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Resolving Charlottesville's violence problem is a complex matter
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Resolving Charlottesville's violence problem is a complex matter

B.U.C.K. Squad

Herb Dickerson, from left, assistant executive director of the B.U.C.K. Squad, and Executive Director Pertelle Gilmore join with Sean Pryor, national executive director of Guns Down Inc., at a makeshift memorial for Jamarcus Washington in February. Washington was fatally shot late last year on South First Street in Charlottesville and was the inspiration behind the formation of the B.U.C.K. Squad. The group works with youths to try to prevent violence.

As gun violence trends upward in Charlottesville, community members, organizations and the police have turned to a variety of responses, from mediation to stepped-up enforcement/patrols — and are warning that no easy solution exists.

So far this year, the areas most affected by the increase tend to be clustered around public housing and low-income housing at South First Street, Sixth Street, into Westhaven and on Prospect Avenue, police officials said. In response, residents of Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority properties have sought the police’s help.

“We know there are some concerns from residents about over-policing, but at this point, we are hearing from residents worried about their safety, and we need to be able to address and answer those concerns,” CRHA Director John Sales said in an interview.

During meetings with residents and the CRHA’s security committee, Sales said residents have discussed a series of requests, including: asking police officers to get to know the residents, not to treat residents like criminals, to participate in CRHA community meetings and to create a hotline for people to discuss incidents and issues without fear of retaliation.

At the request of residents, more Charlottesville police officers are patrolling CRHA properties. Residents have been asking for greater involvement from the police since the shooting death of 27-year-old Dre’Shawn R. McDonald in the South First Street neighborhood last November. The CRHA and the Charlottesville Police Department also are working on a partnership to install security cameras on the properties as a way to reduce the need for human witnesses to get involved.

McDonald was one of four people killed last year in Charlottesville. This year, as the weather warmed up, the violence continued with an increase in shots-fired incidents, generally defined as at least one bullet fired, typically near a residential area.

Several people have been injured this year and one bullet narrowly missed a sleeping child, police said. Overall, there have been 121 incidents so far this year. This time last year, city officers responded to 80 incidents, according to the department.

Additionally, according to James Mooney, assistant chief of the city police, as of mid-May, there had been 38 aggravated assaults, 15 of which have been incidents where a firearm was used to shoot at someone or someone was actually shot.

“We’ve also had five robberies related to firearms and the use of a firearm,” Mooney said. “The numbers are concerning to say the least.”

Police Chief RaShall Brackney has raised the alarm about the increase and called on the community to help reverse the trend. To Brackney, that means partnerships among nonprofits and churches to adopt blocks, among other options.

Several community groups have responded, working to build relationships in the affected neighborhoods, resolve conflicts and address root causes of the violence.

“You typically will see results, because each of the blocks slowly but surely spread out,” Brackney said. “Whether it’s beautification efforts, whether it’s spending time in those spaces, whether it’s creating for that block job opportunities, mentoring opportunities, literacy opportunities — we are willing to be the bank or the cache to put all those in to connect people with resources. We’ve offered to do those kinds of things.”

Officials mostly agree on what’s driving the spike in violence — poverty, which means efforts to address it have to focus on that issue. But such efforts have been further complicated by fund shortfalls in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following a homicide late last year, a group of Charlottesville residents started working in the South First Street neighborhood to resolve conflicts before they became violent. South First Street saw the most incidents of shots fired and shootings last year. Members of the group known as the B.U.C.K Squad say they have seen their efforts pay off in fewer incidents.

“You hear about that one shot, but what about the 10 that you’ve never heard and you never knew was about to happen because somebody stopped it?” said Pertelle Gilmore, one of the group’s leaders. “You don’t hear about that.”

Following a spate of incidents of shots fired in the last few months, Brackney said the city police have been increasing their overtime presence at Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority properties.

Going into the third weekend of these efforts, Brackney said they’ve seen a decrease in shots fired incidents. CPD has not sent out a news release about a shooting or shots fired call since May 6, apart from an incident on the Corner on May 28 involving numerous shots from an automatic weapon but no injuries.

Brackney, however, doesn’t think the extra-policing model is sustainable.

Instead, she said they’re working to establish a partnership with the CRHA that features the community’s involvement in addressing the root causes of violence. Part of this strategy also involves installing security cameras in some areas.

“What we have asked for is ... a letter of support from CRHA, director John Sales, their board, as well as their safety and security committee, to say that these are the type of responses that they’ve asked for from us,” Brackney said. “We hope that this will automatically get community buy-in and show that this is not a CPD project, that this is a community project in which we all are responsible for the co-production of public safety in Charlottesville.”

Sales confirmed that a letter defining the partnership between the CRHA and the city police is in development and will serve to define the partnership and prevent potential backlash.

Sales said that at the beginning of May, the CRHA ended its contract with a private security service after it failed to impact a series of violent crimes and other incidents. Although not sustainable, Sales said the city police presence in recent weeks has made an impact on residents’ ability to safely live in their homes and has discouraged the presence of non-residents.

“I’ve gone there with a police officer that was in plain clothes, but I guess [the non-residents] just guessed he was a police officer, and it cleared up in like 30 seconds,” he said. “That’s the type of effect they have when they come on site, and the residents like it because they want to be able to use the park after 5 o’clock but oftentimes they can’t because it’s full of adults and they may be doing certain things that they don’t want their kids to see.”

