Once part of the problem, this Philly man is looking for solutions to city’s gun violence plague

With no end in sight, these self-styled ‘interrupters’ are looking to stop violence before it happens

By: - August 23, 2021 12:06 pm

Dawud Bey, of Philadelphia, says he’s a ‘credible messenger,’ whose job it is to ‘step up,’ and stop potential shooters before the violence happens (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

By Dwight Ott

PHILADELPHIA — Dawud Bey was once known on the streets as a so-called “shooter.”

At one time he was one of the people authorities blamed for driving up the kill rate of Black-on-Black homicides, especially in South Philadelphia.

Though he was never convicted of any homicides, police alleged he was part of a group that got what they wanted by terrorizing neighborhoods in that area of the city.

Bey won’t talk about any possible killings that could be tied to him, but now that he is out of jail, he said he understands what caused some of those on the streets to pull the trigger.

Today, Bey — who is not ashamed to say he served time in prison for his crimes — says he is a “changed man.”

With the recent upsurge in gun violence in Philadelphia, Bey — once part of the problem — said he believes men like him could be part of the solution.

He contends that his own experiences qualify him to be what is being called these days a “credible messenger,” whose job it is to “step to” those who may be “shooters” to “interrupt” them from shooting someone before the crime actually happens.

This work may not be the science-fiction work of the “pre-cogs” in the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report” butit sounds almost as challenging.

As part of the ongoing city anti-gun violence campaign, he and an associate, Darryl Shuler, have co-founded an interrupter organization called Put It Down. The group is designed to curb gun violence.

By using “interrupters,” the organization hopes to function like human circuit breakers that interrupt the path of gun violence in city neighborhoods before the violence starts.

The organization is part of an array of community-based programs being looked at by the city administration to stem the violence.

Right now it appears that these “interrupters” or “credible messengers” are among the best bets for President Joe Biden’s call for innovative solutions to a problem that has defied solution.

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Though the road ahead seems to belong to this new breed of crime stopper, Mayor Jim Kenney himself is in a non-violent shootout with residents over how much effort he is putting into funding for the city’s efforts by his refusal to declare a gun violence state of emergency in Philadelphia similar to that declared in New York.

The mayor’s critics claim that by not declaring an emergency he is limiting the city’s options in fighting gun violence. But Kenney said he feels he already has enough funding to fight the crisis.

The mayor contends a declaration would make little difference in the current battle against city gun violence.

Meanwhile, the battle being waged on the streets by the interrupters, with or without the emergency declaration, goes on.

Support for the community-based interrupters seemed to have gotten a nod from Biden himself. In a statement urging states to draw on the $350 billion in assistance in American Rescue Plan funds, Biden also included a memo to state and local officials from the White House advising them to invest in “evidence-based community violence interventions” and pointed to several cities that have already earmarked some of their share of the aid for violence interruption programs.

“When we utilize trusted community members and encourage more community policing, we can intervene before the violence erupts,” Biden said. “And community violence intervention programs have been shown to reduce crime in some cities by up to 60 percent.”

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The role of the interrupters — that is, stopping gun violence before it starts — has been made more “iffy” by the speed of the internet carrying messages back and forth at lightning pace between internet-savvy teens and young adults who some say are a new brand of criminal.

Such social media messages can be like kerosene poured on a taciturn community already inflamed by lack of trust in police. They are in a state of siege in Philadelphia, hunkered down between the shooters and the images of high-profile police brutality and racism.

Bey said the internet creates a new element in the community which make the streets extremely slippery for the old-time gumshoe work that detectives used to use.

The speed required — sometimes “zero seconds,” as Bey put it — along with the necessary knowledge of the neighborhoods required to ferret out information, may explain why the program has had to risk recruiting men like Bey and Shuler, who, even with their backgrounds — or maybe because of their backgrounds — are being relied upon as outreach workers, similar to those recruited during health crises like Ebola and AIDS to track down spreaders.

In many cases those fighting diseases like AIDS in Africa had to recruit people recovering from the disease to help track down and rehabilitate others with the disease. And increasingly, gun violence is being viewed as just that — a disease.

Some say that this new view of gun violence — as a disease — may be one of the biggest solutions to come out of the current gun violence crisis, along with the recognition of a new approach to what the commander of the 22nd Police District, Nashid Akil, called a “new style of criminal.”

