Originally instituted to help dampen the murder rate in Birmingham, the Violence Reduction Initiative (VRI) has recently come under fire by members of the community who are questioning whether it works or if it’s the wrong solution.
The VRI, which started in 2015 with the goal to end or reduce violence in Birmingham, was based on a model designed by David Kennedy, a former Harvard criminologist. The program was adapted for other cities, such as Chicago and Baltimore, who have used the program and seen a decrease in violence.
The program uses association as a means of identifying potential criminals, essentially heading off violence before it happens. For instance, using the VRI, police will zero in on all members of a gang, in an attempt to keep any single member with a previous record from committing crimes again.
Dr. Jarralynne Agee, director of the VRI, explained the initiative as “an inter-organizational network designed to empower citizens to avoid criminal activities, de-escalate conflicts that lead to violence, and save lives. The goal of VRI is to end the cyclic nature of violence by cultivating positive community engagement, promoting accountability through clear expectations, providing resources to support change and creating avenues through which one can live, more than simply survive.”
In a Weld story in 2015, proponents said the VRI was not a panacea, but that it had been known to work in other places. “Other communities that have done this effectively have had up to a 40 percent reduction in homicides,” said Chris Nanni, CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. “When you look at the [Department of Justice] data on programs that have been effective, this sits at the top of the pinnacle of ones that are most promising for reducing violent crime.”
In fact, the program has been successfully exported from Boston, where it began, to many other places in the country with funding from the Department of Justice. “It’s been in about 50 or 60 cities since the mid to late ‘90s and they’ve had tremendous success,” Nanni said.
In Birmingham, though, the voices raising hope for the VRI have been joined by those condemning it. At the Birmingham City Council meeting on January 31, a group of citizens called for the abolishment of the VRI, claiming it is unconstitutional and that it traumatizes members of the community.
“The purpose of the initiative is to create safer communities, but it’s at the expense of our black community,” said community activist Carlos Chaverst.
Chaverst called it unconstitutional, because in his words, “You can’t arrest someone you didn’t see commit a crime.” He contends that under the VRI, that is exactly what happens.
“Recently in Pratt City, the police were told that there [was] some heroin and different kinds of drugs on Third Street, which caused the police to go in and raid that area,” Chaverst said. According to Chaverst, the incident unfolded this way: Police helicopters and armored vehicles came looking for a man who had gotten out of prison 45 days earlier. Once they arrived at the home, they didn’t find drugs but two handguns that belonged to the man in question. Since he wasn’t there, the police arrested the man’s younger brother and another individual associated with him. And, according to Chaverst, all of this was done under the VRI.
Birmingham Police spokesman Lt. Sean Edwards refused to comment for this story, or to forward a request for comment to Chief A.C. Roper.
Avee-Ashanti Shabazz, with the organization New Era Birmingham (NEB), agrees with Chaverst, claiming that the VRI promotes the militarization of the local police force.
“They openly admitted that was the VRI,” Shabazz said. “The person whose home they targeted was part of the web, the grouping, not the person who was called in, not the person of interest. So … they came into their homes and their communities with a tank, with a helicopter, with a SWAT team, with militarized police, … because someone who he may not even know has done something and he’s been grouped with him,” said Shabazz.
“The people who are buying into it aren’t reading the actual language that’s in the initiative,” Shabazz added. “Once the people are grouped together, if the person who was made to come in goes out and commits a crime, then the initiative says that they will take everybody in that group and they will put a microscope — this is the language — they will put a microscope over their lives and look for anything they can find wrong. That’s criminalization. Then they will prosecute all of them to the maximum that is afforded to them by law.”
Such public outcry raises questions about VRI’s effectiveness and appropriateness in Birmingham.
According to Agee, “Other cities have seen a reduction in [violence] within two years of implementing the strategy. We haven’t reached that two-year mark yet to say if we have reached our goals. An immediate reduction in homicides is what we are working towards on the way to our ultimate goal.
“What I have heard is relief from community members who feel like the violence and homicide rate is exploited for media clicks. People are living under a real threat to their lives and there have been very little proactive conversations about what they want,” Agee said. “I meet with people who are most at-risk for being involved with violence every day. What they ask for is support, protection and understanding. The VRI has been in the communities and in the homes of people who have been shot or have been shooters. We give them all the same message: ‘We care about you and we want you safe, alive, and out of prison.’”
