New York Times—’Interrupters’ Peek at Social Media to Stop Street Violence


by Jan Ransom (@Jan_Ransom)
January 21, 2018  —  read original story

In one Facebook post, two teenage boys posed in a photo with handguns on each of their laps.

In another, a group of young men threatened to attack another man whom they believed had cooperated with detectives investigating a string of robberies.

In each case, someone beyond family and immediate friends was watching.

Those extra eyes belonged to workers trained in mediating conflicts and mentoring at-risk young people.

Felix Polanco, program supervisor of True2Life, at work in his office in the Central Family Life Center in Staten Island. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times/

In the situation involving threats, workers learned that the young man who had been threatened had actually not assisted the police, so they reached out and told the men who were making the threats. In an instant the conflict was resolved.

“The kid’s life was in danger. We cleared his name,” said Felix Polanco, a program supervisor at True2Life, a Cure Violence group at Central Family Life Center on Staten Island. “Our job is to save lives.”

But stopping crime is as tricky online as it is on the streets. In the case of the boys with the guns, a worker reached out to the father of one boy — whom he knew personally — and the picture came down. But the boy ended up getting shot a week later.

The workers who jumped into these simmering online situations are known as “violence interrupters” and their interventions were part of an initiative known as E-Responder. Its goal is to identify and de-escalate social media conflicts before they erupt into violence on the street.

The program, developed by the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City in partnership with New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development, was first tested in 2016. It expanded a year ago.

Under the program, the violence interrupters spend at least two hours a day monitoring social media for signs of risky behavior, like threats of violence, photos with weapons or expressions of grief or emotional stress, Mr. Polanco said. They focus on people ages 16 to 25. If an alarming post or photo is found, a worker reaches out to the young person.

During the pilot program, youth workers interrupted 154 social media feuds; more than half were described as medium or high risk, according to the Citizens Crime Commission.

In all last year, the city’s Cure Violence sites — organizations that treat violence as a public health concern — intervened in 5,273 street and online conflicts, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which maintains the data. The agency did not have data on what percentage were online interventions. The Citizens Crime Commission is currently working to compile that data.

On Staten Island, True2Life interrupters focus their outreach on youth in parts of Mariners Harbor and Stapleton, where nearly a third of the residents live below the poverty level, according to a New York City Department of Planning 2016 report.

Michael Perry, 37, a violence interrupter and program supervisor at True2Life, came of age in the 1990s in the Richmond Terrace Development, 10 minutes from Stapleton, where he sold drugs, carried firearms, was arrested, had friends felled by gun violence and was nearly killed himself. It was where — when Mr. Perry was 9 years old — his father, who peddled drugs to feed his own addiction, was stabbed to death in a drug feud. Ultimately, Mr. Perry, now a father of two, also found redemption there after praying for a way out.

Demetrius S. Carolina, (left) executive director of Central Family Life Center, and Mike Perry, supervisor of the True2Life program, look at a map of the Staten Island neighborhoods where they have implemented an anti-violence model that involves monitoring social media sites popular with teens and young adults. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times.

Since joining True2Life four years ago, Mr. Perry has tried to lead by example, telling young people engaged in violence and risky behavior that they too can change. In the two years since the pilot launched, Mr. Perry said he intervened in up to 60 online fights that could have led to violence.

Most social media interventions — 97 percent — performed during the pilot in 2016 had positive outcomes, according to the Citizens Crime Commission.

To assist in sorting through hundreds of social media posts, the Citizens Crime Commission is awaiting approval from Facebook to use software they developed that will review, analyze and provide real-time alerts about posts containing violent language.

But for now the workers manually browse through social media profiles and, at times, other young people alert them to potentially dangerous messages and photos.

It was Mr. Perry who spotted the photo on Facebook of the two teenage boys with firearms in May. He recognized one of them as the son of a childhood friend. A week after the disturbing post, the boy was shot in the leg. Mr. Perry visited him at the hospital and has stayed in contact with him. He hopes that in time he can steer the teenager away from a seemingly violent path.

“You don’t go preaching, you build relationships and bond with them,” he said. “It takes time.”

From 2012 to 2015, at least 240 shootings and 24 homicides in New York City started as arguments on social media, according to the Citizens Crime Commission, which examined indictments during that period.

“People who feel they’ve been disrespected on social media will take it to the streets,” said Jeff Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who has evaluated violence prevention programs in New York. “It’s about pride and respect.”

Similarly, during that same time more than 700 people were indicted based on evidence found on their social media pages.

Young people commonly use social media to threaten their rivals, and online feuds can lead to retaliation, experts said.

“It’s not just about identifying posts,” said Desmond U. Patton, an assistant professor of social work at Columbia University and director of SAFE Lab , a research initiative that analyzes the way in which minority youth in Chicago navigate violence on and offline, “but about how do you take what you want from social media and help people be good stewards of social media?”

Mr. Patton began studying the intersection of social media and street violence six years ago after the shooting death of aspiring Chicago rapper Joseph Coleman, 18, formerly known as Lil Jojo. Mr. Coleman was killed in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago after a war of words over social media with several rival rappers including Chief Keef.

Stephanie Ueberall, director of violence prevention at the Citizens Crime Commission, said E-Responder includes a 12-week youth leadership program that encourages participants to engage in positive social media exchanges and activism, while teaching them self-empowerment and how to express and manage their emotions.

“Social media can greatly accelerate violence,” Ueberall said. “A lot of them don’t have the direction or support they need to get into a healthy lifestyle. The main task is to change the way they think.”