When someone has been shot or is about to shoot someone in Brownsville, there is a good chance that Darien Scriven knows who they are. For the past five years, the 55-year-old has worked as a counselor for Brownsville In, Violence Out, the anti-violence arm of a nonprofit that gets funding from the city. On the block he goes by Mellow (“Because I’m cool” he explains, a little sheepishly) and has tried to steer young people in his neighborhood away from using their guns.
“The first thing you need to have to do this job is empathy,” Scriven said. “Over and over again, you hear people say, ‘those kids, those kids, those kids,’ forgetting when they were kids, and the stupid things they did.”
Sometimes this means giving them some money or a gift card so they have something to eat, getting them a job at a shop on Pitkin Avenue, or helping them get their driver’s license, laying foundations for a more stable life. Other times it means waking up to texts and calls at 2 a.m., pleading with angry teenagers to not shoot each other, showing up on corners until everyone calms down.
“Our biggest issue is that there’s not enough of us. There are only eight or nine of us, we’re dealing with kids from four or five projects. When the shooting comes in our neighborhood, it usually comes from another neighborhood,” Scriven said. “Our kids come to us sometimes and say, ‘You telling us to put our guns down but you’re not telling them to put their guns down? So when they come over here and kill us, what we supposed to do?’”
New York City is asking the same question. While most other major crimes are down, murders in the city jumped by 45 percent in 2020, when 462 people were killed — the most since 2011 — and this year is already outpacing 2020, like dozens of other major U.S. cities. Just recently, stray bullets have killed Shalimar Birkett, a 32-year-old mother attending a vigil in Brownsville, and Justin Wallace, who was sitting in his house in Far Rockaway just days shy of his 11th birthday.
After a year of relative peace before the pandemic, COVID caused what Scriven described as “a backlash.” Shootings in Brownsville increased nearly 200 percent from 2019 to 2021. At least 34 people have been shot in the neighborhood this year so far, and violence interrupters like Scriven struggle to keep up.
The surge in shootings is testing the premise that critics of policing have argued for years: Gun violence can be prevented without throwing more cops at the problem, by using workers such as Scriven. New York began pursuing the strategy, called Cure Violence, in 2014 and today the city has around 30 nonprofits doing the work, which varies from job training to reentry services for people coming home from prison. Last month, the de Blasio administration and the city council increased funding for anti-violence initiatives from $66 million to $136 million, not including tens of millions more for reentry housing and summer jobs for young people in at-risk neighborhoods such as Brownsville. A key component of Cure Violence is called the “crisis-management system,” which deploys former gang members and people who have experienced the criminal justice system to act as violence interrupters and try and stop shootings before they occur, or respond to the scenes of shootings to prevent retaliation. Recent studies have shown that over a period of two years, gun injuries in areas with the system decreased by 33 percent in New York City neighborhoods with high rates of shootings, five times the decrease in areas that lacked them.
The causes of and solutions to crime are notoriously difficult to pin down, but most experts agree that the upending of normal society caused by the pandemic had an undeniable effect on violent crime rates across the country. “A marginalized and isolated group who are at the highest risk of gun violence suddenly became even more marginalized and isolated,” said Thomas Abt, the director of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, a panel of academics and law enforcement actors who studied the effects of the pandemic on crime nationwide.
Abt, who is encouraged by the work of community nonprofits, said he is wary of funding them at the expense of police budgets. “No city has successfully arrested its way out of violent crime, but no city has successfully programmed it’s way out of violent crime either,” he said. “We need police and community-based groups working together, not competing for funding.”
Yet that kind of competition is playing out right now between the Cure Violence groups themselves, who must apply for crucial funding from the city. Organizations who serve the same neighborhoods are sometimes pitted against each other for a finite pool of resources.
“The system makes us fight each other for pennies,” said Camara Jackson, the CEO of Elite Learners, Inc., which offers a range of after-school programs, test-prep classes, and mentorship opportunities for children in Brownsville and Flatbush, in addition to anti-violence initiatives. “That doesn’t happen with the NYPD. The 73rd Precinct doesn’t have to fight the 75th Precinct for money.”
Jackson started Elite in 2016 with three employees. Now she has 22 full-time workers and a budget of just under a million dollars. She described the current setup as a kind of paradox. The city is entrusting community organizations with the perilous and immense challenge of driving down gun violence, even as they are still treated like a temporary pilot program. Trends in crime are best measured by years, if not decades, but every shooting can be used as a sign that the experiment is failing.
