NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When Rasheedat Fetuga became a teacher, she worked hard to help protect her students, many of them poor and from a nearby housing project. When one of her favorites was shot and killed at 16, she stood at his funeral and vowed to do more.
That was the beginning of the Gideon’s Army violence interrupters, a small group that works in predominantly Black North Nashville to defuse tense situations before they become violent.
Their primary focus is a 228-unit housing project formally known as the Cumberland View Apartments but more commonly referred to by its nickname, Dodge City, for the amount of gun violence that has historically occurred there.
The violence interrupters include Hambino Godbody, who grew up in Cumberland View and still has DCP (Dodge City Projects) tattooed on the back of his left hand.
“We’re the cure to the violence in real life. We know we are because we cured ourselves first,” he said.
Violent crime has spiked nationwide after plummeting in the early months of the pandemic, with many cities seeing double-digit increases in gun violence. President Joe Biden’s administration has sent strike forces to Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to help take down gun networks, and has encouraged states to use COVID-19 relief money to hire police or counselors.
Smaller, grassroots efforts in communities across the country are trying alternative strategies to curb violence, recognizing the fallout from decades of “tough on crime” policies that criminalized a generation, leaving them with fewer resources and opportunities than ever.
That includes violence interrupter programs such as Gideon’s Army or Cure Violence Global, which started in Chicago and has branched out to other cites. Other groups, including the West Nashville Dream Center, primarily attack structural issues such as poverty and educational inequality. The groups differ in philosophy but share a common goal of improving life in their communities.
Minorities are heavily affected by community violence, said Paul Carrillo, the community violence initiative director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, but it’s not unusual to see pushback surface at the grassroots level.
“Anywhere there’s a significant level of crime there are also homegrown peacemakers," he said. Those include church leaders, but also former gang members and the formerly incarcerated.
Some of what Gideon's Army does might fall into the category of typical community organizing and social work: providing food and clothes, holding community cookouts and Easter egg hunts. But there are also the instances of Godbody wrestling a gunman to the ground or stopping a robbery in progress.
“He was able to get the guy that got robbed to calm down and not want to come back and retaliate,” fellow violence interrupter Chef Mic Tru said of Godbody. “He got the guy that did the robbery to return the stuff he stole, and they made amends.”
“He didn't need a gun. He didn't need a badge,” Tru said. “He just used his words.”
Even as Biden is encouraging big-city mayors to use some of their COVID-19 relief dollars to boost community violence intervention programs, there's no widely agreed-upon model for what works.
“There are a lot of efforts sprinkled around the U.S.,” Carrillo said, but he compared the situation to “way too many startups without significant investment. ... They’re doing good things, but they can never scale up.”
Sheyla Delgado, deputy director of analytics for the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation Center, has studied Cure Violence programs in New York City for the past decade and says they do improve public safety.
Shootings and gun violence declined in the neighborhoods that had Cure Violence programs, she said. Attitudes toward gun violence changed, with fewer young men likely to see it as a solution to problems. But she said the programs suffer from inconsistent funding and administrative issues.
“There are other, not widely known programs that are alternatives to police, violence-prevention programs. But there's not a lot of funding for research, so we don't know if they work or not,” she said.
That could be changing.
Interest in community violence prevention has increased dramatically over the past few years, said Charlie Ransford, senior director of science and policy at Cure Violence Global. There's been an influx of requests for help in starting new programs in various cities, and the programs are starting to see significant government funding for the first time.
The current infrastructure bill has $5 billion for community violence initiatives, although that could change.
“It's gone from people not really embracing this to people being fully on board,” he said. “The alternative is a more-policing approach, and we've already tried every angle of more policing.”
Back in Nashville, on the other side of the city, the West Nashville Dream Center isn't a community violence program, but the police still credit it with a role in reducing crime. The center works to build up an impoverished community by providing social services without the red tape.
Rather than asking people to fill out forms, staffers ask how they can help, said TJ Fletcher, the group's executive director. Unlike Gideon's Army, the Dream Center works hand-in-hand with police.
Lt. Jason Picanzo, who led the local precinct's community engagement team from its start in 2018 to the beginning of 2021, acknowledges the toll of years of overpolicing.
“We thought that was going to make it safer, and what we ended up doing was breaking down trust in those communities,” he said. He used the Dream Center as a bridge to start rebuilding that trust and saw crime in the area decrease by 40% while arrests plummeted.
“It is the community that made this place safer,” he said. "It wasn't the police department.”
Nashville Police Chief John Drake has expanded the community engagement units since his appointment in November and brought back the old Police Athletic League, re-envisioned as the Police Activities League in recognition of the fact that not everyone wants to be an athlete.
“This has to be a community effort," he said. "We can't arrest our way out of this.”