But even with the slipperiness and celerity of the streets, these new-style “disease chasers” seem to be getting results.

One interrupter recently told The Philadelphia Tribune of removing a gun from a shooter’s hand as the shooter was on his way to commit a homicide.

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Still another group of interrupters was reported to have drawn up a “truce”‘ between two internet posters — an effort that may have prevented a shootout between the two.

Because such interrupter programs have had to rely on those infected with the “violence disease,” to seek out and change the mindset of shooters, sometimes those recruited — like Bey and his partner Darryl Shuler — have either had brushes with the law or served time for breaking the law.

Shuler is a former party promoter and alleged drug dealer and Bey’s father was the head of an urban gang known as the Black Mafia, thought to have been responsible for as many as 40 deaths in Philadelphia during its active period between 1968 and the early 1980s.

Some of what has been called Bey’s “criminogenic” background is recounted in the book “Black Brothers Inc.: The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Black Mafia.”

Bey and Shuler are part of an “in group” that experts have said is necessary to gain community trust in the fight against the spread of gun violence disease.

Though only time can tell of the effectiveness of their future efforts, for the time being, these unorthodox crime stoppers seem to be gaining the confidence of elected officials and even some in law enforcement, although the results are said to be hard to evaluate.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser has reportedly hired 52 new violence interrupters with part of the more than $15 million of America Rescue Plan (ARP) funds that have been earmarked for community violence prevention.

One news account pointed to the following successes in community-oriented anti-violence efforts:

• Chicago’s CeaseFire program found a dramatic drop in shootings and gang-related homicides in neighborhoods where violence interrupters were deployed, according to a 2008 study. But the report conceded that the city and the nation experienced an overall decline in violence in the same period, making it hard to determine if other factors were at work as well.

• Baltimore’s Safe Streets program saw a 56% drop in violence in some neighborhoods after the launch of the program, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

• In Richmond, California, with an Advance Peace Program that included fellowships for young men involved in firearm offenses, the city saw a 66% in firearm assaults resulting in injury or death. Of the 84 fellows in the program between 2010 and 2015, less than 25% became involved again in suspected firearm activity.

• Cure Violence, a group that launched out of Chicago’s CeaseFire violence interruption initiative in the 1990s, has expanded its work around the world, including cities in Iraq, Africa and South America. Most recently, it has reported significant declines in homicides and violent crime in targeted neighborhoods in Colombia and in Trinidad and Tobago.

• New York City’s Cure Violence programs found shootings and gun injuries dropped in two neighborhoods where such programs were in place between 2013 and 2017, according to an evaluation led by Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Researchers also saw a steep decline in support for using violence to resolve disputes among young adult males in the treatment areas.

“Five states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, and New York — have invested in violence intervention and prevention programs and have experienced reductions in firearm violence within state-funded program sites,” said Lauren Footman, director of outreach and equity for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

• A 2018 study published by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence estimated a $2 million investment in a violence reduction program in Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts, resulted in $15 million in savings from a decrease in crime. The study credited similar programs in New York and Connecticut with helping to drive down their gun homicide rates between 2010 and 2016 while national rates were rising.

An analysis of Philadelphia’s CeaseFire program by experts at Temple University found a 30% decline in gun violence.

The organization treats gun violence in urban areas like a disease, a public health trauma, according to director Marla Davis Bellamy.

In a recent interview, she said Black homicides and gun violence are not a new phenomenon but they have reached an unheard-of level of intensity during the pandemic.

Bellamy said CeaseFire in the Pennsylvania area began when then-Gov. Ed Rendell convened officials to try to do something about the problem.

“Pennsylvania had the highest Black homicide rate in the country,” she said. She said during that period, over a decade ago, CeaseFire Pennsylvania was brought in and replicated from the Chicago model.

“Violence is learned behavior,” said Bellamy, “learned growing up in a household or community in which they are over-exposed to violence. They tend to be more violent if [violence] is the norm in the household and the community. We’re living in a time when violence in responding to disputes is the norm. Commonplace.”

Dr. Gary Slutkin, an infectious disease specialist, is the founder of Cure Violence Global (formerly known as CeaseFire), an organization that pioneered interrupters and whose violence prevention model is used in cities like Chicago and New York.

