WKYT Investigates | What is group violence intervention?

WKYT’s Garrett Wymer traveled to South Bend, Indiana to see what the strategy looks like.
WKYT Investigates | What is group violence intervention?
Published: Jul. 14, 2022 at 4:13 PM EDT
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WKYT) - A dozen different papers are tacked on the wall of Pastor Canneth Lee’s office.

Some are simple thank-you notes (“Thank you for your help and for everything you do for us”) and some are much more than that (“Since the first day I saw you, I was like, ‘I want to be just like you”) - but it soon becomes clear that all of them mean a lot to Pastor Lee.

“He wrote this to me when he was in fourth grade,” he says, beaming with pride as he shows off one of the letters. “He’s now going to high school. He’s an honor roll student and an amazing basketball player.”

But among the letters that bring out such happiness also hang even more obituaries, photos of men and women - many of whom should have had much more life ahead of them - to whom Pastor Lee has had to say goodbye.

He points out a woman who was shot and killed in a fight seven days after her five-year-old son died in an accidental shooting; a man shot on Thanksgiving; a seven-year-old girl holding an ice cream cone at a party, hit by a stray bullet targeting someone else; a young man shot while walking, who lay overtop of his grandmother who was with him so that she would not be shot, too; a person killed in a case of mistaken identity.

Together, their photos are the faces of why Pastor Lee says he is doing what he can to preach fewer funerals in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana.

Group violence intervention, or GVI, has been a buzzword in the city of Lexington over the past few months, with some anti-violence advocates and faith-based groups calling on city leaders to implement the strategy to help stop shootings.

It has even become a topic in the campaign for mayor, with the current city administration and police chief taking stands against it.

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But what is GVI? How does it work? And what does it look like on the ground in cities where it is in place?

WKYT’s Garrett Wymer decided to travel to South Bend, Indiana - a city that has been using GVI for eight years - to find out.

South Bend - population 103,000 - is in northern Indiana, just 95 miles east of Chicago. It is known for the nearby University of Notre Dame and is home to the classic Studebaker cars and Singer sewing machines once made here.

Pastor Lee grew up here. He came back to start a church here 21 years ago. He currently represents the first district on city council.

And - with his office in a historic building that once housed the largest sewing machine cabinet factory in the world, an example of the changes this city has seen over the years - he also leads the local Goodwill Industries’ outreach efforts as part of the city’s group violence intervention program.

The Stand Against Violence Everyday (S.A.V.E.) outreach team consists of seven members who respond to shooting scenes, visit with victims and families at the hospital, try to walk them through what they are experiencing and offer them help and opportunities for change.

“We really are boots on the ground community outreach workers,” Pastor Lee said, “trying to turn the tide of what violence is doing in our community.”

The group violence intervention strategy comes from the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC) at John Jay College in New York.

GVI uses a three-pronged partnership of community members, law enforcement and social service providers in an attempt to reduce violent crime by communicating and engaging with the small number of people driving the violence.

“Five, 10 years ago if there was a shooting, the response would be, ‘We’re going to put a lot of police in that neighborhood,’” said Laurie Owen, GVI director for the NNSC. “That’s reactive. What we want to do is understand what the dynamics are at play so we can get out ahead of the shooting and focus narrowly enough that we’re not affecting a whole neighborhood or a whole population by doing what we’re doing. We’re only trying to focus on those people that are driving the violence.”

In many cases, experts said, those driving the violence are members of street groups - gangs, drug crews, posses, etc.

(The NNSC points out that all gangs are groups, but not all groups are gangs. “An exclusive focus on gangs, which is often understood to include notions like organization and leadership,” the NNSC’s GVI implementation guide states, “will exclude a significant number of groups that contribute heavily to serious violence, such as loose neighborhood drug crews.”)

Typically, group members make up about 0.5% of the population statistically, but can drive upwards of 50% of homicides across the country, Owen said.

GVI calls for direct engagement and clear communication with them, through:

  • A moral message from community leaders that violence will not be tolerated. “There’s also a place for a parent that lost a child. There’s also a place for a person who had been incarcerated and turned their life around and what that looked like for them, what their experience was like,” Owen said. “And then someone from the community that is inspirational to really say to them, ‘Your community loves you, we need you, we want you here.’”
  • A message from law enforcement that more violence by any member of the group will have clear consequences for all members of the group. “It’s not a threat,” Owen explained. “What it is, is they’re laying out for them what their legal exposure looks like and what the obligations are of the law enforcement partnership.”
  • A genuine offer of help from social service providers for group members who want to change. “Part of GVI is removing those obstacles so that they can really access whatever help that they need,” Owen said. (This can mean job training, getting a driver’s license, a record expunged, etc.)

This communication may often come in the form of a call-in, which the NNSC defines as a “face-to-face meeting between group members and representatives of the GVI partnership” - including those community leaders, social service providers and law enforcement.

