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This Police Captain’s Plan to Stop Gun Violence Uses More Than Handcuffs

Classes had just been dismissed at a high school in Brooklyn for teenagers who needed a second chance, when a student named Devonte Lewis stepped outside and into the cross hairs of his rivals. Two teenage gunmen opened fire, the police said, killing Mr. Lewis, who was 17.

The murder last April and the arrests in connection with it ignited an already simmering feud between Mr. Lewis’s grieving friends in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn and a rival crew in Flatbush that the authorities said his killers belonged to.

“That’s when it blew up,” said Capt. Derby St. Fort, the commanding officer of the 61st Precinct, which includes Sheepshead Bay. “People got shot, people were getting caught with guns, and I felt like there was urgency.”

Instead of taking the police’s usual approach of gathering enough evidence for a gang takedown as the dispute festered, Captain St. Fort decided to do something new with the information he already had: He shared it and asked for help.

He partnered with an anti-violence coalition and a neighborhood activist, whom he asked to gather 15 of the boys close to the dispute for weekly discussions led by a therapist at a local community center, paying them a $150 stipend to participate. Week after week, the boys kept coming back. In the four months since, none of them have been arrested with a gun or involved in a shooting, he said.

At a time when New York City is grappling with an unsettling rise in gun violence, the program represents a novel way to reduce crime by making community-based anti-violence work part of a precinct’s crime-fighting strategy.

“We can address gun violence differently than what we’re doing,” Captain St. Fort said. “We can have direct contact with the kids who are involved.”

The program is a sharp departure after decades of aggressive policing tactics that reacted to violence but rarely focused on preventing it. And it comes as Mayor Eric Adams, whose first weeks in office have been dominated by questions about violent crime and public safety, expresses support for a balanced approach to the problem.

Presenting what he called his Blueprint to End Gun Violence last month, Mr. Adams described spreading the responsibility for addressing shootings to all agencies of city government, and empowering neighborhood anti-violence organizations whose efforts have been stymied by bureaucratic hurdles and funding constraints. But Mr. Adams’s immediate plans also rely heavily on the police and on tactics that have been abused in the past.

In an email, a spokesman for Mr. Adams said the city was watching this and other programs that focus on prevention to see how they could be replicated.

The importance of the city’s response to gun violence was underscored on Thursday when President Biden attended a strategy meeting at New York City Police Department headquarters with the mayor, the governor and other local officials.

The heightened violence in New York has persisted for two years despite the fact that the police have made 25 percent more gun arrests and seized record numbers of illegal guns — 6,000 in 2021 alone, according to department statistics. The dynamic has pit those calling for a hard-line crackdown on gun violence against those pushing for investments in softer approaches that address the social inequality underpinning it.

The program in Sheepshead Bay appears to have found success with that gentler approach. The people in the healing circle were identified through arrest and intelligence reports as being close to the conflict in which Mr. Lewis was killed. But those same tools, Captain St. Fort said, can be used to identify and intervene in the lives of those who pose — and face — the greatest risk of violence.

During one recent meeting, the room brimmed with the boisterous energy of teenage boys as they feasted on plates of Caribbean food — stewed oxtails, escovitch fish, rice and cabbage — and designed their own high schools. (“No old people”— defined as adults over 25 — were allowed; pretty girls, though, were welcome.)

The centerpiece is called the healing circle, a group discussion led by a therapist, Kenton Kirby. Captain St. Fort listens and participates. They discuss a range of topics, including their experiences with violence and the police, and the gap between what they learn in school and the basics of adulthood.

“For young Black kids, there’s not been many spaces for redemption,” Mr. Kirby said. “And to have this opportunity to create that framework, I think, is really powerful.”

At the end of the session, each participant is paid $150 — a stipend that organizers point out is less than a tenth of the daily cost of keeping someone in jail. Organizers say the payments, which do not come from police funds, help keep the teenagers engaged and amount to less than what it costs to process arrests, take down gangs and pay officers overtime after a shooting.