“Disgraceful the amount of people shot in Manhattan North in the past 24 hours! Where are the elected officials and violence interupter!! [sic]” one NYPD commander tweeted last summer during a surge in shootings. “The community is suffering!!
Anti-violence programs can’t address the structural problems in historically poor neighborhoods that make their work necessary in the first place. New York City’s public-housing authority needs tens of billions in capital repairs, and public schools are still deeply segregated.
“When we say we need resources, we don’t mean just give us money. That’s not the answer,” says Pastor Gil Monrose, who leads the 67th Precinct Clergy Council, a clergy-led anti-violence group in Flatbush whose members are called the GodSquad. “If you look at the map of Brooklyn for the past 30 years — the 67, 73, 75, have always been the deadliest precincts for the past 30 years. Nothing has changed.”
Late last summer, NYPD leadership replaced the commanding officer of the 73rd Precinct in Brownsville after he watched his subordinate shove a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Deputy Inspector Terrell Anderson’s appointment got a lot of press: He grew up in the neighborhood, his family lived in public housing for a time, and he pledged to work with the community. “He believes in us,” Jackson said. “He respects us.”
Many anti-violence workers see the NYPD as necessary partners. “There are dangerous people out in the streets, and the police are definitely needed,” Scriven said.
At the same time, the NYPD pursues its own parallel strategy of courting communities with highly publicized basketball tournaments, cookouts, and karaoke nights. To some, these efforts seem like a kind of performative box-checking that masks an unwillingness or inability to make real connections with the people they are supposed to serve.
Anthony Green, who works for Jackson’s Elite, seemed less sure of Anderson’s impact. “I see him doing certain things, but getting to the root of the problem? I don’t see it,” Green said. “I haven’t seen it yet. I don’t see no radical change.” Later, walking through NYCHA’s Howard Houses, he elaborated. “Some of these cops come into the projects like this,” he said, holding an imaginary gun out of a holster, at the ready. “They need to start talking first and then do things differently. They’re still doing the same thing. And they think they’re gonna get different results. It’s impossible.” The NYPD did not respond to repeated requests to speak to someone at the 73rd Precinct.
NeQuan McLean, a lifelong Bed-Stuy resident and community-education leader, said he was struck by the NYPD’s public response to a fatal shooting in his neighborhood in May. “We watched the police that were assigned to the area just stand there with their cell phones for an hour,” McLean said. “Not engaging with the community, not talking about what’s happening, not doing anything but standing there on their cell phones.”
McLean’s 22-year-old nephew Shyhiem was shot and killed in a bodega on his block this past October. An 18-year-old man has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder. “The same night my nephew got killed, a police van was there, and two more people were shot. One of the young ladies is now paralyzed,” McLean said. “The presence of police has not worked in neighborhoods like ours.”
Two days after a mid-June shooting in Flatbush, members of the GodSquad fanned out at the intersection of Newkirk and Rogers Avenues, near where a young man had been shot. The shooting at this particular corner hadn’t been fatal, but the GodSquad was there to remind residents that they don’t have to accept gun violence as part of their everyday lives. Members wore bright-orange T-shirts and passed out masks and palm cards as pastors took turns on a bullhorn. “This is not normal!” one thundered. “These shootings are not normal!”
Samuel Newallo, a welder, said he was on the block when the shooting happened, and that it seemed completely random, down to the bystander who got hit. “The guys with guns, they don’t care about this,” he said while drinking a post-shift beer outside a bodega. Newallo, who is originally from Trinidad, said he has lost “a lot” of friends to gun violence, people who sold drugs and couldn’t stop until it caught up with them.
“Once I’m living on the streets, I’m living on the streets full tug. You think you’re gonna watch me? I’m gonna pass you and I’m gonna do my own shit,” Newallo said. “You put a cop on every corner, you think that’s gonna stop crime?”
After the GodSquad van pulled away, a man on crutches walked into the bodega and came out sipping a juice. He was the one hit in the shooting. “I’m an educated Black man. I’m far from gangsta,” said the man, who asked for his name not to be used. “I’m everything they tell you to be. And this still happened.”
Asked what he thought should be done about the rise in shootings, he immediately replied: “Bring back stop and frisk.” The man paused. “That’s my emotional response, though.”