Posted on February 11, 2022

This Police Captain’s Plan to Stop Gun Violence Uses More Than Handcuffs

Ashley Southall, New York Times, February 4, 2022

Classes had just been dismissed at a high school in Brooklyn for teenagers who needed a second chance, when a student named Devonte Lewis stepped outside and into the cross hairs of his rivals. Two teenage gunmen opened fire, the police said, killing Mr. Lewis, who was 17.

The murder last April and the arrests in connection with it ignited an already simmering feud between Mr. Lewis’s grieving friends in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn and a rival crew in Flatbush that the authorities said his killers belonged to.

“That’s when it blew up,” said Capt. Derby St. Fort, the commanding officer of the 61st Precinct, which includes Sheepshead Bay. “People got shot, people were getting caught with guns, and I felt like there was urgency.”

Instead of taking the police’s usual approach of gathering enough evidence for a gang takedown as the dispute festered, Captain St. Fort decided to do something new with the information he already had: He shared it and asked for help.

He partnered with an anti-violence coalition and a neighborhood activist, whom he asked to gather 15 of the boys close to the dispute for weekly discussions led by a therapist at a local community center, paying them a $150 stipend to participate. Week after week, the boys kept coming back. In the four months since, none of them have been arrested with a gun or involved in a shooting, he said.

At a time when New York City is grappling with an unsettling rise in gun violence, the program represents a novel way to reduce crime by making community-based anti-violence work part of a precinct’s crime-fighting strategy.


The program is a sharp departure after decades of aggressive policing tactics that reacted to violence but rarely focused on preventing it. And it comes as Mayor Eric Adams, whose first weeks in office have been dominated by questions about violent crime and public safety, expresses support for a balanced approach to the problem.

Presenting what he called his Blueprint to End Gun Violence last month, Mr. Adams described spreading the responsibility for addressing shootings to all agencies of city government, and empowering neighborhood anti-violence organizations whose efforts have been stymied by bureaucratic hurdles and funding constraints. But Mr. Adams’s immediate plans also rely heavily on the police and on tactics that have been abused in the past.

In an email, a spokesman for Mr. Adams said the city was watching this and other programs that focus on prevention to see how they could be replicated.

The importance of the city’s response to gun violence was underscored on Thursday when President Biden attended a strategy meeting at New York City Police Department headquarters with the mayor, the governor and other local officials.

The heightened violence in New York has persisted for two years despite the fact that the police have made 25 percent more gun arrests and seized record numbers of illegal guns — 6,000 in 2021 alone, according to department statistics. The dynamic has pit those calling for a hard-line crackdown on gun violence against those pushing for investments in softer approaches that address the social inequality underpinning it.

The program in Sheepshead Bay appears to have found success with that gentler approach. The people in the healing circle were identified through arrest and intelligence reports as being close to the conflict in which Mr. Lewis was killed. But those same tools, Captain St. Fort said, can be used to identify and intervene in the lives of those who pose — and face — the greatest risk of violence.


The centerpiece is called the healing circle, a group discussion led by a therapist, Kenton Kirby. Captain St. Fort listens and participates. {snip}


At the end of the session, each participant is paid $150 — a stipend that organizers point out is less than a tenth of the daily cost of keeping someone in jail. Organizers say the payments, which do not come from police funds, help keep the teenagers engaged and amount to less than what it costs to process arrests, take down gangs and pay officers overtime after a shooting.


James Mulvaney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said he was skeptical that the program could change the deeply ingrained attitudes of people who have accepted the risks that come with carrying a gun.

“If someone’s carrying a gun, they’ve already said, ‘Whatever, I can do my five years upstate,’” he said. “And you’re saying, here’s $150. Is that going to change things? No.”

Organizers concede that it has been difficult to recruit other young men. This week, two teenagers who had briefly visited the circle were arrested in connection with a shooting at Kings Plaza Mall in Mill Basin that was unrelated to the feud that led to Mr. Lewis’s murder. Both had also been arrested in November, the authorities said.