David Johnson stood before a group of young adults in one of Durham’s most dangerous neighborhoods explaining why he was the right guy to help stop the violence.
“These are the people I grew up with. These are my little friends. Them seeing me out here not selling drugs no more. Not out promoting negativity, shooting people,” said Johnson, 35.
“Me coming here and telling them, ‘Bro I can get you back in school.’ ‘Bro I can get you a job.’ ‘Bro I can do this.’ Like, they know I am not just telling them that. I can actually. I am trying.”
Johnson is one three “violence interrupters” on Bull City United’s seven-member team. Since November the team has been trying to negotiate peace among groups whose conflicts have left death, grieving families and shaken neighborhoods in their wake.
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Bull City United is implementing a national Cure Violence crime-reduction model recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice. The model targets violence like an infectious disease that spreads in clusters and epidemic waves.
“If you have a cold, your doctor might tell you to rest, take some medication,” explains Michelle Young, who is overseeing the effort through the Durham County Health Department.
Bull City United is focusing on the Southside neighborhood and the McDougald Terrace public housing complex. When there is a shooting, Johnson or another violence interrupter reaches out to individuals, relatives or friends.
They try to persuade them to put down their guns, change their response to conflict and their life. They link them to outreach workers who connect them to jobs, education and other services.
The team has been a part of a couple of peace treaties and has prevented shootings, Johnson said. “We haven’t had a shooting in my neighborhood in actually five or six months,” he said.
As the supervisor, Dorel Clayton, 44, makes sure the team has everything it needs to succeed. He also wants to make sure they don’t slip back into the old lifestyle.
“The last thing I want is for them to get pulled back in,” he said.
‘From that life’
Johnson’s insider status came at a price.
He was convicted of his first major felony by age 16. He’s spent more than 10 years in prison on and off for assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery and selling drugs. He’s been out of jail four years.
“We come from that life. We walked from those streets,” he said.
Other members of the team carry similar or more severe convictions.
“We all at one time or another have contributed to the destruction and have contributed to violence in the streets of Durham,” Clayton said. “And while we are reforming and changing our lives, and doing things different in our lives, we want to share that with our brothers and sisters and other people in our communities and teach them that there is a different way.”
Johnson, Clayton and outreach worker Convellus Parker, acknowledge their past but were hesitant to discuss it.
That’s not who they are anymore, they said.
“We are models of peace. We promote peace. It is a lifestyle we lead as role models,” said Parker, 34.
We come from that life. We walked from those streets.
David Johnson, violence interrupter
While some may be uncomfortable with the Bull City United team’s history, their history gives them an authority and connection that straight-laced college graduates and others can’t offer, Young said.
Durham has tried various approaches to violent crime with little success, Young said. This model gets results. More than 50 cities have turned to it, and independent reviews indicate it has reduced shootings and homicides in some communities by 41 percent to 71 percent.
The panel who hired the team included officers who vetted people’s backgrounds.
“Anyone that was popping up on the radar as still being active in criminal acts, we couldn’t even interview,” Young said.
But the hiring panel was the extent of any police involvement.
“They will not have any communication with police,” Young said.
Back out on Scout Street the young men said they have watched Johnson change.
Johnson offers positive vibes, advice that prevents them from going back to jail. He’s like a big brother, one young man said. He’s motivation to do better, another said.
How much does it cost?
Durham County is investing nearly $440,000, plus another $50,000 grant, to implement the Cure Violence model, which is being used in some of the most dangerous cities in the country and world. The model seeks to address violence by treating it as a disease and using data-driven practices that independent reviews indicate reduced shootings and homicides in some communities by 41 percent to 71 percent.