In other places
Authorities in Baltimore implemented a version of the VRI under its Youth Violence Prevention Program (YVPP) about three years ago and saw it working almost immediately, said Dr. Phil Leaf, who heads the program. “With the Safe Streets Program, we noticed they worked right away because we’d go months without seeing a shooting,” he said.
Following the same script developed by Kennedy as Birmingham, Leaf said Baltimore’s implementation involved much community involvement. Prior to their YVPP being put in place, some of their communities would have such high levels of shootings that people in the communities were starting to think there wasn’t anything they could do to help, he said.
“They were afraid to go outside. They were afraid to let their kids go outside and play. The shooting stopped, the people realized they had gone one month, two months, three months without a shooting and started thinking, ‘Maybe there is something I can do,’” explained Leaf.
But he also saw this fear turn around quickly. Six months into it, Baltimore saw attitudes changing.
“We were amazed at how powerful not having violence in their neighborhood is. They’re not trying to kill people because it’s the best thing to do. They think they have to do this either to maintain their reputation, because they’re carrying a gun, because they think the other guy has a gun,” Leaf said. “We approached it from a public health perspective. If you’re carrying a gun, and you’re dealing drugs and things, there’s a high likelihood there may be a shooting. If there’s disputes, they know the gang leaders. Sometimes you have to crawl behind the fences to call off the gang. And that’s what the mediators do.”
In Birmingham, Shabazz said he sees a similar fear in the community — but not necessarily fear of other people living in a given neighborhood. He believes that the VRI is exacting a high cost on the psychology of the people living in the area and again referred to the Pratt City incident as an example.
“How does that affect the community? How does that affect the children? It’s psychological. They see this type of activity; a helicopter literally landed on the block,” he said.
“It’s making children feel like they’re in a warzone,” said another NEB member, Monique Jordan.“To live in an environment where you see tanks and SWAT gear, even though they may not understand that initially, psychologically, every child that is raised in that environment will have [negative] psychological effects.”
So what should be done about the VRI?
Shabazz said that a grassroots movement like NEB could be the solution to knocking out violent crime in Birmingham. Including people from the community to help those who are currently being impacted by the VRI could be the solution, he said.
Shabazz said that NEB targets crime from a ground level, going to the same people the VRI is targeting, explaining that, “we’re coming at them and showing them there’s another way.”
In the 2015 Weld story, proponents of the VRI contended that it already has both a community connection, and elements designed to show people at risk of offending that there is another way.
For instance, at the call-in, the VRI quarterly event that brings people at risk in to talk to law enforcement officers, those who show up also hear from what VRI calls “the voice of redemption” — an ex-offender who has remained out of trouble; “the voice of pain” — a victim or survivor who can tell about what violence has done in in his or her life; and “the voice of hope,” usually a minister focused on encouraging a better way of life.
A community-oriented approach can help, Leaf said, noting that in Baltimore, the program includes community members who are ex-convicts, who have come out of prison and have turned their lives around, who mentor others who are newly out of jail.
“We did a lot of work for finding jobs for folks and giving them support in terms of the adjustment, so we start working with them before they come back [into the community],” Leaf said. “We have a large number of incarcerated people. At least every week we have one person coming back home. So [we had to ask], ‘How can we ease that transition so they have some positive support?’
“That’s where having those models where we have this number of different components is important; the workers really don’t directly work with the police. The directors of the program talk to the police, but they don’t share information about these people.”
There has to be a thread of trust, Leaf said. “If I tell you something, it stays with you, or it stays with someone who’s going to help me. I’m not worried about some previous thing I did is going to come back and haunt me now,” he said. “These people have gotten credibility with police and police commissioners because they’ve seen crimes and crime rates go down with this area. It’s not an un-tense relationship by nature, but it’s a relationship where you recognize you have to have multiple pieces to this solution. What are going to be the supports we can turn to?”
Leaf said that while the police have their role in the process of reducing crime, “if the person doesn’t have money and can’t afford food or clothing or housing they need someone in between government that they can trust to step in. How do you support this positive infrastructure? You have these people who have turned their lives around — they were in the drug field — who are now having a business where they’re mentoring these people because they are able to relate to them.”
Relating to the people affected by or involved by criminal activity is a requirement to make a difference in their lives, Leaf said: “If you’re not dealing with the trauma these people are dealing with themselves, unless you’re recognizing that they’re hurting, it’s hard to turn around neighborhoods and cities.”