DETROIT — When two men were shot dead a block away from her home in Franklin Park in July, all Bobbi Johnson did was look out her window.
“(Seeing) my kids were playing basketball and my dog wasn’t shot, I just went back to everything,” the Detroit resident said.
Johnson said she is no stranger to the sound of gunshots. The Detroit Police Gun Range is a stone’s throw away. But more than anything, violence is a “routine” in the 48228 ZIP code, a west side neighborhood she has called home for three decades.
“We hear gunfire and let them ride,” Johnson told Bridge Michigan during an August community meeting. “So now you become immune.”
Detroit — long considered one of the most violent cities in America with 583 non-fatal shootings so far this year — is taking a new approach to prevent shootings in some of its most violent neighborhoods.
Buoyed by an influx of federal pandemic relief funding, the city is investing $10 million in small organizations — some of which labored for years to protect neighborhoods on shoestring budgets — to reduce crime.
The initiative, dubbed “ShotStoppers,” focuses on community violence intervention initiatives, which use community-driven methods to disrupt violence, or prevent it from happening in the first place.
Six groups focused on pockets of the city will train residents to intervene in conflicts while providing resources to address trauma and access opportunities. Organizers say building relationships with young men is key, and they are relying on people with past convictions to reach them.
“It would not be like this if we had healthy communities,” said Dujuan “Zoe” Kennedy, an organizer with FORCE Detroit, one of the six groups selected for city funding. “You have to use individuals who understand being a product of the environment.”
The concept of community violence intervention is not new, with some studies showing the idea dating as far back as the 1800s. But similar programs are just now being tested nationally. The U.S. Department of Justice awarded $100 million in grants last year to develop local programs, and Flint was the only Michigan city to receive it.
The state is using federal dollars to fund similar programs, allocating $10 million in separate grant money in fiscal year 2024 to local groups statewide.
“Many of the folks in the CVI world were saying ‘you’re investing in technology, you’ve given the police a raise, invest in us — invest in the preventative aspect,’” said Detroit Deputy Mayor Todd Bettison.
In Detroit, the money goes to everything from armed citizen neighborhood patrols, rent and utility assistance to victims to mental health services, youth mentorship, apps to report shootings, blight cleanup, other neighborhood assistance and more.
Six groups received grants, including FORCE Detroit, New Era Community Connection, Detroit Friends and Family, Detroit Peoples Community, Detroit 300 and a partnership between Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, the Denby Neighborhood Alliance and Camp Restore. They hit the streets in August.
Each group received a $1.4 million contract spread across two years, with a chance to double their funding if shootings and homicides drop significantly faster than the city as a whole. Organizations whose programs show poor progress can lose their funding and the city can expand successful strategies in other areas.
City officials are cautious about promising success, calling the program “a grand experiment” in a recent media statement.
“I don’t know if it’s going to work, but we’re going to do this by holding these groups accountable for their own theory,” Mayor Mike Duggan said when he announced the program at his 10th State of the City address in March.
Duggan later said there’s “mixed research” on whether community-led violence intervention works, and it could take six months before the city sees any impact.
While hailed as an innovative approach, the initiative faces skepticism from some residents living in the shadow of gun violence. Some argue the city is shifting responsibility onto untested community groups, who will be tasked with fixing a problem that resulted from decades of disinvestment.
“It’s the snitch money,” Detroit resident and longtime community activist Lori Parks said of the funding. “The police should be doing their job. That’s what should be happening. You shouldn’t have to pay me, her, and no other six groups … to do the police work.”
Boots on the ground
Conflict de-escalation is a major component of CVI programs. Groups are using “credible messengers” like “Zoe” Kennedy to teach young people how to squash conflicts without picking up a weapon. Mentors were often once in the same position as the boys the groups are trying to reach.
Kennedy became an organizer after spending more than a decade in prison for manslaughter. Today he is leading FORCE Detroit’s community violence intervention work in the Cody Rouge neighborhood. The group has enrolled 33 young people into its mentorship program so far.
“You keep them close to you, you provide opportunity for growth,” Kennedy said. “As they grow, they mimic the lifestyle, and it pulls them away from that (violent) lifestyle. It’s about choices, but it’s about options too. Young men try to emulate other men.”