Criminologists who study gangs and violence said the circle sounds promising because it allows the police to intervene in violence with an offer to help instead of a threat to punish, which can build trust. But it is too early to tell whether it will have a lasting effect or if it could be replicated in other neighborhoods or on a larger scale, they said.

“It’s one of those things where if it works — amazing,” said Aaron J. Chalfin, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. “But we just don’t have a strong sense yet that it works.”

James Mulvaney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said he was skeptical that the program could change the deeply ingrained attitudes of people who have accepted the risks that come with carrying a gun.

“If someone’s carrying a gun, they’ve already said, ‘Whatever, I can do my five years upstate,’” he said. “And you’re saying, here’s $150. Is that going to change things? No.”

Organizers concede that it has been difficult to recruit other young men. This week, two teenagers who had briefly visited the circle were arrested in connection with a shooting at Kings Plaza Mall in Mill Basin that was unrelated to the feud that led to Mr. Lewis’s murder. Both had also been arrested in November, the authorities said.

Young men who participate in the circle said it gave them a place where they felt safe speaking freely without worrying about how they would be perceived. They agreed to speak on the condition that they be identified by their middle names.

Alexander, 18, said he did not want to carry a gun, but he would rather not get caught without one and lose his life. Five of his friends were shot and killed last year, including Mr. Lewis, he said.

“I’d rather be caught with a pistol than my parents to be getting a call saying that your son was found murdered,” he said.

Rahmell, 19, said he wanted to retaliate after Mr. Lewis, his cousin, was killed. But the circle has helped him express his feelings without doing something he might regret. An aspiring rapper, he uses the stipend to pay for studio time for honing his lyrics and flow, he said.

“It helps me to know that I got someone who cares for me,” he said.

Dana Rachlin, the executive director of We Build the Block, the campaign behind the circle, said the strategy was both effective and relatively inexpensive. The program costs $30,000 for 16 weeks, and has been funded by private donations since a grant from the New York City Housing Authority ran out in December, she said. By comparison, the Police Department spent $600,000 to refurbish a nearby basketball court — a sum that could fund the healing circle for more than six years.

Darwin Ellis, the activist who drew the teenagers to the circle in Sheepshead Bay, has known the boys most of their lives. He said that many of their problems stemmed from being born poor and noted that three of the teens had once been caught stealing food from a local grocery store.

“All these kids needs is opportunity,” said Mr. Ellis, 30, who goes by the name Champ. “An opportunity would help save a lot of crime in the city. Just by getting the kids off the street for a few hours every week. Things like that could change a kid’s life.”

Alexander was arrested last year during a traffic stop, when officers searched him and found a gun in his jacket pocket.

His arrest opened doors that had previously been closed to him. Before, employers did not respond to his job applications. But since, he was hired by ManUp!, one of the anti-violence groups that the mayor wants to give more responsibility to defuse potentially violent conflicts. Alexander, who has two children, is also scheduled to graduate from high school this spring.

Even though he does not feel safe, he says that now, the stakes are too high for him to pick up a gun: “I’ve got goals, and a family that depends on me.”

Captain St. Fort said he did not expect every commander to sit for three hours of therapy every week or for programs like the healing circle to replace traditional policing. But he said there were practical ways that precinct commanders could provide meaningful support for community efforts to stop gun violence. For instance, he said, each time someone was arrested on gun charges, he required officers to refer the person to programs that offer help with things like food, housing and job training.

Barbara McFadden, the resident leader of NYCHA’s Nostrand Houses, and previously of the Sheepshead Bay Houses, said the changes instituted by Captain St. Fort have led to a noticeable difference in how the police and tenants of those developments interact.

In the past, when the police showed up to conduct patrols, the young men would run off. But when the police recently showed up to her building, she said they were polite and greeted the young people, who lingered and returned their hellos.

“I saw a comfortability — a trust factor,” she said. “It’s the tone that he set, it’s of respect.”

Chelsia Rose Marcius contributed reporting.

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