Can you put a price on a life taken by gun violence? That’s the $36M question.


September 10, 2019
Noah Goldberg

Organizers with SOS Bed-Stuy marched from Herbert Von King Park to Restoration Plaza to mark the end of gun violence awareness month. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg

At a City Council hearing Monday on gun violence, Donovan Richards — the councilmember who chairs of the Committee on Public Safety — asked a yes-or-no question: is $36 million allocated by the city government to neighborhood anti-gun violence groups enough?

The executive director of the mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence, Eric Cumberbatch, answered. “We’re in the business of preventing shootings, and ultimately preventing murders, so you can’t put a cost on the life of a person in New York City or anywhere else,” he said.

Cumberbatch’s office oversees the city’s Crisis Management System — a group of anti-gun violence organizations that get their funding largely from the de Blasio administration — about $34 million over the course of the last fiscal year. The organizations operate in 22 neighborhoods that account for more than half of the shootings citywide, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. On top of the $34 million from the Mayor’s Office, the groups received an additional $2 million from the City Council over the same period.

While the budget for the Crisis Management System has tripled since it was founded in 2014, leaders of some of its Brooklyn beneficiaries agree that more money is needed.

Cumberbatch’s assertion — that you can’t put a cost on life — may not be true, says Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The Center is currently working on research that evaluates the efficacy of Crisis Management System sites by tracking reduction in shootings and attaching specific dollar figures to those reductions to establish cost and benefit.

“People have tried to put a number on the cost of a death. If someone is shot — even injured — much less killed, there are policing costs,” Butts told the Brooklyn Eagle. “Someone has to show up to process the scene. There are prison costs for the shooter, and then all the other costs for family who have a person shot and or killed. There’s lifelong trauma, loss of income. You can actually estimate the total cost.”

Like many of the program leaders, Butts believes the Crisis Management System is effective, based on the research the Center has done, which shows that shootings decline in areas that have active anti-gun violence programs. Butts says the programs already offset the investment by the city and “essentially pay for themselves,” even if they are only responsible for stopping two or three shootings.

“They have enough of an effect to merit continued investment and, I would say, expanded investment,” Butts said.

“I’d say, 100 percent, that it’s not enough money,” said Shanduke McPhatter, director of the group Gangsta’s Making Astronomical Change in the Community, which operates two sites in Brooklyn — one in East Flatbush and one in Fort Greene.

Andre Mitchell (left), who runs anti-gun violence group Man Up! speaks at a march against gun violence July 29, 2019, just two days after two or more shooters left one dead and 11 others injured in a shooting at Brownsville’s Old Timer’s Day. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg

Like the other groups in the Crisis Management System, GMACC operates under the Cure Violence model, employing violence interrupters and outreach workers who are from the communities in which they work, many of whom have been in gangs or incarcerated themselves.

McPhatter served 12 years in prison and has been arrested more than 10 times, he testified at the hearing Monday.

His group gets $1.5 million from the city to hire violence interrupters and outreach workers at their two Brooklyn sites, but McPhatter says that in order to expand, GMACC needs a deeper investment. He imagines a future in which the group can provide mental health services for victims and shooters.

“For mental health, we get $40,000 per site. You can’t really do much with that,” McPhatter told the Eagle.

In Brownsville, Camara Jackson runs Elite Learners Inc., a Cure Violence group that contracts with the Crisis Management System and receives funding from the city, though it is not one of the 22 Crisis Management System sites. “We’re looking to become site number 23. We definitely need more money to support the Crisis Management System. We’re one of the newest programs,” Jackson said, arguing that expanded funding could help support newer groups like hers.

Jackson says that there’s no way for her to calculate exactly how much money is needed, and that she leaves it up to the mayor and Eric Cumberbatch with OPGV.

In Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, where the Crisis Management System group Save Our Streets operates, they’re able to do more mental health work through funds they get from non-government grants.

“Gun violence creates trauma for people in communities, whether that be the shooter or victims, or the community at large,” said Brian Cunningham, who runs SOS Bed-Stuy and SOS Crown Heights. “We’ve leveraged outside resources to fund social workers.”

Cunningham says that $36 million is not enough — but he’s hesitant to offer up a number that would be, because he believes services should be continually expanding.

“We need to do more, because the problem is crazy. It’s an enormous problem that needs an enormous response.”

When McPhatter and Cunningham speak about funding, they both make a comparison to the NYPD, which took in $5.6 billion from the city in 2019.

“We’ve had NYPD in our communities for years and the more money [the city] gives them doesn’t change the divide,” McPhatter said. “But the work we’ve been doing has eased the divide.”

“Police receive $5 billion in the budget — that’s across the city for policing — and Cure Violence is only $36 million,” Cunningham said. “It doesn’t have to be an and-or.”

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