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Pursuing Peace

Among those working together to stop group violence are, from left, Yafinceio Harris of Peace During War; Brian Parsons of Urban Alliance; Michael Wilder of Peace During War; Thosha Suggs, mother of group violence victim Timothy Palmer; and Dave Boysen, Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Assistant Chief. Photo collage by Brian K. Powers. © 2019 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Street teams target individuals in effort to stop group violence

When it comes to violent crime in Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Assistant Chief Dave Boysen is focused on how many violent crime arrests he isn’t making.

That’s because of Group Violence Intervention (GVI), a strategy KDPS has been using since 2013 to reduce violent crime in the city. It’s a strategy that emphasizes communication and human interaction with “street groups” that have the propensity to commit violent crimes.

“Most of your shootings and violent crime has a group dynamic in it,” Boysen explains. “And if you can deal with that small percentage of these high-risk people that are involved in these groups, you can really make a big difference impacting (the) overall amount of violent crime in your city and shootings.”

As of 2017, less than half of 1 percent of Kalamazoo’s residents were responsible for 50 percent of the homicides and nonfatal shootings in the city, according to KDPS. And many of those offenders had some sort of group affiliation.

Group violence is unique in that one incident is significantly more likely to set off a cycle of retaliation that perpetuates the violence, Boysen says.

“If you’re in a street group and if you get shot and wounded, you’re expected amongst your peers to retaliate, and if you don’t, you show weakness and you look like you’re weak out there,” he says.

Boysen sees the first few years of the GVI program as evidence of its success. In 2014 there were 47 shootings in the city, 20 of which had a group member involved. But in 2017, the number of shootings had dropped to 28, 15 of them involving group members. The years in between also showed a downward trend.

Group-involved shootings rose significantly, however, in the first half of 2018, so GVI took immediate action, and the number of these shootings dropped from 11 in the first half of the year to seven in the second half.

Direct communication

There are two parts to the GVI strategy. The first is to figure out who the groups are and offer help to certain individual members who have been involved in violence previously.

The word “group” is intentionally broad. It’s been made clear by Boysen and others involved in GVI that Kalamazoo is not dealing with gangs. The city’s groups are too small and disorganized to be considered gangs, they say. What the city does have are people who are connected by familial relationships or location and might, for example, control a “territory” (such as a particular block or street) or deal drugs together.

“And then it’s just direct communication with them,” Boysen says. “That’s one of the things that we didn’t ever do before.”

A GVI team reaches out to group members who have been involved in a violent act and have the potential to get involved in another one. The aim is to give them a way out of the cycle of violence. KDPS, for example, helps group members in getting education or employment by connecting them with specific social service organizations and community members.

The second step, which is a “last resort,” involves KDPS using threats of increased enforcement to try to ensure that violent offenders don’t, for example, “pick up a gun” again, Boysen says.

KDPS does this through two primary forms of communication: “custom notification letters,” which are used to reach out to a group member personally, and “call-ins,” where people on probation or parole who are members of groups involved in violence are brought in, as a condition of their parole, to hear an anti-violence message from law enforcement, social services, faith organizations and community members, which they could then spread to their respective groups.

At the program’s first call-in, in June 2017, law enforcement officials told the 22 attendees that they care about them and are doing everything they can to keep them alive and safe. But they also gave them notice that the next group whose member committed a homicide in the city or was the most violent group would face enhanced law enforcement attention.

“We’re looking at (people at) high risk for not only being suspects, but at high risk for victimization,” Boysen says.

‘It’s not OK’

The sharp uptick in group-involved shootings in the first half of 2018 prompted GVI to have a second call-in, on July 19 of that year.

During both call-ins, attendees heard from someone directly affected by group violence: Thosha Suggs, the mother of Tim Palmer, who, at 18, was shot and killed, on July 8, 2007.

Palmer had graduated from Loy Norrix High School a few weeks earlier. He was the front-seat passenger in a car at the intersection of Portage Street and East Stockbridge Avenue when he was shot in the head, according to documents from the U.S. District Court.

Rendae West, then 17, was found guilty for killing Palmer. He allegedly shot into the vehicle and then drove past it, according to witness accounts outlined in court documents. Shortly before the shooting, West had reportedly gotten into a fight with one of the car’s other passengers.

Palmer died the next day.

“It wasn’t even his beef,” Suggs says. “He was at the wrong place at the wrong time, hanging with his boys, when he got the bullet. It wasn’t even meant for him.”

Talking about her son’s death was especially difficult for the first few years after Palmer died, and it still is hard, Suggs says. But she told her son’s story at the first GVI call-in in 2017 and returned this past summer to do it again at the second call-in. Her message is simple.

