CITY HALL – When the Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to give $5 million for a much-touted program to Cure Violence, the idea was that it would bring down shootings and killings.
Fifteen months later, gun violence is way up in St. Louis, and the people who run the program appeared this week before an aldermanic committee to explain it.
“There’s a lot that we can’t do in six months,” Dr. Fredrick Echols, acting director of the city Health Department, told members of the aldermanic Public Safety Committee in a video meeting on Tuesday.
After aldermen approved the program in October 2019, the health department has handled it.
The officials also noted that violent crime is up throughout the country and that offices for the program opened only in the past year. The first site was opened in April 2020, said Serena Muhammad, who provides staff support for the program.
“We haven’t had staff hired on the ground until very recently,” Muhammad explained.
The number of homicides in the city increased from 194 in 2019 to 262 in 2020.
Cure Violence is an anti-violence program used in cities around the nation and the world. In it, “interrupters” intervene in the lives of those who might commit violent acts. In St. Louis, it is based initially in sites in the Walnut Park, Dutchtown and Wells-Goodfellow and Hamilton Heights neighborhoods.
Although they spoke hopefully, members of the Public Safety Committee asked for evidence that the program was working.
“How do we know Cure Violence is effective in totality if we’re not tracking data?” 21st Ward Alderman John Collins-Muhammad asked. “After almost a year of operation, there should have been numbers made public.”
Alderwoman Heather Navarro, who represents the 28th Ward, said she wanted to know information on such things as the number referrals and people trained.
Echols said he would provide statistics that would show what’s going on. As of Wednesday, those statistics weren’t available. Echols promised that the program would soon have a website, which would contain detailed information.
“There’s a strong date trail that will outline all of this,” Clark said.
“People need to be understanding. It’s just a piece of the puzzle,” 27th Ward Alderwoman Pamela Boyd said. Other programs also are important, she said.
The Well-Goodfellow-Hamilton Heights and Dutchtown programs are operated by Employment Connection of St. Louis. The Walnut Park program is operated by the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.
There are nine people in the Well-Goodfellow-Hamilton Heights office, eight in the Dutchtown office and nine in the Walnut Park office.
Sal Martinez of Employment Connection, which runs the Well-Goodfellow and Hamilton Heights and Dutchtown programs, said that people on the caseload generally were 16 to 25 years old and are known to carry firearms. Caseworkers handle at least 15 people each.
Violence interrupters, who are often ex-offenders, generally work from afternoons into the evening,
James Clark of the Urban League discussed the work in the Walnut Park neighborhood.
“It is time for us to turn this crisis over to the subject matter experts,” Clark said.
“The subject matter experts in this instance are those individuals who have a criminal background, individuals who really understand the mentality of crime and violence. I’m very excited about working this model,” Clark said. “It’s going to really have to be scaled up.”
Clark said there should be programs in 12 neighborhoods in St. Louis, in six neighborhoods in St. Louis County and in six neighborhoods in East St. Louis.