Springfield’s ‘violence interrupters’ hit the streets

A program to reduce violence in the streets of Springfield will kick off today with the announcement of the men chosen to be ‘violence interrupters’ in the city.

The program starts after violence in Springfield hit a 14-year high in 2015.

Sean Lollis, 48, and Thomas Stewart, 32, have been tasked with being eyes and ears in the street with a goal to mediate conflict before it can escalate to gunfire, said Deontrae Ellis, supervisor of the Violence Interrupters program through McKinley Hall.

“It may be hard, but it’s not impossible,” Lollis said.

The two men grew up in Springfield, and admit they have made bad choices in their lives, but now they want to take their own experiences to spark a change in others’ lives.

Both men, their supervisor, Ellis —a therapist at McKinley Hall — and other community groups that will be involved in Violence Interrupters will meet tonight at Restored Life Ministries, 1117 Innisfallen Ave., at 6 p.m.

Violence Interrupters creator Tio Hardiman will also be at the event.

Hardiman started the interrupters philosophy in Chicago in 2004 in response to violence, and it has spread to 15 cities across the country.

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.

All cities involved in the program saw a drop in violence of at least 40 percent over a year’s time.

Violence has an close connection with mental health issues, said McKinley Hall CEO Wendy Doolittle.

Chosen interrupters need to have a connection to the streets and an understanding of the problems the people causing crime face in their lives, Ellis said.

“If you can tap into some of the deep, emotional issues that a person may be having and really get them to open up to you, you can really change the way a person thinks,” he said.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or therapy that challenges negative patterns or thoughts in a person’s life, is what Ellis said is the science behind this program.

“This is cutting edge,” Ellis said.

He and his co-workers have faith they can make a difference in the community.

The time Lollis spent on the streets and in prison before turning his life around is what he said will help him connect with the community.

“My goal is to save one person and, hopefully, that one person can save someone and pay it forward,” Lollis said.

When Edwards hears of a shooting in Springfield, he fears it could be his friend or family member hit with the bullet.

“I’m trying to build more love out here,” Edwards said.

The violence interrupters will travel to Chicago to finish their training at the program’s headquarters to shadow others in the job.

A group of 20 men and women currently going through court-mandated parole after being convicted of violent crimes will start the program when the interrupters return to Springfield.

McKinley Hall will spend $30,000 to cover the bulk of the cost for the program. The Clark County Prosecutor’s Office will kick in $15,000, the city $5,000 and the Turner Foundation $5,000, Doolittle said.

About the Author