Training on your rights during a police stop, workshops on the NYPD’s gang database, courses on race and the law—those are just a few of the dozens of community initiatives the Legal Aid Society has spearheaded in an unorthodox campaign to counter gun violence over the last year.
At a time of rising shootings, the public defenders argue their organization should not just be seen as a group that defends criminal cases. They contend that they and their neighborhood partners can do a better job than police at inspiring young people to forgo street conflicts and take charge of their lives.
“As we struggle with gun violence, the answer is community engagement and funding for programs, not more NYPD officers,” said Nefertiti Ankra-Lashley, a senior staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Community Justice Unit.
According to a new report from the Legal Aid Society, between last July and this March, the public defenders provided nearly legal and other support services to more than 2,500 residents, including nearly 400 people working with “Cure Violence” organizations across all five boroughs.
Cure Violence groups are led by community leaders who can speak to the experiences of those at risk of criminal-involvement and mediate conflicts because of their credibility on the street. Armed with a variety of resources from job opportunities to enrichment programs, the neighborhood-based organizations attempt to broaden residents’ horizons and help them transcend street feuds on their own terms. Part of the resources they bring to the table are legal ones, and that’s where the public defenders’ organization comes in.
Legal Aid attorneys help residents correct and clean up their rap sheets to better their chances at getting employment. Staffers also do legal intake for residents with questions about housing and immigration difficulties.
In the COVID-19 era, some of this work went digital. The Community Justice Unit used Instagram Live and Zoom to lead virtual Know Your Rights training and called residents in their network to guide them on food and shelter options at the height of the pandemic.
Ankra-Lashley, who grew up in East New York, argues empowering youth, not just providing them with services, is a key to combating gun violence. “Part of healing our community is mentoring our youth and helping them realize the brilliance and worth in themselves,” she said.
While research has shown mixed results for the effectiveness of Cure Violence sites across the country, they have had some success in New York City. A 2017 John Jay College study found gunshot hospitalizations dropped between 37 and 50 percent in areas where Cure Violence sites were operating in East New York and the South Bronx. Similar studies have since identified similar gains across the city as the program has gradually expanded.
Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale notes that while the public defenders’ workshops on gang databases and constitutional rights may not appear to have a direct tie to gun violence, such discussions can help them gain trust because they speak to a reality through which young people in tough neighborhoods are living.
“In holding these workshops, bringing young people into community spaces, they’re able to create a climate in which young people feel like they have more control over their lives,” Vitale said. “And the hope is that this will help them to become more involved in pro-social activities and to feel more of a sense of security in their own neighborhoods.”
Still, he notes, with funding that accounts for a tiny fraction of the NYPD’s budget, this alternative public safety model can only reach so many residents struggling with shootings in their neighborhoods.
“There are many communities that would like to have these resources in their neighborhoods and are told they can’t have them,” he said. “And then when there’s a short-term crisis, Cure Violence can’t just be dropped in in the middle of the night and solve all their problems.”
Last year, at the height of protests against police violence, the de Blasio administration announced a $10 million bump to expand Cure Violence to more sites in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.
In a statement, the mayor’s office said it has done more to fund Cure Violence groups than any previous administration. “We have doubled its workforce and violence deterrence efforts, expanding a year round employment program, mental health services, and trauma counseling,” said Avery Cohen, a de Blasio spokesperson. “We have expanded Cure Violence sites to cover more communities with high rates of gun violence than ever before. This is all part of our Safe Summer NYC plan—which brings together cops, courts, and communities— to fight gun violence and keep communities safe. There is not a moment to waste.”
Most of the leading Democratic mayoral candidates support Cure Violence and similar initiatives. The field is divided on whether the NYPD should bring back traditional gun suppression tactics to the street, including the deployment of plainclothes officers.
George Joseph is a reporter with WNYC’s Race & Justice Unit. You can send him tips on Facebook, Twitter @georgejoseph94, Instagram @georgejoseph81, and firstname.lastname@example.org. His phone and encrypted Signal app number is 929-486-4865.