The message boils down to: “We’ll help you if you let us, we’ll stop you if you make us,” Owen said.

During the summer of 2012, South Bend experienced a 100% increase in homicides, city officials said. In 2014, the city implemented GVI with the common goal being “to stop gun violence and keep South Bend’s highest risk citizens alive and out of prison.” One leader involved described it as interrupting violence with an offer of help, hope and stability.

But for law enforcement, especially, GVI often involves a change in strategy and mindset.

“GVI brought a different approach,” said Assistant Chief Dan Skibins of the South Bend Police Department, which has about 250 sworn officers. Skibins, a South Bend native and 24-year officer, was a sergeant and lieutenant on the vice/street crimes unit when GVI was brought in.

“Our philosophy [pre-GVI] was to come in after the weekend, see what trouble was out there, what crimes were committed and go after the individuals that were causing it,” he explained. With GVI, they moved away from sweeps and saturations of areas to a much narrower strategy.

“The first thing’s [what] you can to do to prevent gun violence. Not just go out and see who’s maybe speeding down a block where you know gang members hang out, pulling them over, writing them traffic tickets or arresting them for not having a license,” he said. “A lot of those things don’t stick or have a lasting effect anyway, so why are we pulling over - sometimes in the past - random cars just because it’s a heavy area for gun violence? Is that stopping the crime? It’s showing a police presence. It might slow it down, but it’s not ultimately going to stop the crimes that are occurring in the area.”

Police are among those now involved with a call-in, which “represents a central shift on the part of law enforcement,” according to the NNSC. At the call-in, law enforcement lays out the consequences for specific group members if violence continues.

[MORE | WKYT Investigates]

“To give the up-front game plan to those involved in the gang life,” Skibins said, “so that they know, ‘If one of your individuals from your group drops a body by gunfire, we’re going to come after your entire group and put a stop to it.’”

What does that look like?

“As with ordinary law enforcement, when group members commit violent crimes, those individuals receive enforcement attention,” the NNSC’s implementation guide explains. “Under GVI, however, law enforcement also holds the entire group accountable for violence. A group member’s violent act triggers enforcement against other group members for outstanding warrants, probation and parole violations, open cases, and a variety of other criminal activity.”

Skibins said it took a year or two for officers to buy in.

The strategy is intelligence-driven for them, meaning the department pushes officers to get as much intelligence as possible while investigating - even from seemingly unrelated calls, because it can help later on - including underlying factors, gang involvement, who suspects or victims hang out with, who else could be involved, who one group might be beefing with.

Skibins also believes GVI has helped build and strengthen trust between the community and the police department because of their ability to direct people to organizations they know will be able to help them. Because of the partnerships inherent in GVI, police are also subject to and often receive constructive feedback from community leaders.

And before any enforcement action on a particular group can begin, Skibins said, law enforcement takes the data they have found that suggests a need for it, presents it to the community leaders and puts it up for a vote.

GVI has three key elements, as outlined in the NNSC’s implementation guide, “that address what really drives violence on the street, including the dynamics between and within groups:

  1. “It communicates to street groups the community’s strong desire that the violence stop, and it tells group members that they are valued and the community wants them to succeed.
  2. “It creates certain, credible, group-wide consequences for homicides and shootings. Because groups drive violence, a group focus for legal consequences is more meaningful than an individual focus.
  3. “It offers help to group members who want to change.

“Each element of the strategy is equally important,” the NNSC says. “All the pieces work together and reinforce one another.”

The typical impact is a 35 to 60 percent reduction in citywide homicides, according to NNSC data, plus “a significant but sometimes lesser reduction in nonfatal shootings.”

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The strategy is described as high activity but low enforcement as it reverses the peer pressure that often drives the violence in the first place. The South Bend Police Department has seen its arrest numbers drop, Chief Skibins said, outside of enforcement actions focused on groups who have not listened to law enforcement warnings.

They also have data that allows them to track the time between a call-in or other notification and a group’s next violent involvement. Some groups previously involved in violence have put the guns down completely, Skibins said.

Overall, though, their statistics do vary from year to year; some years show that shootings have decreased, other years have increased.

[GO MORE IN DEPTH | South Bend Group Violence Intervention data transparency page shows group member involved (GMI) and non-GMI shootings in the city, plus a month-by-month breakdown of custom notifications going back to 2017]

“After a particularly rough spring in 2014, South Bend launched its GVI and saw a relatively quiet summer,” Gov1 reported in 2019 as part of a look into South Bend’s GVI program. “Shootings began to rise again in 2016 and 2017, but subject matter experts believe that things may have been even worse without group violence intervention. After a difficult year in 2017, criminally assaulted shootings decreased 23.5% from 2017 to 2018.”

Chief Skibins says COVID restrictions also likely played a role in an increase in violence in 2020. (Officers were not conducting enforcement actions on groups in an effort to reduce contacts and keep officers healthy to respond to emergencies.) Shooting numbers decreased in 2021 and police say they are seeing a similar pattern so far this year as officers return to their more typical GVI practices.

