In 2012, Grand Rapids saw an outburst of violent crime, including nine homicides in which all of the victims died from gunshot wounds.
This week, two community groups called Urban League and Network 180 are hosting a series of meetings to inform the public about possible solutions and to begin a discussion about the future of violence in the Grand Rapids community.
Raynard Ross is a resident of Grand Rapids and works with Upward Bound at Grand Rapids Community College. Ross also serves on a panel to address the issue of violence within the Grand Rapids community.
According to Ross, street violence has reached a level of “borderline madness.”
“There’s a lot of retaliatory violence,” Ross said. “[Grand Rapids] is relatively small, so the degree of separation with those involved is one or two degrees tops. We’ve found that a lot of this violence is occurring based on misunderstandings and things begin to snowball and escalate and next thing you know we have something that could have been squashed by some early interrupting.”
That’s where someone like Cobe Williams comes in.
Williams works as a violence interrupter with Cure Violence, an NGO based in Chicago that works to reduce gun violence.
“We look at violence as a disease that’s spread from one person to another,” Williams said. “We get out in the communities and build relationships with people on an every day basis. We do a lot of listening to the young men and women of the community. Our whole approach is to reduce the killings and violence but also to change their thinking and mindset. We don't tell people they shouldn't be in a gang and shouldn't sell drugs, we build relationships and meet them where they are."
As an interrupter, Williams works within the community he grew up in, which makes the seemingly dangerous job less threatening.
"I was part of the problem and now I'm part of the solution. I took so much out of the community and I just want to give back to it," Williams said.
Williams instantly equated his job as an interrupter to a well known career, a firefighter.
"When something's erupting in the community, it's my job to put out the flame. It's my job to stop the shooting and killing everyday, I mediate conflicts...When I hear something's going on, it's my job to go out and stop it," Williams said.
The success of Cure Violence in Chicago is encouraging to Ross.
Though Cure Violence only works with 15-20 percent of Chicago, the results have been encouraging. In a study done by the Department of Justice, the Chicago neighborhood where Williams used to work had a 40 percent reduction in shootings and a 100 percent reduction in retaliation homicides.
"I definitely see a change with some of these young people," Williams said. "I do a lot of follow up contact with them and I can see they're making a difference in how they're thinking."
If Ross's group initiated the program in Grand Rapids, the economic component would fall somewhere around $250,000 a year for a three-year pilot program. Soon, Ross and his team plan to spend time in Chicago to get a feel for the ins and outs of the model and to decide if it's a program they want to use.
"It definitely can't hurt and will very likely help if the city gets behind it," Ross said. "We are committed to be more solution oriented. We understand the problems well enough and now it's time to address them."
- Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom