MILWAUKEE — On a damp Sunday afternoon in a housing complex north of downtown, three women collapsed in an empty lot, wailing. An 18-year-old had been shot to death, one of at least 70 homicides in Milwaukee this year.
Police ducked in and out under crime scene tape, and news reporters talked with neighbors. Then a man in black track pants and a gray sweatshirt, the hood pulled up tight around his face, approached the family.
And over the next several hours, he and other field workers like him convinced the family of the 18-year-old that retaliating wouldn’t be worth it.
Milwaukee is in the middle of an experiment — one that St. Louis is about to start — that aims to prevent violence before it happens. The city has contracted with a national program called Cure Violence, based in Chicago, to hire and train residents in crisis intervention, among other techniques, betting that locals can better dissuade would-be shooters than cops or coroners.
Milwaukee’s program, which it calls 414LIFE, started in November 2018. The city invested $480,000; nonprofits donated the rest of the $600,000 budget, which largely pays for the salaries of 10 field workers, or “interrupters,” and one director. They focus efforts in two crime-prone neighborhoods: Garden Homes and Old North Milwaukee, but try to respond in some way to shootings citywide.
The interest here started in 2015, when Milwaukee, along with the rest of the country, saw a spike in homicides.
“The community rightfully asked what the hell are we doing about this,” said Reggie Moore, director of the Milwaukee Office of Violence Prevention.
St. Louis, after an especially violent summer which has seen 13 children shot and killed, is now on the edge of starting its own Cure Violence program.
The city approved $500,000 for the program earlier this year, plus $1.5 million for violence prevention in September. Aldermen voted on Friday to greenlight $5 million more, specifically for Cure Violence.
But all are not convinced in Milwaukee. Some residents say the shootings are continuing.
And research on the subject has been mixed.
“I’m a big fan. I think it’s a very valuable asset for a community to have,” said Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research Evaluation Center at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who has observed Cure Violence programs in New York, New Orleans and Philadelphia.
“But it’s definitely possible to do it poorly.”
In Baltimore, a 2012 study showed statistically significant improvements in gun violence in three of four neighborhoods.
But a more comprehensive follow-up released in January 2018 demonstrated less of an impact. Three of seven sites — more had opened over the years — were shut down after disappointing results.
Daniel Webster, a professor of American health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it’s a good thing that St. Louis is investing in Cure Violence, but cautioned that the method has limitations. Other, longer-term services should be offered to ensure success, he said.
“Look at things like what New York City is doing, where they took Cure Violence and really kind of built it out,” said Webster, who co-authored the Baltimore studies.
Webster also said that Cure Violence tended to do better in geographically isolated neighborhoods, such as Baltimore’s Cherry Hill. “Most of the violence that occurs in Cherry Hill is, in essence, internal in nature,” Webster said. Other neighborhoods attract outsiders — but Cure Violence staff “don’t have relationships with these other individuals coming in from other areas.”
And he believes working with police — interrupters in Milwaukee don’t — can benefit the program’s effectiveness, even if it’s just a one-way flow of information from police to Cure Violence staff.
‘I’m ready to move’
Last Monday, on the seventh floor of a high rise building in north Milwaukee, a group of men in 414LIFE T-shirts sat around a conference table discussing a spate of weekend shootings, and progress made toward preventing further bloodshed.
One of them, Ray Mendoza, a former higher-up member of the street gang the Latin Kings, said he knew the family of an 18-year-old killed on Sunday.
“I went to check the temperature with them,” Mendoza said.
But Mendoza also knew the circumstances of this shooting. The teen had broken into the home, police said. So when Mendoza visited the family, he laid it out plain:
“I told them, ‘He went in there and bought that. I understand it hurts. It’s family,'” Mendoza said. “But he went in there to rob them.”
The interrupters have to have street credibility in order to get high-risk individuals to listen to them and respect what they have to say. Many have criminal records, and know what it’s like to experience violence-related trauma.
Bernard “Bud” Carpenter is the perfect example. He’s had two stints in prison and survived two bullets to the head. And that past, he believes, has allowed him to reach angry residents before they commit crimes. He once stopped a young man on his way to avenge a cousin’s death — and took the man’s gun straight out of his hand.
Other 414LIFE staff members take a different route: Tonia Liddell, the program’s hospital respondent, meets bereaved families at the hospital, calms them down, mediates tensions with hospital security and calls for an interrupter, immediately, if retaliation is discussed.
Last Monday, after the staff meeting, several interrupters drove to a residential area on the north side of town near the Oasis bar and lounge, where a man was shot and injured early Sunday. The violence interrupters walked onto each porch and left a door hanger with information about 414LIFE mediation services and additional resources.
“This is in our target area,” interrupter Chris Conley said. The shooting, he said, “happened at the club over there, but the entire community is affected and traumatized. We want to let them know that the entire community hasn’t failed because of one knucklehead. So we’ll knock on doors.”
The men chat with residents about their lives, and people tell them gunfire is a constant problem.
“I’m ready to move,” Jimmy Harris said. He tells his four children to drop to the ground when gunfire breaks out. “There’s too much of that going on every weekend.”
Conley handed Harris a 414LIFE contact card and told him to give them a call.
‘Save this community’
By 414LIFE’s count, its interrupters have stopped 66 conflicts since their start in November 2018.
Still, it’s difficult to measure success so early.
Homicides here have dropped 15% and non-fatal shootings 21%, year-to-date. In Garden Homes, the 414LIFE neighborhood, homicides have fallen 80% — from five to one.
The Milwaukee Police Department — which says it has “no opinion” on the effectiveness of 414LIFE — says its own crime-reduction methods deserve some credit. And data suggest they’re right: Homicides through September have dropped over the past two years, from 92 in 2017, to 81 in 2018, to 70 this year.
Some north Milwaukee residents, however, said they don’t believe enough is being done.
“It’s scary. I have to call my kids every second to make sure they’re on the bus,” Tiffany Allen said on Monday from behind her screen door. She lives in the Garden Homes, and has seen multiple police chases speed past her home. “My parents never worried about me being shot at the bus stop or going to the corner store.”
“I wish that someone could save this community,” she said.
Jerome King was walking down his block picking up trash. He’s lived in the area since 1985, and has heard of 414LIFE. But he also said that any program can only do so much.
“It’s this new generation,” King said. “If everybody were to take charge of their young people at home, we could steer this generation right.”
Dan Teague said he lives in a safer part of town, but sometimes washes his work uniform at a laundromat up north, near where a 56-year-old man was killed in August. The area is just south of 414LIFE’s target area.
“The shootings seem to have gone up,” Teague said. “It used to be once or twice a week.”
“And now,” he said, “it seems like it’s every night.”