Slutkin has indicated in interviews, lectures and writings that he believes violence spreads like a disease, and is in fact a disease, “because something common is being transmitted, likely involving common intermediate brain pathways. The different ‘types’ of violence should be called syndromes of the same violence disease.”

Slutkin puts an old saying — “violence begets violence” — in a new light since he believes violence begets violence in the same way flu begets flu and tuberculosis begets tuberculosis and AIDS begets AIDS.

“Exposure to violence increases the likelihood that the exposed person will commit violence, that is, to become a perpetrator,” he has said.

While some local elected officials have contended that poverty, segregation and the prevalence of guns are the causes of gun violence, Slutkin in his low-keyed, understated way disagreed in a response to a critic.

He said he believed the actual cause of gun violence has yet to be determined, but that like other diseases it begins with an individual “infected,” a shooter who spreads the violence disease. He said he believes the disease somehow changes the structure of the brain.

But he added that while poverty and segregation may not be direct causes, they are “risk factors” in the development of the disease, and the disease and others are more likely in places where such factors exist. Those exposed to these factors are more “susceptible” to gun violence as well as other diseases, he said.

Slutkin’s view that the “violence disease” somehow changes the structure of the brain seems to ring a bell with some of the interrupters and at least one police officer.

“This is the most uncaring generation I’ve ever seen,” said an older outreach worker.

“They have no regard for human life,” said a Black police officer, who did not want to be identified.

Bey said some of the quick interactions between victims and perpetrators can be attributed to the speed of technology and how reflexive social media is in people’s lives. He said names and insults can be tossed back and forth in an instant, igniting a response, enhancing the chance for a “beef” to turn deadly.

Bey, said the interval for some retaliatory shootings fueled by social media can be extremely short, accelerated by the lightning fast technology. One has to know the streets.

As Capt. Nashid Akill of the 22nd District put it: “There’s a new style of criminal on the street for which you need a new approach.” Saying that everyone wanted to be a “tough guy” or enhance their “rep” or ego online, he exhibited a cell phone tape showing pictures from social media of a dirt bike rally at Aramingo and Cottman in which dirt bike riders circled a dead man’s body taking pictures to display on the internet.

The cellphone video showed the riders circling the body slowly while blood oozed from a hole in the man’s head where he had been shot during a reported drag race.

During the circular procession, one rider got off his bike, walked through the circle of bikes and casually removed a pistol from the dead man’s waistband. The dead man’s dirt bike was reportedly also taken.

Akil said that when he first spotted the video, he thought it was in a foreign country. He also showed another video of bystanders videotaping a double homicide as the bodies lay sprawled in the street. He said those on cellphones, on both occasions, seemed more concerned about getting good shots for the cell phone movies, rather than rendering assistance.

He said the streets used to raise some youth when families failed. Now, he said, the internet and social media are raising the youth. He agreed it was like “Lord of the Flies.” The difference is that guns give them the power to enforce the values of their worlds.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has said her department monitors social media because it has become important to crime solving.

Meanwhile the search for solutions for unwanted shootings in the city  continues.

“We need more violence interrupters, more outreach workers,” said Councilmember Jamie Gauthier.

Councilmember Curtis Jones has said the city needs a “Marshall Plan.”

Speakers at a meeting in June said the city, the poorest of the nation’s top 10 in population, needed to inspire an entrepreneurial spirit in Blacks in a city in which only 6% of the businesses with employees are Black-owned and where a quarter of the residents live in poverty.

One activist said youth in the city were “walking time bombs,” since they felt shut out by segregation, redlining, sub-prime loans, evictions, police brutality and many more hurdles.

Some leaders like Jamal Johnson, 46, a former Marine who fasted 26 days on the steps of City Hall to get the mayor to sign a pledge on gun violence, say the solution must come from the community itself.

Johnson is now walking to Washington, D.C., to bring attention to the nation’s surge in gun violence

“Black men must step up!” he has said over and over, even as he carried signs time after time at murder scenes.

“People have to take their neighborhoods back,” said Akil. He said they should cooperate with police and pass on tips to police. He said no names were necessary.

Dwight Ott is a correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared

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