“You got to realize that it’s not OK when you’re taking people’s family,” she says. “You come out here and you bring a gun to a fistfight and think that stuff is OK.”

Many of the those at the call-in were about as old as Palmer would have been were he still alive, Suggs says, and she made a point of making them think about their own families.

“Y’all are somebody’s baby,” she told them. “You have to realize that you have family and you have put your mom in that predicament, or if you have a baby, put (it) in that predicament, put yourself in that predicament. Would you want this pain thrust upon your family?”

Second chances

In the seven months after the first call-in, seven people sought education assistance and job training provided by GVI’s partner at the time, Goodwill Industries of Southwestern Michigan. Of those seven, only two set up follow-up meetings, one of whom has gone on to get a job at a retail distribution center with the organization’s help, according to Linda Snyder, Goodwill’s coordinator for Life Guides, education and grants.

Goodwill stopped being GVI’s social service provider in June because the nonprofit did not give enough resources to the program, says Boysen.

Area Goodwill President and CEO John Dillworth says Goodwill needed to focus its “limited resources” on Life Guides, the nonprofit’s “20-year commitment to families with a child 0 to 3 (years old) who want to exit poverty.”

Another local nonprofit, the community development organization Urban Alliance, took over the lead social services role for GVI and was present at the second call-in.

“It just made sense,” says Brian Parsons, senior director of programming at UA. “We’re already serving individuals who have gone through group violence. We’ve been active in the neighborhoods since our beginning.”

Urban Alliance’s outreach arm had been involved in GVI since its inception, Parsons says. After UA was given the primary social service role, its job training program, Momentum, and its case management team got involved.

Momentum is a six-week program that includes 200 hours of class and “volunteer work experience,” according to the Urban Alliance. Those who finish the program are given the opportunity to apply for jobs with about 50 local partner businesses, including Schupan & Sons, Sigma Machine, L.C. Howard Transportation, Getman Corp., Bronson Methodist Hospital and Greenleaf Hospitality.

The program has a 93 percent placement rate, and 80 percent of those who are placed achieve 90 days of employment, Parsons says.

“We understand that there are a lot of different roads that lead to very unfortunate situations,” Parsons says, noting that the nonprofit has three people dedicated to GVI, including himself. “Many of us on staff have been in similar situations as what the individuals who are coming to us through GVI (are in).”
One group member started participating in the Momentum program in January after receiving a custom notification letter, Parsons says. “We were able to assist him with a utility bill, coordinate services for him, and we connected him with resources to purchase Christmas gifts for his seven children,” Parsons says.

Fair warning

Call-ins are designed to serve as a wake-up call to offenders, and Andrew Birge, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, says he hopes he delivered that message when he spoke at the call-ins.

“My role was to explain to the audience that they do not want to commit a crime that gets prosecuted federally,” Birge says. “Many federal offenses have mandatory minimum punishments. There is no parole in the federal system, so offenders will not get released early. My office wins a conviction in 90 to 96 percent of the cases we bring, so no one is likely to shake a federal charge.”

Cases of continued violence or gun crimes related to groups are considered by Birge’s office and Kalamazoo’s prosecutor for federal prosecution, he says. The threat of what might otherwise be a local prosecution being made a federal case is an added deterrent, Birge says.

“We — I mean law enforcement broadly — want to send strong deterrent messages,” he says, “but we also want to be meeting with ex-offenders to tell them I would like nothing more than to not prosecute them simply because they’re making the right choices.”

The call-ins are an opportunity to give “fair warning” to group members while also providing opportunities, Birge says.

“The effort creates collective accountability, internal social pressure that deters violence, a clear community norm against violence, an honorable exit for group members from the cycles of violence, and a support path for those willing to change,” he says.

Adding to this message, KDPS informed call-in attendees that their groups risked facing “enhanced attention” if the violence didn’t stop, Boysen says.

“We had a group that was involved in a shooting after (the 2017 call-in) and then a homicide,” he says. “So we dropped what we were doing and went after this particular group.”

That included arresting members of the group who had warrants out for their arrest, making sure members on probation adhered to their curfews, and getting search warrants for places related to the group that were suspected to contain drugs.

“We want them to know, ‘Hey, your group is a target because you guys commit violence, and you better tell your buddies to put the guns down because we’re not going to stop until they do,’” Boysen says. “Nobody wants special attention from law enforcement. They want to operate kind of behind the scenes, and if they’re getting special attention, they want it to cool off.”

In 2018, KDPS followed through on its enforcement threat twice, resulting in 20 arrests and six firearm seizures.

