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Reporter’s Outtakes: How a Local CVI Program Won Outside Help

Community organizers from 16 cities receiving community violence intervention training gathered during the 18-month program / Provided photo

As hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into community violence intervention programs over the past two years, government and private funders have faced a pair of troubling prospects: What if the many community-based organizations getting newfound resources don’t use the money wisely? And how will the funders know which of the many violence-reduction strategies getting tried are actually working?

In a newly published article in The New York Times, I focus on how Baton Rouge, La., is getting the help it needs to try to avoid those pitfalls. That story looks at how that work gets done, with intensive training and technical assistance for startup community organizations, and with the planning needed to collect data granular enough to enable quantitative evaluations that eventually will sort out which of many strategies seemed to make a difference. 

But there’s a story behind that story — about how a string of federal grants helped a mid-sized city open doors to getting the technical assistance it needs to succeed long-term.

Community violence intervention (CVI) covers a host of strategies, both policing and community-based. All aim to steer likely perpetrators and victims onto safer ground through such approaches as conflict mediation, counseling, trauma care and, in the case of law enforcement, using the threat of incarceration to push people into the services that will change their ways. Like all cities, Baton Rouge — Louisiana's capital, with about 221,000 residents — has historically put far more money into policing than into community organizations that provide alternative approaches. 

In 2020-21, amid an historic spike in gun homicides nationwide, Baton Rouge fared even worse than most cities. But, thanks to work that had begun in the city before the surge in violence, the city found itself well-positioned to tackle the increased violence through a newly developed partnership between the Baton Rouge Police Department, other law enforcement and social services agencies in the region, and a collection of grassroots organizations, starting with the Baton Rouge Community Street Team, a group of “violence interrupters” performing street outreach to prevent retaliatory violence.

The city’s game plan came largely from its relationship with Newark, N.J., where the Newark Community Street Team has been celebrated for simultaneously helping to reduce street violence and mend police-community relations. 

How that relationship was formed is the is a tale of personal and professional networking through connections fostered by federal grant programs.

In 2017, just months after the controversial shooting death of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police and the tragic shootings of six local law enforcement officers in an ambush, Sharon Weston Broome took office as Baton Rouge mayor after campaigning on a platform of police reform. A woman working at Southern University, Jazzika Matthews, heard about a U.S. Department of Justice grant program aimed at cities reeling from controversial police shootings. Run by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Collective Healing Initiative offered five cities, picked from a competitive pool, $750,000 each to learn about “trauma-informed policing” — repairing community relations by responding more compassionately to the victims of violence and with more accountability for policing abuses.

Matthews brought the idea to the city. Baton Rouge applied, made the cut, and hired Matthews to run the project. It got far more than the training seminars and manuals it bargained for. In short order, the city landed slots in multiple federally funded programs promoting violence reduction, trauma care, and police-community relations. 

The federal funding has added up, including about $12.5 million in pandemic aid earmarked for violence intervention, including policing, and millions more from grant programs through the federal departments of Justice, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services.

“Baton Rouge had the right people in the right place at the right time” to tap into multiple federal grants and lure whatever help was available to fight street violence, said Daniela Gilbert, director of the Vera Institute’s Redefining Public Safety Initiative.

During the IACP project, a Department of Justice researcher at the time, Heather Warnken, reached into her Rolodex of crime victim advocates working on community gun violence prevention and tapped Aqeela Sherrills to consult with Baton Rouge. Sherrills and Warnken had worked together at Californians for Safety and Justice in its earliest days, and Sherrills had since moved to Newark to start and run its street team.

Through the Collective Healing project, Baton Rouge community members and city officials began learning the Newark model of community-based violence interventions, just as an offshoot organization that Sherrills heads, the Community Based Public Safety Collective, began taking the lessons learned in Newark into other cities. 

When Sherrills and the Collective were chosen to run a privately funded incubator for community-based violence intervention programs, coordinated by the White House in the early months of the Biden administration, Baton Rouge was perfectly positioned to move to the head of the line to get the training and technical assistance the White House initiative offered. That program, the Community Violence Intervention Collaborative, had only an 18-month run in 16 cities costing a modest $7.4 million, all from private philanthropy. But, when two of its funders stepped up to continue this work in a five-year program funded with about $30 million, Baton Rouge again benefited from its relationship with Sherrills by making it into the first four-city cohort in what is planned to be a 12-city experiment called the Coalition to Advance Public Safety (CAPS)

The two privately funded programs are far smaller than the Justice Department’s Community Based Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative, which has poured nearly $200 million into dozens of cities (and which also contracts with Sherrills’ Collective to provide training and technical support). But what distinguishes the privately funded programs from DOJ’s, including in cities where they both have funded programs (including Baton Rouge), is twofold: the privately funded programs tout their social-justice bona fides as Black-run initiatives closely allied with the grassroots community groups on the front lines, and these private initiatives have brought together experts from four national organizations to collaborate on building a CVI infrastructure that no one organization alone could foster. 

In the CAPS program, the four collaborators promise city government and local community organizations intensive training and technical assistance in the trainers’ respective arenas. In Baton Rouge, Sherrills’ Collective works most directly with the local organizations to beef up their administrative sophistication and hands-on intervention skills, teaching the Newark model of street outreach, victim services, counseling and building an “ecosystem” coordinating the violence-reduction work by community groups and a host of public and private agencies.

Meanwhile, two groups, the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and Cities United, develop data-rich analyses and detailed strategic plans. And the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention fosters hospital-based violence intervention programs, which in Baton Rouge’s case involves restarting a hospital program that had foundered in its first attempt. 

HAVI’s executive director, Fatimah Loren Dreier, played a key role in crafting this team approach. “That’s the work we’re going to get better and better at refining,” she told me. 

That refinement is another key distinction between DOJ’s CVI program and CAPS: experimenting to a degree that a more regimented federal grant program might not. One of CAPS’ funders, Nancy Fishman of the Schusterman Family Philanthropies (the primary funder is the Ballmer Group), told me the end game is proving this model works to the point where cities bake it into their ordinary public-safety budgets. “There’s no way obviously that private philanthropy can carry this” indefinitely, and in all cities that need it, she said. 

CAPS is in its second of five years. But the defining moment may come sooner. Federal pandemic aid, which has funded much of the government’s CVI largesse, runs out in 2026. Even sooner, in 2025, a new presidential administration less hospitable to law enforcement alternatives could take power. 

Advocates feel the pressure to succeed. Said Will Simpson, director of Equal Justice USA’s violence reduction initiatives, which has worked closely with Sherrills’ group in Newark and Baton Rouge, “There’s a need for this work to be sustained so that we can actually see the impact. We can’t just invest and say, ‘Hey, we didn’t see anything happen in year one or year two, so the strategy doesn't work [and] so we should do what we did before.” 

In The Grio, the four leaders of the CAPS partner organizations wrote this week that the lesson of 2023’s drop in homicides nationwide is that CVI can help solve the most acute gun violence problem — interpersonal beefs on the streets, most often among young Black men. “The lesson to be learned here is that those closest to violence actually have a major role to play in reducing it,” they wrote.


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