***

Residents in South First Street and Westhaven, along with those on Prospect Avenue, also are receiving support from groups like the B.U.C.K. Squad, a collection of violence interrupters and outreach workers trying to offset violence in their communities.

The group has been working to de-escalate and interrupt community violence since last fall. Earlier this year, the group received violence interruption training from the New York-based Guns Down Inc. The approximately $20,000 training was funded by the Charlottesville City Council.

Through their efforts, Gilmore said 46 potential incidents of violence have been averted in 2021, mostly around South First Street. Though de-escalation gets much of the attention, Gilmore said there is a lot more to their work and that volunteers often spend long days in the community working to establish relationships.

Instead of looking at community violence as an issue of crime, Gilmore said the B.U.C.K. Squad treats the violence as an issue of public health. Framed that way, their efforts require different, more difficult work that takes time.

Most of the people the B.U.C.K. Squad works with are men under the age of 25 who have been identified as “high-risk participants,” Gilmore said. These young men are often dealing with childhood trauma and they are guided through a healing process that directs them toward health services the squad has partnered with, such as the Region Ten Community Services Board.

This method has seen results, Gilmore said, as shots-fired incidents in the South First Street area have dropped in recent months. The key has been building trust and using relationships within the community to gain respect, he said.

“As I always say, you eat an elephant one bite at a time; we can’t tell these guys, ‘Look, stop selling drugs, you can’t take care of your family,’” he said. “But one thing we can ask them to do is, why they’re out here doing what they do, don’t carry guns and shut down the block for two hours of the day, so the kids can play and don’t need to worry about nobody coming out here buying drugs.”

The B.U.C.K. Squad’s South First Street hub consists of four outreach workers, four violence interrupters, one site manager and one site director. The hope is to establish two more hubs and bring in more female community outreach workers. But to do that, money is needed — approximately $1.4 million.

Though the B.U.C.K. Squad has documented its efforts and impact on community violence, Mooney said the city police have not seen a significant reduction in any of the areas surrounding public housing.

Gilmore himself said his history of interactions with the criminal justice system has given him insight into how these young men think. Gilmore was in fact recently arrested on a probation violation charge after failing a drug test, according to arrest data. It is unclear what impact, if any, his arrest has had on the organization.

***

On the government side of things, the City Council has been considering and working toward a number of solutions, Councilor Sena Magill said.

One of the roadblocks has been whether an incoming wave of federal stimulus funding can be used to address gun violence. In recent National League of Cities calls, Magill said she has learned that the U.S. Treasury has been changing much of the parameters surrounding the American Recovery Plan Act, limiting the scope of what funds can be used for.

Additionally, pandemic-related losses in revenue have complicated things, Magill said.

“We’ve been trying to use a lot of the money to keep people in housing, keep people food secure and help businesses,” Magill said. “Between the two CARES acts, around half of the money we set aside to help businesses was guaranteed to go to women- and minority-owned businesses.”

Though Magill said she and the council believe in the B.U.C.K. Squad’s work, they are concerned that violence interruption puts the members in harm’s way.

“They’re putting themselves in situations where guns are being used, and we, as a legislative body, have to be careful that we don’t get anyone injured,” she said.

Another group the city has been working with is the Conscious Capitalist Foundation, which, similar to the B.U.C.K. Squad, is seeking to address the root causes of violence.

Robert Gray founded the foundation about a year and a half ago to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. To do so, he and the organization mentor at-risk youth and provide financial literacy, workforce development and entrepreneurship training.

The organization is based in Charlottesville but works with young adults statewide, including those who are in detention centers or alternative schools.

“... we consider them the most vulnerable youth out there,” said Gray, the organization’s executive director. “And so we use, sometimes, formerly incarcerated individuals or individuals with shared and lived experience to mentor the youth.”

This approach is focused on eradicating poverty, Gray said.

“Because that’s the big problem,” he said. “There isn’t a war on gun violence or on the criminal justice system. The war’s on poverty.”

“If you can stabilize some of these youth to make sure they’re productive from a socio-economic standpoint. … The gun violence is a residual effect of growing up in an impoverished neighborhood or impoverished background situation.”

In the year and a half that the foundation has been running its program, Gray said they’ve worked with more than 20 youths and had one incident of recidivism.

“We start to see them come to grips with reality and their situations, and get to see that they want to change the trajectory of their lives while taking a class,” Gray said of how the program affects participants.

The program also provides the youths with a re-entry plan or checklist to assist them when they are released.

Gray said the work is more proactive, and that the foundation has started a program to provide more immediate intervention to adults in the community who have been exposed to gun violence.

That work with adults was in response to the increase in gun violence during the pandemic, he said.

Gray said the program, Peace in the Streets, which is separate but under the foundation’s umbrella, is a 12-month class that will teach life skills and connect adults to resources in the community, such as assisting in finding employment, to help them be successful.

“We haven’t started that class yet, because we’re just waiting on some funding,” he said, adding they’ve applied for a couple of grants. “We definitely have the framework and experience to run that program, but to be able to do it at a high level, we need a couple more staff.”

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