Violence interrupters working under Kennedy with FORCE Detroit will be paid $45,000, according to a budget sheet included in city documents. The group is putting most of its annual budget toward personnel costs.
Bettison, the retired deputy police chief, said some people just won’t ever trust police. Intervenors who are from the community and participated in violence before being rehabilitated are more likely to reach youths, he said.
Less than a quarter of Detroit’s roughly 2,500 sworn police officers live in the city.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve realized that police cannot do it alone,” Bettison said.
Most groups are taking a multi-faceted approach to reducing violence, offering emergency housing assistance, mental health services and de-escalation training while organizing residents to clean up and patrol neighborhoods.
Beonte Moris is a violence interrupter with Detroit Friends and Family who served a decade in prison. He said telling impacted youth to stop being violent doesn’t do anything if their basic needs are not met.
“You need to be helping them find a solution to substitute the fucked-up shit they’re doing,” Moris said. “You aren’t getting anybody’s attention if we can’t go help these guys pay their momma’s rent, we can’t provide jobs or food.”
The focus on youth resonates with Sandra Turner-Handy, who is leading the violence reduction effort at the Denby Neighborhood Alliance on the city’s east side. The group covers the 48205 ZIP code — nicknamed “4820-Die” by residents for the prevalence of gunfire.
Many who grew up in the ZIP code have sworn never to come back. Turner-Handy repeatedly heard a dismal view of life in the neighborhood when she surveyed the Denby High School graduates in 2014.
“‘You’re going to get pulled into a vacant house. You’re going to get raped, robbed, murdered.’ I mean, this was their whole idea of their community,” she said. “That hurt me to my core.”
Wayne Metro received a grant in partnership with the Denby Neighborhood Alliance and Camp Restore. The team is funneling most of its allocation to other organizations through subcontracts.
The group plans to engage youths by offering K-12 drug and safety education as well as community greening, where children can help build flower gardens to deter illegal dumping, Turner-Handy said.
“The city has finally recognized the fact that they don’t do engagement,” Turner-Handy said. “We can engage residents on the ground. We have to get these young people invested in their community and show them they have the power to recreate their community.”
New Era Community Connection launched a mobile app that allows residents to anonymously report issues or request services within its zone. Call center staff are on hand to follow up with residents and post safety alerts.
New Era’s budget also includes funding for a community patrol. The organization gained national recognition earlier this year after sharing social media clips of armed members loading groceries and checking in on gas station clerks.
Detroit 300 has also recruited armed citizens to patrol the streets. A few years ago, critics deemed the approach of allowing volunteers who have not received law enforcement training to patrol the neighborhoods a “ticking time bomb” that could endanger the public.
With funding from the city, the group is now paying people $18 to $25 an hour for the patrol shifts, Raphael Johnson, who founded the group, told Bridge. He shrugged at the criticism, arguing that the group does not require its volunteers to be armed and that private citizens have the right to make citizen arrests under a decades-old state law.
“There has not been one incident of vigilantism or even violence afflicted from the organization,” he said.
“Our objective is to create peace, to settle the beefs and the confrontations that lead to shootings.”
Debate about effectiveness
Barely a month into the experiment, organizers are pointing to anecdotal successes, saying they’ve intervened in situations that were poised to turn violent. Eric Ford, president of Detroit 300, deescalated a situation when someone pulled out a gun at a local Coney Island restaurant recently, the group said in a media release Monday.
However, research has shown mixed results on the effectiveness of the programs, said Marc Zimmerman, co-director of the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention at the University of Michigan.
For example, a November 2022 review of seven studies on hospital-based intervention programs — which focus on connecting patients at risk of resorting to violence with social services, such as housing, employment and education — found the evidence to support their effectiveness to be “lacking.”
But others, such as the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, found the programs effective in reducing violence in cities including Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.
Zimmerman said his research has shown that projects such as community greening — cleaning up vacant lots and setting up flower gardens in their place — were successful in cities like Youngstown, Ohio, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The idea is to send “a message that somebody is paying attention” to the wellbeing of the neighborhood, he said.
