D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

The D.C. Council is holding its final budget vote today. With the vote come tons of questions. Among them: Will the Council uphold the tax increase on the wealthy, passed on July 20 to fund better wages for child care workers, housing vouchers to help end homelessness, and a monthly basic tax credit to qualifying families, despite Mayor Muriel Bowser’s staunch opposition? Will the Council add funds to the proposed $35 million for excluded workers after voting down At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman’s attempt to add $6 million to it? Will Mayor Bowser secure $11 million more for the no. 1 item on her wish list: more police officers? Or, as looks increasingly promising since their announcement yesterday, will Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen’s replacement package of $5 million toward increased police intervention and $6 million for violence prevention and public health programs succeed? (Already approved is one item on many DC Public Schools students’ wish list: a librarian in every school, courtesy of a proposal from Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George.) Of the $6 million for violence prevention and health support services, Allen and Mendelson’s proposal would dedicate $1.9 million to hiring more “violence interrupters” working with the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (ONSE), and the remaining $4.1 million to building four new interruption sites with nonprofit Cure the Streets and three “leadership academies” for high school and community mental health support services. 

So what’s the deal with violence interrupters programming in D.C.?

While Mayor Bowser isn’t calling for this focus on preventative services in the 2022 budget, the VI initiative with ONSE began as part of the mayor’s annual $5.4 million investment in non-police crime intervention in 2017. The program was Mayor Bowser’s response to a summer spike in shootings in 2015 that brought D.C. back to crime levels the city hadn’t experienced for more than a decade. 

ONSE works with three contractors for VIs and community engagement specialists: Training Grounds in Wards 6 and 7, Community Solutions Collaborative in Wards 1 through 5, and Far South East, in collaboration with nonprofit J & J Monitoring, in Ward 8. While ONSE more directly targets violence de-escalation through identification of folks more at risk of being perpetrators or victims of violence, Building Blocks DC, a new arm of the VI initiative launched in Ward 8 in February, takes a more preventative health approach by offering wraparound services based on needs assessments. 

VI programs exist in other major cities nationwide and globally to varying degrees of expansion. Cure Violence, a nonprofit developed by a former head of the World Health Organization to quell the violence in one Chicago community, launched a network of VIs through various programs in 2000 and expanded to then high-crime cities from Baltimore to Oakland, New Orleans to New York. The “crisis management” model behind its approach is leveraging messengers from the community to mediate conflict on the streets and connect high-risk folks to services that empower them and reduce the risk of violence relapse. 

Today, D.C. is not alone in both the return of deadly crime surges not seen for a long time and the expansion of the VI strategy to target this rise. In New York, where 462 people were killed last year (the most since 2011), Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYC Council are doubling funds to $136 million for anti-violence programs that harness the Cure Violence strategy, apart from reentry and youth summer job programs concentrated in some of the deadliest parts of the city. While D.C.’s homicide rate shot up 19 percent to 198 deaths last year, NYC and D.C. are too different in population size, demographics, and budget to compare the raw crime data or budget other than the parallels of upticks in violence and the expansion of the VI approach. 

But what’s also similar is that in both cities, the VI strategy has carried a dual burden: it’s treated as experimental, yet also held accountable for violence reduction and judged as ineffective when it doesn’t show quick results. A recent Post opinion piece from the publisher and editor in chief of D.C. Witness harnesses homicide data from the website and a report by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform that evaluates the VI programming in D.C. as “resource rich and coordination poor” to show its ineffectiveness in coordinating among the agencies that run the initiative. Moreover, the authors argue that violence is merely being dispersed out of the communities where VIs work instead of stopped altogether. They point to successful programs involving VIs and wraparound services in Chicago and Baltimore to explain the need for programs that are more comprehensive than the D.C. “de minimis” version. 

But this analysis might be the “de minimis” version of one that seeks to understand that: 1. Building Blocks DC is a baby initiative that’s only run since February and is hungry for data and a chance to show its effectiveness, as last week’s roundtable on public safety showed; 2. Building Blocks DC does offer wraparound services that range from mental health to housing and workforce development, according to the Gun Violence Prevention Center and five VIs with whom City Paper spoke. 

One VI who was hired with Building Blocks DC when the initiative came to Historic Anacostia adds a third point: Success isn’t measured with stats alone. 

“Success looks like me knowing a guy who was involved in violence in the last 365 days—and now that guy goes to work every day and just takes care of their child,” Presto G. told City Paper. “That’s interruption. That’s success. [People] looking in from the outside don’t know these people—we know. I know this guy picked up a gun every five seconds and now he goes home early and wakes up and goes to work in the morning and works on the construction site … and what it’s doing is providing hope, it’s changing their mentality.”

A focus on helping the individual instead of saving the masses is far from just a Dag Hammarskjöld philosophy to Presto G. It’s also about the ensuing systemic change: “That person is also being looked up to by other guys like that, and then it’s gonna have a trickle effect, it’s going to make more people say, ‘you know what, I want to do that.’”

For D.C. violence interrupters and the communities they serve, only time, uninterrupted, will tell. 

—Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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