PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND
The Real Deal
[Network Members: Please go to Networking to view further video recordings of presentations from this Peer Exchange.]
The Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence and the Providence police department hosted the National Network for Safe Communities’ first Peer Exchange, welcoming ten law enforcement and community leaders from five National Network Leadership Group jurisdictions eager to observe, learn from, and adopt the unique partnership that has grown organically over the past few years between the police department and the Institute’s Streetworker Program.
With what Peer Exchange participants lauded as “unusual transparency, authenticity and integrity,” leaders and staff of the Institute and the police department presented and discussed their joint approach to reducing gang and youth violence in Providence. Visitors spent the first part of their two-day visit at the Institute’s headquarters, located in the city’s South Side amid its poorest and most violent neighborhoods. Executive Director Teny Gross outlined and explained the Institute’s organization, structure and philosophy—rooted in Dr. Martin Luther King’s ideal of building a Beloved Community—while staff presented overviews of its five key programs: Nonviolence Training; Streetworker Program; Youth Programs; Victim Support Services; and Juvenile Reentry.
Gross explained that the nonviolence philosophy serves as the organizing principle for all of the Institute’s activities. For its Streetworker Program this means equipping staff members with a set of skills and tools that they can apply in practice when engaging gang members or dealing with the many complexities of the street. “We cannot just tell people to stop fighting. We have to be able to give them a reason to,” one of the Streetworkers told the group. Three of the program’s eleven Streetworkers explained in detail to the visitors how their professional and personal conduct is shaped by the Institute’s nonviolence principles and how the training they receive had helped them understand, embrace and manage their new roles in life.
With a number of Peer Exchange participants having had less successful experiences with Streetworkers in their own jurisdictions, there was particular interest in learning about the hiring and termination criteria and protocols applied by the Institute. The majority of the Institute’s Streetworkers consists of ex-offenders who have been involved in Providence’s intricate landscape of multi-racial gangs and crews. As a result, applicants have to undergo three rounds of interviews over an average period of three months before a hiring decision is made. Gross explained that candidates are told to expect close scrutiny of their conduct, both from the Institute and from law enforcement, and that they are chosen based on their dedication to and passion for transforming their communities. He stressed the Institute has in the past been quick to dismiss Streetworkers who failed to live up to expectations, lost focus, or became once again involved in crime or gangs. Moreover, the police department is informed about all of the Institute’s hiring and firing decision as a way to build trust between the partners.
Underscoring his department’s close relationship with the Institute, Chief of Police Dean Esserman and members of his command staff attended most of the morning’s presentations. Chief Essserman thanked the National Network for providing unique opportunities for practitioners below the leadership level, but strongly involved in its innovative crime prevention work, to connect and learn from each other. “Change is easy. Sustaining change is really hard,” he told the group. But, he stressed, it can be done if change is built on strong relationships, both within and among different agencies involved in the work.
During lunch at the Institute, Peer Exchange participants had the opportunity to speak with all members of the Streetworker Program and other staff as well with the Chief and members of the police department to learn further about their work and partnership. The afternoon was taken up with an introduction to the Victim Services Unit, directed by Tara Moniz, which rounds off the Institute’s otherwise largely offender-focused nonviolence work. While Streetworkers respond to any shooting or stabbing that occurs in Providence at the scene or at the hospital, the Victim Services Unit follows up on these incidents the next day. It offers victims and their families mental health counseling, support groups, advocacy, and assistance with the state victim compensation board. A current client of the Victim Services Unit told the visitors how the services had helped her to deal with the murder of her mother and given her the strength to successfully fight for an amendment which extends the right to counseling to children over the age of 18 after the murder of a parent. Many of the Peer Exchange participants later expressed interest in integrating victim services into their crime prevention work.
To gain first-hand experience of the challenges facing Streetworkers in Providence, participants in the early evening went on ride-alongs through some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods before meeting with workers and clients of the Institute’s Youth Program at “Rec Night.” These weekly gatherings at a recreation center attract around sixty youths each week and provide further opportunities for Streetworkers to build relationships, learn about and intervene in any simmering feuds, and demonstrate to young men and women how potentially violent situations can be addressed and resolved with nonviolent solutions. “If there is one thing that defines a Streetworker,” Gross told the visitors, “it is to know how to wrestle with people in a loving way.”
The hosts and participants of the first National Newtork Peer Exchange with Providence's new Mayor Angel Taveras.
Institute Staff Regularly Attend PD’s Command Staff Meetings
Day two of the Peer Exchange was organized by the police department and kicked off with participants observing a command staff meeting—regularly attended by Gross and Moniz. It was followed by presentations from Detective Sgt. Mike Wheeler, head of the department’s Gang Intervention Unit, and Detective Sgt. John Carvalho, in charge of School Resource Officers, who provided details of their units’ partnerships with Streetworkers, what successful collaboration looked like, and the challenges they experience.