The city will evaluate success based on the reduction in non-fatal shootings and homicides over the next two years.
It may be a tall task — Police data shows both categories are down citywide this year, but Detroit ranks third in homicides compared to peer cities. The city reported at least 300 homicides in each of the last three years. In 2022, Detroit had 11 mass shootings involving four or more victims.
Performance for the first quarter will be measured between Aug. 1 and Oct. 31, but city officials and community groups agree progress will be slow. Meanwhile, they contended that shootings with multiple victims could skew the results.
“If you have one bad incident that could throw everything off,” Bettison said.
City Council President Mary Sheffield acknowledged the city’s metrics may not capture the full extent of the program’s benefits, but it’s a start.
“I think (the problem) far exceeds a reduction in homicides, some of it you may not be able to measure,” Sheffield said.
Turner-Handy, an organizer with the Denby Neighborhood Alliance group, worries the city’s metrics will be used to discredit the efforts of small organizations working to reverse decades of disinvestment in their communities.
“I think they’re looking at us to fail,” Turner-Handy said. “We may not meet their numbers, but we’re going to increase safety in our community. I’m more concerned about increasing safety overall. I’m not so much focused on meeting somebody’s numbers.”
FORCE Detroit estimates it would take at least $15 million per year for the next decade to sustain the work in Detroit. Founder Alia Harvey-Quinn said it will take time for under-resourced organizations to build themselves up.
“At the core of this initiative, saving lives is what it’s about,” Harvey-Quinn said. “I don’t think expecting hard and fast ready-made instant success from groups that are just now getting funding is recommended.”
Chris White, president of Detroit Coalition against Police Brutality, deemed the programs “a hard sell” because he argued the funding is not enough to address Detroit’s deep troubles.
“The problems of Detroit are shattered consciousness and fractured identity,” White said. “That’s not going to be fixed by throwing some funds to some groups.”
It took roughly a decade to gain the city’s support. Phillip Sample, a violence interrupter working on the eastside, said failing to impact crime statistics would give skeptics an “I told you so” moment and close the door on future funding.
“I would love to be able to prove this is a framework that can be successful,” Sample said. “The idea of community stepping up to say enough is enough, is powerful in itself. Do I think (the mayor’s administration) really believes in our success? Probably not.”
Meanwhile, Harvey-Quinn said FORCE Detroit’s research suggests each homicide costs city, county and state governments more than $1.8 million when factoring in police response, court and jail costs and lost tax revenue. Stopping only a few incidents would mean the program pays for itself, she argued.
Bettison agreed, saying there is a case to be made that reducing shootings will save Detroit money in the long run.
“We know there’s a cost to violence. If we’re successful in being able to tie the actions that we’re taking to actually having an impact, then the conversation (shifts to) identifying dollars to continue to program,” Bettison said.
City Council member Fred Durhal III, a former Michigan lawmaker, said he’s hoping state and federal funding will make Detroit’s program permanent. Durhal said philanthropic groups could also help. But conversations around long-term funding are aspirational and – like many other aspects of ShotStoppers – relies on proving success first.
But no matter how the city measures the success community groups have achieved, some remain skeptical that the programs will move the needle.
Bobbi Johnson, the Franklin Park resident, is distrustful of nonprofit groups and wants transparency on the outcome of such programs to hold them accountable.
“Since 1992 I’ve seen over 60, 70 nonprofits come in here, and I’ve seen my whole neighborhood depleted,” she said. “You are saying you are doing things in the community but the community can’t see it. (The) only thing they can see is what you are getting fat off of.”
Harvey-Quinn acknowledged the skepticism and challenge, but said community-led violence intervention is a “missing nonprofit industry.” It’s why she’s advocating for a permanent commitment to fund programs across the whole city.
“If you consider the impact of violence and incarceration, why are there not more neighborhood-level institutions that are accessible for residents to walk to?” Harvey-Quinn said. “It’s because we tend to support one big initiative and call it done. Our vision for this work expands to all neighborhoods. This offers an off-ramp for a lifestyle that’s full of violence and headed for either death or incarceration.”