But Skibins says just data about shootings and homicides does not tell the full story of what they are doing.

“It’s because you can’t put a number on how many lives you did save,” he said, “how many individuals you did get to go to social services and potentially get a job and get off the streets.”

In a letter dated Oct. 19, 2021 and sent to members of Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct-action (B.U.I.L.D.), a Lexington advocacy group that has repeatedly called on the city to implement GVI, Mayor Linda Gorton wrote that city leaders met with the NNSC in May 2019.

The city has implemented five of the six recommendations provided by the organization; GVI is the only recommendation that has not been implemented.

“A number of concerns arose as we talked to cities around the country that have used this program,” Mayor Gorton wrote.

Mayor Gorton also wrote that the city does have outreach and social service programs to help families in jeopardy, and city leaders are in contact with city leaders in Louisville about their GVI implementation.

“Although we have not implemented GVI,” Mayor Gorton wrote, “we are not standing still.”

Some anti-violence advocates say GVI’s focus on preventing retaliatory violence could have helped in at least one recent shooting in Lexington.

In another letter to B.U.I.L.D. in March 2022, Gorton detailed some of the worries leaders have with GVI, including “serious concerns about the targeting aspect of GVI, and the serious damage it could do to the relationship among government/law enforcement and communities of color.” (She said those concerns were shared by Lexington’s police chief, law enforcement, the One Lexington director, street outreach workers, community activists, faith leaders, the ACLU, NAACP and Human Rights Commission.)

Mayor Gorton also said in their conversations the NNSC was not able to explain why GVI did not work in some cities.

“The above two factors combined to make it clear that GVI is not the program Lexington should emphasize right now,” she wrote. “There are many positive components of GVI that are similar to other violence prevention and intervention programs that I fully support, and have ensured that our team prioritizes.”

Mayor Gorton has also been a vocal proponent of the city’s use of Flock license plate reading cameras.

Group violence intervention has been endorsed as an effective program by the Department of Justice’s National Gang Center.

The National Network for Safe Communities website touts as evidence of its success:

  • 34% reduction in homicides in Indianapolis
  • 42% reduction in gun homicides in Stockton, Calif.
  • 32% decrease in group member-involved homicides in New Orleans
  • 73% monthly average reduction in shootings in New Haven, Conn.

But not all results have been so clear-cut over time.

Louisville implemented group violence intervention in the fall of 2020 but did not hold the city’s first call-in until January 2022, leading some leaders to criticize the city’s rollout of the strategy. (A recent Courier-Journal article looks in-depth at how Louisville’s GVI program works.)

Cincinnati implemented its own GVI program - called the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violent Crime - in 2007. Their approach, which was the subject of a 2011 scholarly study, was lauded as a success in the short term - with a 41% reduction in group member-involved homicides and researchers finding that more than 175 had called for services, with 131 pursuing job training, within eight months of the first call-in. Years later, those involved in its original rollout say the initiative deviated from its original methods to disastrous results and now needs a re-dedication of funding and resources to be effective.

Baltimore’s issues with GVI - called Operation Ceasefire there - have been well-documented in the face of what some leaders determine to be struggles with the city’s police department and a lack of resources dedicated to helping those trying to leave the drug trade.

Inside his office in the old sewing machine factory, Pastor Canneth Lee acknowledges all the issues at play in a city’s decision whether or not to implement GVI.

“But for me, when you get down to it,” he said, “it’s us, boots on the ground, getting right to the people that need the help and trying to see if they’ll accept the help. And trying to make things better.”

That is where the GVI outreach team comes in, like Pastor Lee and the other members of S.A.V.E. South Bend. They often host events like peace walks, mentorship programs, conflict resolution, expungement clinics and even free laundry days at a local laundromat.

Their outreach workers deal face-to-face with group members to try to prevent violence from happening in the first place and to try to encourage them to make changes. They help them get drivers licenses, job training through Goodwill or whatever else they might need. They engage young people at schools - a direct response to seeing the ages of shooters there drop even younger.

Outreach is an important part of the strategy, not just because they have boots on the ground but because the outreach team members have been there before. They are on call 24/7, but in being there - and also by helping in practical ways that address contributing factors of violence - they believe they are able to gain trust and credibility with the people they are trying to help.

“We found out that when people don’t have hope, they become dangerous,” Pastor Lee said. “But if you can give them hope and follow through with it, that’s when you can win their confidence. That’s how we’ve been able to help people. And they know that if they come for help we’re going to do everything we can to help them.”

For Pastor Lee it can mean getting calls in the middle of the night or preaching another funeral - adding another face to the memorial on his office wall.

But it does not have to.

“If I can prevent a kid from being one of these, or a young person from being one of these, then that’s success for me,” Pastor Lee said. “May not be thousands of people, but if I can stop one, that’s success.”

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