiana. His work has been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Nation, and others. Cobb is currently a fellow in the inaugural Complicating the Narratives Fellowship for the Solutions Journalism Network.