Breaking the chain of violence
The numbers and statistics in the 3.4-mile box on the outskirts of the university, known as the University Area Community, once known as Suitcase City, speak for themselves.
Almost 80 percent of all the violent crime in Hillsborough County takes place within this area. Someone living here, as opposed to anywhere else in Hillsborough County, is more than 10 times more likely to be the victim of violent crime and about 8 times as likely to be a homicide victim.
But after graduating from USF, when former student body president Cesar Hernandez started working for the University Area Community Development Center , a nonprofit designed to provide social, economic and educational support to the area, he soon found that the numbers did not tell the whole story.
Hernandez was first tasked with learning about the community.
So the Brooklyn native, who didn’t think much could faze him, relocated himself and moved within the community, talking to residents and trying to build relations where he sensed a dissonance between the University Area CDC and residents.
But the things he saw and the things he heard in talking to the residents of the area did faze him.
Naked children ran through the streets. Drug deals took place in front of his eyes. He heard of pregnant women being beaten and prostituted out from their homes. Families were being robbed by gangbangers.
Many of these crimes weren’t being reported to the police, because many of the victims were immigrants, who were in the country illegally and feared an option that to them seemed even worse than the brutalities they faced — deportation.
“I used to travel to help people in third world countries when there’s basically a third world country down the block,” he said.
Hernandez said the more stories he heard, the more he realized the voices of the community weren’t being heard.
He heard about a man whose family was in the U.S. illegally. He was killed by gang members on his way back from work one evening, and his house was robbed with his family still in it. The family did not report the story to the police and moved back to Mexico.
But while the family is gone, their stories remain. Neighbors are afraid to leave their houses after the sun goes down.
Dan Jurman, CEO of the University Area CDC, said the problem lies in that acts of violence like those don’t end there.
If a person doesn’t retaliate to avenge the crime committed against him, he’s seen as weak and is likely to be targeted as a victim again. The cycle of violence thus continues.
Hernandez said he spent the next 20 months with others at the University Area CDC and a team of interns, many of which were from USF, researching solutions.
Soon, they found an idea that seemed innovative.
Where it had been implemented in areas of inner city Chicago and New York, crime rates had dipped by 40 to 70 percent.
It was called the Cure Violence model.
The Cure Violence model was founded by Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist at the University of Chicago.
The model poses that violent crime is much like a health epidemic and can be stopped using the same principles of public-health interventions used to combat HIV/AIDS or other public-health issues.
It’s a three-pronged approach: Interrupt the transmission. Identify and change the thinking of the highest potential transmitters. Change the group norms.
When it comes to the Cure Violence model, it becomes interesting.
The interrupters must have influence over the rest of the population — they must have street cred. They go into hospitals after a shooting to counsel victims and let them know they have options outside of retaliation. They help those looking for ways out of a gang lifestyle to build social capital and self value.
After the University Area CDC heard about the model, Hernandez traveled to Chicago to study how the model worked there.
Ex-offenders are selected as interrupters, many of whom come from crime-riddled pasts of drug dealing and gang lifestyles. Interrupters built connections with the community and tried to intervene before acts of violence and retaliation took place.
But Hernandez found that in many areas, the Cure Violence model is not popular with local law enforcement.
For trust to be built between the interrupters and the community, the interrupters can’t be seen as snitches or having anything to do with local law enforcement. They can’t be informants, and law enforcement officials weren’t pleased.
So he came back and the University Area CDC sought the opinion of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, sending a captain and deputy from Patrol District 1, the unit that responds to calls from the University Area Community, to Chicago to study the model.
HCSO Patrol District 1 Captain Rick Hernandez, of no relation to Cesar, called the trip eye opening.
He and his deputy rode along with an interrupter — Miguel.
Miguel, now in his 40s, had been a Latin King in one of the Chicago barrios. In his day, he could evoke fear from rival gangs.
Normal people would never give Miguel the time of day, Rick said, but the lifestyle in areas of high crime is not normal. It’s a life that’s much like living in a war zone filled with terror and insurgents.
Miguel was serving time in prison for attempted murder, when two of his friends were killed by rival gang members, Rick said. He wanted to turn his life around and he wanted to stop others from falling into his path.
“I asked Miguel, ‘What if someone doesn’t want to join a gang?’” Rick said. “Miguel said, ‘They ain’t got no choice. You get your butt kicked if you don’t join.’”
But Miguel had influence, Rick said. Not everyone wanted his help, but people knew about his past, and he still evoked fear from some.
“These are people who have been in the lifestyle and have the credibility to talk to the bad guys and have them actually listen to what they say,” Rick said. “With these gangbangers, it’s all about respect and how much of a badass you were on the street.”
When they were with Miguel, they received a call. A 17-year-old had been shot by a gang member. Miguel drove to the hospital, Rick said, where the boy told him he was angry. Miguel was able to talk him down to the point where he felt he wouldn’t retaliate and other members of the Cure Violence program spoke with his family, finding out if they could provide them with additional social services, Rick said.
Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has issued its support for bringing a Cure Violence model to the area.
In theory, Rick said, it’s a great model. But he said he’s unsure if it will work here.
Chicago is very different from the University Area Community. Here, gangs are more loosely organized and much younger, mostly 12 to 19-year-olds, he said.
And the University Area Community is known for its transient population. In a population like this, would an interrupter, an ex-offender like Miguel, have any street cred with people who may have never been around during his heyday?
But, Rick said, the idea is good, and there aren’t many easy solutions available.
“The police try to make an impact every day, and we arrest criminals every day,” he said. “But I think that tells you it’s not a police problem, it’s a cultural problem. I don’t know what the answer is. Social change is hard with transience. I hope it works. We need something.”
The costs to bring a satellite model of the program to Tampa are easy to break down, Jurman said.
It would cost about $300,000 to pay for two part-time interrupters, which law enforcement officials would help in selecting, two full-time community outreach workers, one coordinator and one person to oversee operations.
They recently applied for a grant, which they didn’t receive, and now they’re trying to gain the attention of local and state representatives.
But in order for this initiative to succeed, Jurman said, community buy-in is necessary.
Over the summer, Jurman, Cesar and the University Area CDC launched the Prometheus Project — an initiative to bring a voice to the people in this community.
They created and screened a documentary, interviewing many of the residents of the area on camera, including many of those who had previously been voiceless, in fear of reporting acts of violence. Many have shared links on social media. Within the next week, they plan to launch a call to action, to allow those interested in the issue to contact lawmakers about the issue.
Last Saturday, the University Area CDC had their first of several mobile meetings, or community outreach events in which they drive into areas in the community — churches, apartment complexes, etc. — and ask the residents how they would like to change their neighborhood.
The buy-in is really good, Jurman said.
“People were excited we were just listening,” he said. “No one was asking their opinion on things. Giving out your phone number is trust, especially in our neighborhood, and they gave us their numbers to stay involved. There’s a lot of hope, because they haven’t given up in this area.”