Boysen makes it clear that GVI’s goal isn’t to remove these people or even groups from Kalamazoo.

“The whole point of this strategy is not group eradication, because we’re going to have groups in the city,” he says. “But we don’t want violent groups in the city. You can call yourself ‘whatever block’ as long as you’re not picking up guns and shooting people.”

‘Honorable exit’

While call-ins are a large part of GVI’s strategy, the program’s primary method of communication is the custom notification letter delivered to a group member who is suspected of being at risk for committing a violent crime, often because the group member or someone they know was a target of a violent act.

Each letter is tailored to the individual receiving it and, whenever possible, delivered by a three-member team, including a KDPS officer, a social services representative and one of specially selected community members called “street outreach workers.” The letter tells a group member that the police know who they are and warns them that if they’re caught with a gun or in a violent act, they can end up in federal prison based on their criminal history.

In 2017, KDPS delivered 16 custom notifications. In 2018, the department delivered 18.

“We found that the letter gives people an out, because if you get shot and you’re in a group, it’s almost expected of you to retaliate,” Boysen says. “If you have that letter and you show it to your friends, it gives you an honorable exit to stop the violence, which is all we’re really trying to do — break that cycle of shooting and retaliation with another shooting or assault.”

An unlikely partnership

Michael Wilder is one of the street outreach workers for GVI, but he says it’s important that people know he’s not a “snitch.”

“I’ll beat guys up for saying that,” Wilder says. “My integrity is intact. I’m not a snitch. I’m helping cops keep y’all out of jail.”

The now 45-year-old Wilder spent about 20 years as a drug dealer in Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties. After his third stint in prison ended in 2008, he set out to reinvent himself. He went to Kalamazoo Valley Community College, graduating in 2014 with an associate’s degree in applied sciences and starting a mentoring organization called Peace During War.

When Boysen, who had “busted” Wilder on several occasions when he worked in KDPS’ drug unit, learned of Wilder’s anti-violence mentoring efforts through Peace During War, he reached out to him. Wilder was in his last year at KVCC and had a warrant for his arrest at the time for not paying child support, Wilder says.

“Now (if) they would have arrested me for that warrant, I would’ve went to the county jail,” Wilder says. “I would’ve been in there for about 40 days, (and) my class at the college would have kept going. When I got out, I would’ve flunked those classes, which meant that I owed the college money. So when I went to go back in school, they would have said, ‘Oh, you can come back, but you got to pay us $700 first.’ I (didn’t) have $700, so I would have never went back to college.”

To Wilder’s surprise, Boysen didn’t arrest him on the outstanding warrant. Instead, the KDPS captain pitched the GVI strategy to Wilder, hoping he would be willing to get involved.

“I’m not going to help them put nobody in prison, and I told them that from the gate when I met them,” Wilder says. “I said, ‘But if y’all help me put something together where I can keep my people out of prison, I’m willing to work with y’all.’ And they said, ‘That’s exactly what we would like to do.’ And so we’ve been working together ever since.”

Wilder was one of the first street outreach workers that Boysen recruited. Wilder has done only one custom notification so far as part of the GVI team, but Boysen says he plays an important role in “breaking down” barriers between law enforcement and the communities where groups exist.

“The key thing we realized is (that) it was a risk for Michael to meet with us,” Boysen says, “because his friends are saying, ‘Hey, what are you doing with the cops? Are you a snitch?’ But it was also a risk for us to build a relationship with someone like Michael, because our peers, our coworkers, say, ‘Hey, what do you need this guy for? He’s a drug dealer’ and ‘Why are talking to this guy? He’s a felon.’”

Wilder is one of six to eight outreach workers that KDPS works with and that Boysen is in contact with weekly.

“Those people are just very valuable for us to be able to work with,” Boysen says. “They get doors opened for us that we normally wouldn’t (be able to open).”

In one instance, an individual was in the hospital after being shot three times and refused to talk to the police, but an outreach worker was able to convince the victim to do so.

“That’s one of the biggest reasons violence is down is because we have a true partnership with not just law enforcement, but community members, too,” says Boysen.

The difference that not arresting Wilder for that warrant made in his life was eye-opening, Boysen says.

“That was good for my team to realize what a huge impact we can have on people’s lives, in both a positive and negative way.”

Adam Rayes

Adam, who is working as an intern at Encore Publications, is somewhat new to Kalamazoo, so his story this month on the Kalamazoo State Theatre’s 90th anniversary not only gave him an opportunity to see the interior of the historic theater for the first time, but triggered a desire to learn more about Kalamazoo’s rich culture and history. Adam is a native of Monroe and is majoring in journalism at Western Michigan University.

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