Wheeler expressed some reservations about working with ex-offenders, arguing that more time should pass before a person is hired as a Streetworker by the Institute after he or she is released from prison or that the Institute could not control “what Streetworkers get up to at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning.” However, despite these concerns, he, Gross and AJ Benton, the Streetworker Unit’s Program Manager, have developed a strong working relationship and meet regularly to discuss developments and assess appropriate referrals and feuds that the Streetworkers can mediate. Moreover, the Gang Intervention Unit employs approaches similar to the Institute’s, including direct outreach to and communication with gang members, home visits with gang-involved youth and their parents (in partnership with probation and parole). “We go where they [gang members] are,” Wheeler told the group, “and we know each other by name.”
Asked how the unit’s partnership with Streetworkers looked like in practice, Wheeler said that beyond the weekly meetings, he calls on Streetworkers to intervene in potential acts of retaliation or ongoing disputes or gives them the opportunity to convince anyone wanted on a warrant to turn himself in rather than be arrested at their work place or home. Despite this close partnership, both sides stressed that they rely on their own intelligence, can operate completely independently, and frequently don’t agree on the other’s assessment of gang members’ activities. Still, Gross said he also listens to and welcomes feedback from Gang Intervention Unit members about the effectiveness of Streetworkers, given that they encounter each other regularly in the same neighborhoods.
Detective Sgt. Carvalho outlined the activities of his team of school resource officers (SROs), who are charged with keeping the peace in Providence’s high schools and middle schools but who also serve as mentors, friends and counselors to kids, many of which come from extremely disadvantaged households in a city that has the United States’ third-highest child poverty rate. Carvalho said individual SROs and Streetworkers speak daily to exchange “general information” and preempt any outbreaks of violence. He personally visits the Institute once a week to review with Benton and his team arrests and the schools’ incident reports to give Streetworkers the opportunity to reach out to and intervene with individuals at home or on the streets. He conceded that there remains resistance within the police department about his unit’s collaboration with Streetworkers and that some school administrators are also reluctant to utilize them for violence intervention. However, he said he continues to urge skeptics to put egos aside and to recognize that the community-based knowledge and credibility Streetworkers can offer provide an additional and effective tool to reduce violence. At the end of the day, “we all want to bring school violence and arrest numbers down,” he said.
Taking the Approach Nationwide
The second day in Providence ended with a working lunch and debriefing of participants, who unanimously stressed the value the Peer Exchange has had for them. Chris Mallette, Executive Director of Chicago’s Group Violence Reduction Strategy, applauded the Institute’s holistic approach to addressing street culture in different arenas while maintaining a laser-like focus on reducing violence. He said he would seek to implement a similar Streetworker/police department partnership in a pilot district in Chicago and hoped that the National Network would continue to support his team in connecting it with peers to design and refine such a project.
Speaking on behalf of Leadership Group site Newark, Community Outreach Director Lori Scott-Pickens told the group that she had been extremely impressed with the honest and transparent presentations by both Providence agencies. “I feel I have witnessed the real deal in street outreach work,” she said. With Newark on the verge of implementing a combination of the National Network’s group violence reduction and drug market intervention strategies, Scott-Pickens said she believed a Streetworker component would add real value to the project, given that many in Newark’s communities want to see ex-offenders involved and at the table.
Representatives of Cincinnati (Lieutenant Bret Isaac; Dorothy Smoot, Director of the Police Partnering Center; and Reggie Brazille, Director of Street Outreach) applauded Providence’s genuine interest and investment in the health of its most disadvantaged communities and said they would like to adopt not only the nonviolence philosophy as a framework for future streetwork operations under the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence but also the Institute’s professional and organizational support for its Streetworkers. The team requested support from the National Network to help it narrow the focus of its community moral engagement and Streetworkers operations so that these could play a more effective and efficient role in Cincinnati’s violence reduction efforts.
Captain John Romero and Sgt. Anna-Marie Izzo from Los Angeles—which held its firs call-in in a pilot district at the beginning of June—expressed admiration for the Streetworkers’ 24/7 work ethic and the “brutal honesty” with which police and the Institute had forged and maintained their unusual partnership. While parts of the LAPD have found ways to work with gang intervention workers, Romero described their relations as an “uneasy peace still full of tension.” However, the visit to Providence had convinced him that trust on both sides can be built gradually and that implementing a similar partnership will not require the buy-in of each and every officer but can be achieved with the support of senior leadership and some key managers.
Gretta Bush, President of High Point Community Against Violence (HP-CAV), and Jim Summey, its Executive Director, told the National Network that while the work of their (largely volunteer) agency mirrors much of what Streetworkers do in Providence, they would like to explore how to further solidify HP-CAV’s relationship with High Point’s police department so as to develop a more structured outreach and information-sharing practice between the two agencies.
The Providence Peer Exchange ended with newly elected Mayor Angel Taveras meeting with participants to hear their impressions of the work being done by the Institute and the police department. Describing the work as “an issue close to my heart,” the Mayor told the group he remembered well his fear of violence each time he stepped outside as a Dominican child growing up in a Providence neighborhood that was once the city’s largest drug market. That neighborhood, Lockwood Plaza, was the focus of Providence’s first drug market intervention in 2006, supported by the National Network. “It’s great to see that the work done by Providence police in partnership with the Institute is being appreciated around the nation,” he said. “What you are all doing is really saving lives and changing families.”