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As Springfield violence climbs, 2 sides battle different fronts

The Springfield Police Division and the new Violence Interrupters don’t work together, but they have the same mission to reduce violent crime.

Springfield saw four fatal shootings in nine days in one span last year, as violent crime hit a 14-year high.

This year might seem different — two homicides seperated by 198 days. Danyale Piersoll was fatally shot on Jan. 2 and Mark Wells died of a single gunshot wound on July 18.

But just because no one died between those 198 days doesn’t mean bullets weren’t — and aren’t still — flying in Springfield. Calls to police related to weapons has jumped 30 percent in the first half of this year from the same time in 2015, according to police data obtained by the Springfield News-Sun.

>> MORE INFO: Springfield violent crime in 2015 at 14-year high

Violence is something Springfield police continue to grapple with, Chief Stephen Moody said.

As police respond to calls for help, a new organization in Springfield called the Violence Interrupters wants to make it so those calls never happen.

Their goal: step into the lives of people like 28-year-old LaJuane White and stop violence before it can even start.

He now uses a wheelchair after he was shot in the chest and stomach in 2012. White said he was still living the street life of drugs and guns until he reached out for help from the Violence Interrupters.

“I didn’t think there was a way out,” White said.

A night with Springfield police

Springfield police responded to 594 calls related to guns or weapons — from gunshots heard by a neighbor, someone flashing a gun or a victim hit by bullets — in the first six months of 2016.

“What more can we do? What are we missing?” are two questions Moody said always come to mind when his officers respond to calls of violence in the city.

Police are dispatched to an average of 180 calls each day in Springfield, he said, and crews often run on what he called minimum staffing with about 10 officers on the street.

“We need more people to do the job,” the chief said about what he believes is necessary to combat the rise in violence.

>> MORE CRIME NEWS: Gun thefts, illegal weapons linked to Springfield violence

Officer Eric Scott has worked for the Springfield Police Division since 2012. He works the streets from 3 to 11 p.m., some of the busiest hours.

“You can see how many calls we’ve done already,” he said one Thursday evening when this reporter did a ride-along.

He was referencing the three calls he’d taken — a 9-1-1 hangup, a home burglary and a reckless driver — in only his first 90 minutes on the clock.

That night Scott criss-crossed the city for more 9-1-1 hang-ups, a traffic crash, a homeowner reporting a heroin needle dumped in the bed of his pickup truck and a dog bite — all within the first five hours of his shift.

“There’s really no downtime,” the officer said as he quickly scooped a few bites of barbecue chicken from his lunchbox into his mouth after he wrapped up writing a fender-bender report and before he was dispatched to another call.

“I like walking the streets when I can,” Scott said. “Eventually the bad guys get tired of seeing police every day.”

But there’s not often time to do that pro-active patrolling.

Just before 9 p.m. that night Scott and four other officers responded to a report of an 18-year-old assaulted by two other men. The teen’s face was bloodied, his nose apparently broken in the attack.

As medics treated the victim and police asked him questions, word of the attack spread down the street. Young people flooded the front yard on Broadway Street, asking the teen what happened and who had jumped him.

That could be signs of retaliation in the works, Scott said. The officer said it was likely the suspect might be attacked that night, too, but probably will never report that assault to police.

This cycle is what the Violence Interrupters work the streets to prevent.

Police calls related to guns or weapons

By month:
• Red: January
• Yellow: February
• Green: March
• Blue: April
• Brown: May
• White: June

‘We’re not the police’

The first thing the Violence Interrupters — Sean Lollis, Jared “J.J.” Peck and Thomas Stewart — want the Springfield community to know is that they’re not the police.

And the work they’re doing in the streets to stop violence is in no way, shape or form connected to the police.

“Coming from the streets, you’re not trying to be a police program, because you can’t roll like that,” said 31-year-old Peck, who called himself a street preacher before starting this job.

“A lot of guys don’t like the police, don’t trust the police,” 49-year-old Lollis agreed.

But the trio needs the community to trust them — trust and cooperation is what the entire model of the Violence Interrupters relies on.

