ANDREW Geohagen, a member of the Peace Management Initiative (PMI), has appealed to the Government to show respect for the work of violence interrupters who continue to put their lives at risk as they tap into the minds of young people susceptible to committing murders and perpetuating violent conflicts with the aim of effecting change.
Funding that was being given to the Citizen Security and Justice Programme to support PMI's national violence-interruption project was withdrawn by Government, which saw the PMI pulling out of more than 40 violence-prone communities across the island in which the entity was helping to keep the peace.
Minister of National Security Dr Horace Chang has criticised the programme on numerous occasions, labelling it ineffective. And despite repeated calls from the Opposition People's National Party for more funds to be pumped into the programme, the minister insisted, even during an address to Parliament, that he would not make any apology for saying that, "The current mechanism of social intervention has not worked and is not working. The idea of engaging some people who are involved in criminal activity for peace, is not going well with me." The minister said he would prefer to divert the funds into rehabilitating police stations and improving other aspects of the island's security forces as well as improving schools and other social programmes in communities.
Geohagen, however, asked that the Government have a sit-down with the group, whose members work 24 hours a day responding to crime and violence at the community level, even without funding.
More than 850 people have been murdered in Jamaica since the start of the year and, according to Geohagen, it is the work of violence interrupters that have helped to save a lot more people from being killed.
"We are calling on the Government to have some discussions with us to understand exactly what we are doing at the community level. Some of the times people assess violence interruption based on the murder rate, but you cannot assess a country based on murder rate.
"Sometimes a lot of lives are saved and much more people could have died if it wasn't for the intervention of violence interrupters. Violence interrupters should be a part of the national programme as it relates to social intervention. Maybe the minister doesn't understand who violence interrupters are."
"There is a thin line between gangsters and corner men. A number of youths hanging out in crews have no criminal record and have not been sentenced for anything. How can you say they are gangsters when it is courts that have to prove that?"
Social anthropologist and university lecturer Dr Herbert Gayle described the work of violence interrupters as "extremely important". Gayle said social programmes are geared towards youth who are at low to medium risk of involvement in violent crimes, while the group of people that have already started to get their hands dirty are ignored.
"There is no programme that deals with the high-risk ones, the ones that have already started. You need violence interrupters who can detect that violence is going to happen and who can redeploy the ones that are already combatant. People in the high-risk group are already involved in stuff. They are either gang members or involved in scamming and all kinds of stuff. We have not had the chance to do well with this group. We have not had a lot of agencies that deal with high-risk [ones]. A lot of the agencies we have on the ground working are better equipped for medium-risk children. Once a group calls itself violence interrupters, they have to interface with the high-risk ones or the combatants and there are not many on the ground," said Gayle.
"You have to have people working with all the groups. One of 20 young men between the ages of 15 and 34 are already high risk. That is a large group and you cannot leave that group unattended. The only response they have for that group is invasive and paramilitary policing. If you do that you will have continued murders. We need to get the ones who have not been in crime for a long time to go back to school and so forth," he added.
"In all the countries I have worked – Jamaica, Trinidad, Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala – the [number of] people working with combatants is very low. What is more likely to happen with the combatants is people employing them indirectly to do all kinds of stuff. They get drawn into organised crime and people give them little things because they are scared of them. There is no hardcore and structured work with them. If you can't redeploy the combatants, like get them to go back to school to dry up the pool from which gangs are drawn, somebody still has to work with the high-risk group or the combatants," said Gayle.
Anthony Clayton, The University of the West Indies professor of sustainable development, proffered that properly trained violence interrupters can play an important role in reducing homicides and other violent crimes. However, he argued that their work needs to be closely coordinated with the police.
He alluded to the success achieved by violence interruption programmes in some US cities.
"A number of US cities (including Indianapolis, Savannah, and Knoxville) are now operating violence interrupter programmes with some success. Key factors in determining whether or not they are successful include (a) the level of experience and training given to the violence interrupters and (b) the extent to which their efforts are properly recognised, financed, supported, and integrated with the work of the police.
"The role of the violence interrupters is to identify potentially lethal conflicts in the community and mediating to try to prevent those conflicts from escalating," Clayton said.
Communities in the Kingston Western Police Division have been benefiting greatly from the work of violence interrupters based on the testament of commanding officer Senior Superintendent Michael Phipps.
Phipps told the Jamaica Observer on Tuesday that groups operating in his division have been very helpful in trying to identify issues within communities and helping to bring solutions to problems that give rise to crime and violence.
Up to July 25, that police division had 43 murders in comparison to 70 during the corresponding period in 2021.
According to Phipps, a drop in killings and other criminal activities can be directly attributed to collaboration between the police and violence interrupters.
"That is why we are seeing reduction in crimes across the Kingston Western division. We have our Community Safety and Security Branch where we have a number of stakeholders who we normally have partnership with in trying to resolve issues in communities that give rise to the crime and violence. We have been working overtime with these groups and we have been seeing a number of successes, especially in areas like Admiral Town, where we have the violence interrupters group across Admiral Town. They are doing a remarkable job in quelling situations that give rise to crime and violence in that particular area," the senior officer told the Observer.