CeaseFire combats gun violence in North Philadelphia with community outreach

Colwin Williams said getting access to a gun is as easy as buying a pack of cigarettes.

“You hear it all the time, we don’t control gun legislation, nor do we control the manufacturing of guns,” he said.

According to a dataset from the City of Philadelphia  — accessible on the data portal Open Data Philly there have been more than 1,100 people who have been victims of a shooting in Philadelphia in 2017 thus far.

Earlier this fall, Philadelphia’s city council declared gun violence a public health crisis. And elected officials, like new District Attorney Larry Krasner, are taking the issue of gun violence seriously too, and making efforts to create better legislation.

Just this week, he attended a two-day emergency summit in Washington, D.C. to discuss potential gun control legislation with the national group Prosecutors Against Gun Violence.

“We still plan on going after illegal guns…gun shops that sell tons of weapons that wind up being used in crime, and folks who fail to report lost or stolen guns,” a spokesman for the DA told City & State Pennsylvania.

Williams, however, seeks to address gun violence on the ground by encouraging youth to avoid firearms. But when a gun slips through the cracks and ends up in the hands of youth, he’s there to help make sure a confrontation doesn’t end with bullets fired.

Williams is an outreach worker and violence interrupter for Philadelphia CeaseFire, an anti-violence nonprofit that takes a public health approach to combatting gun violence.  The organization, which is housed in the Center for Bioethics, Urban Health and Policy at Temple University, focuses its efforts in the 22nd, 35th and 39th police districts of North Philadelphia.

“Through consistently being out there, canvassing those areas, making ourselves known, talking to high-risk individuals, we’re credible,” Williams said.

Sources: Pennsylvania Firearm Owners Association, Pennsylvania Statutes Title 18 Pa.C.S.A. Crimes and Offenses § 6105

Outreach workers each mentor 15 young people from ages 15 to 25, meeting with them three times each month. They also have five phone call check-ins.  

Participants are identified as “high-risk” because they are either perpetrators or victims of violence, Williams said. Others are identified because they act out against authority figures, like parents and teachers.

Williams often uses his own story to connect with those who are identified as “high-risk,” he said.

He began working at CeaseFire in 2013, about a year after being released from incarceration. He served 18 years and 9 months for armed robbery.

“I’m able to tell them…‘I thought it was OK to go take something from somebody else as opposed to working for it,’” he said. “Then I can engage.”

Nearly 60 of this year’s shootings thus far were related to robbery. However, at 70 percent, the majority of shooting victims in 2017 were shot in cases of aggravated assault.

Williams often describes how his past informs his mentorship with an analogy that utilizes CeaseFire’s public health approach to gun violence.

“We were once a part of that virus,” Williams said of himself and fellow outreach workers who have also been incarcerated. “We have now been cultured and now we’re being shot back into these target areas in able to build the immune system up.”

Rasheed Smith, another CeaseFire outreach worker, likewise shares his past experiences with the men and women he mentors.

He said he had been “getting in trouble” since he was 12 years old. Smith regularly sold drugs and got suspended from school, until he ended up being incarcerated.

But since his release, he’s been working with CeaseFire and  sharing how he changed his own life with others.

“I just got tired of getting in trouble,” Smith said. “I’m real talented, I can sing, I’m real educated…A lot of the youth look up to me. And I was like, ‘Man, I can use my leadership in a positive way.’”

“I love helping people,” he added. “That’s my favorite part, just being able to talk to someone when they’re going through things and knowing that I was part of the reason of them changing their mind on what they were gonna do.”

As a violence interrupter, Williams also monitors and mediates conflict in neighborhoods in his districts in addition to acting as a mentor.

Source: City of Philadelphia via Open Data Philly, Shooting Victims (Updated as of 11/29/17) 

“We might get a whiff of it that’s something’s going up, something’s brewing,” he said. “Then we approach it by bringing both parties together if we can.”

Mediations focus on de-escalation and conflict resolution. Williams said firearms are sometimes present during mediations.

“Buying time is really the main thing ‘cause if you can de-escalate emotions and anger, it gives us time and then we can bring them back together,” he said. “We give them consequences, we raise, ‘What is the consequence if this goes any further? Who’s gonna be affected? Is it worth going to jail for and losing your life?’”

Williams said a common factor among the young people he works with is that they don’t have a father figure in their lives. Poverty and a lack of educational resources are also issues that affect the communities he serves.

Smith said young people who commit acts of violence usually have troubles stemming from their home life.

“A lot of these kids [are] traumatized, so sometimes they bring their issues to school and might let it out on the wrong people,” he said.

Williams agrees that past trauma is a factor in the cycle of violence.

“It’s crazy when you can hear the gunshots like you can hear the ice cream man in the summer,” he said. “Subconsciously, it’s there and that’s where trauma usually starts to manifest itself.”

Smith said to combat gun violence and other crimes in the districts he works in, elected officials, should invest in the community’s youth.

“Pay attention to the youth, build more resources, more recreation centers,” he said, “something for these youth to do other than [be] out in these neighborhoods with nothing to do.”

In the meantime, CeaseFire will put in the work to address gun violence issues directly in communities at risk.

“If you can get out on the front end of it and really monitor some of these youth and really get to know them…I think a lot of the violence that’s happening in the schools and the violence that’s out in the neighborhoods can stop,” Smith said.

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