>> READ MORE: Springfield ‘violence interrupters’ hit the streets

The group started earlier this year in response to the violence in 2015. McKinley Hall put in $30,000 to cover the bulk of the cost for the program, the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office $15,000, the city $5,000 and the Turner Foundation $5,000.

They consider themselves a “boots and ears on the ground” fight against violence.

Violence Interrupters is a concept that grew out of a program called Cure Violence that started in Chicago in 2004 and has now expanded to more than 15 cities.

The program’s most recent success was in Freeport, Ill., a city of about 25,000 people that went from eight murders between 2012 and 2014 to zero in 2015.

Johns Hopkins University researchers found similar programs had a larger effect in reducing non-fatal shootings — a 25 percent drop — than law enforcement activities.

Through cognitive-behavioral therapy, or therapy that challenges negative patterns or thoughts in a person’s life, the interrupters challenge people to not take the violent or criminal path.

“We’re just trying to give them other choices,” Peck said.

Less than two months ago, White’s family came to Lollis asking for help.

“If it wasn’t for them, I would be in the same spot or dead,” White said.

He was living in a drug house and putting his life in danger every day, he said, because he knew no other way.

“I was a product of my environment … I got shot and I was still on the wrong path,” White said.

Lollis, Peck and Stewart all have their own history with the streets. Each has spent time in county jail or state prisons. Lollis served time on a murder charge, Peck had a theft conviction and Stewart got in trouble for drugs.

“The credibility we already have in the streets is what gives us the in to be able to talk to someone about that — if you have no credibility, someone’s not going to listen to you,” Peck said.

Now all the men want to take what they’ve learned from their mistakes to make sure others don’t go down the same path.

Their work is vast. Through weekly visits to the Clark County Jail, Juvenile Detention Center and with parolees working with McKinley Hall, the trio meet with men and women who’ve already had runs-in with the law.

They also work with youth in the Promise Neighborhood, different church groups and organize neighborhood meetings of their own, just chatting with groups at local barber shops and hang outs.

But the men do more outside of the typical 9-to-5 work hours.

On a lunch break at McDonald’s one day, Stewart said they stumbled across an argument in the parking lot over money. Threats were thrown, a chainsaw appeared — it could have been a violent situation.

“You just got to jump in and intervene, you gotta be on your toes,” to step in and try to talk through the situation, Stewart said.

A lot of violence in the city is interconnected, both police and the Interrupters said.

The job of the community

Retaliatory violence is something the Interrupters want to stop.

They try to intervene and talk out problems on the streets before it escalates into violence.

If a shooting or violence happens, the group’s focus immediately goes to finding family and friends of the victim to calm the situation.

“Just to let it ride … by the code of the streets, that’s something that’s not easily achievable,” said Deontrae Ellis, supervisor of the Violence Interrupters.

But working just a few months in their target area — the south side of Springfield where nine of 12 murders in Springfield took place in 2015 — the Interrupters believe they’ve made progress.

The work the men are doing is spreading, White said.

“Word of mouth in Springfield spreads fast,” he said.

Three cities using Violence Interrupter crews went 365 consecutive days or more without a firearm homicide, according to Cure Violence data.

Ellis wants Springfield to be in that category.

“The sky’s the limit,” he said.

But for that to happen, all the men said it’s people in the community that need to take on that mindset.

Law enforcement’s job is to respond to crime, Ellis said, not stop it.

“The police are not going to go and have a conversation with a young man to put a gun down, because they don’t know that young man — that’s the job of the community,” he said.

Police will continue to foster relationships with the various churches, neighborhood organizations and programs they’ve been working with to combat violence, Moody said.

“We’re crime fighters, but the ability to connect and foster those connections in the community are essential and we’re never giving up on that,” the police chief said.

As for the people who choose to take the violent roads, Moody said his team will work tirelessly to get them off the streets.

“A lot of those folks have been sent away … We still have a lot of work to do,” he said.

>> DETAILS: Springfield police to hire up to 10 officers

If residents pass an income tax increase in November, the city could hire more officers, the police chief said, and re-start its Safe Streets Task Force to proactively address issues such as drug dealing, nuisance calls and violence.

At the same time, the Violence Interrupters will continue their mission to change lives.

“You have the power to influence people you live with and you have to use it,” Ellis said.

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