New Orleans ended the violence interrupters program, but at what cost?

It’s still unclear, after two years, whether Pep’s street team died a deliberate death or one driven primarily by neglect and misunderstanding, within an office that is now in disarray.

For nearly a decade, Calvin Pep used what he’d learned on the streets to stop bloodshed through Cure Violence, a city-funded effort to prevent violence.

From his teen years on, Pep had been “both a victim and a perpetrator,” as he describes himself. He’d been shot. He’d faced a murder charge. 

His co-workers had similar pasts. For a decade, his street team at Cure Violence (formerly CeaseFire) had the credibility to access people involved – and they kept law enforcement at arm’s length, to maintain that credibility.

Called “credible messengers,” they tried to prevent shootings at a neighborhood-level, by identifying and mediating conflicts. They all had their ears to the streets, because they used to be on them, said Pep, who eventually rose to become the director of the Cure Violence New Orleans.

Pep believed that the work was effective. He wanted to continue it. 

But Pep reluctantly resigned in July of 2021, several months after New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell created the Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

It became impossible to do the work, Pep said, citing fundamental changes to the program. 

Essentially, the new office dismantled, then abandoned, the concept of credible messengers. Most troubling were orders to work with law enforcement, Pep said. That had been a complete taboo. If they worked alongside police, responders would run the risk of being seen as snitches.

“Like, we didn’t do that,” Pep told The Lens recently. “It was totally against our model to have any affiliation with law enforcement, period. I was all right with the prevention and the intervention, but I have nothing to do with apprehension.”

So, two years ago, he left.

He’d worked with a network of roughly 15 credible messengers. Some left before him. Some followed him as he left. None remain.

It’s still unclear, after two years, whether Pep’s street team died a deliberate death or one driven primarily by neglect and misunderstanding, within an office that is now in disarray.

But one thing is crystal clear: that work is not being done. Today, at the Office of Gun Violence, nearly all programs have almost completely shut down

The office’s agreement with its long-time fiscal agent, Urban League of Louisiana, lapsed at the end of 2022. The office had planned to transfer the agreement to the mayor’s non-profit, Forward Together New Orleans. That fell through amid investigations of the organization

So, in January of this year, the office laid off all of its employees. Only its director, Patrick Young, remains. 

Since then, the office has struggled to find a new fiscal agent. Last month, Young told The Lens that a new agreement with University Medical Center to take over the role was imminent, but the administration has not responded to repeated follow-up questions about whether or not it has been signed.

Meanwhile, New Orleans health director, Dr. Jennifer Avegno, is working to build a new gun violence prevention program with many of the same touted goals as the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, but with significantly more financial backing. Insiders say those efforts are slated to start ramping up this summer.

Looking forward, Pep and his former co-workers don’t know what to expect. 

Avegno says that a portion of her new effort will consist of a violence-interrupter program working in communities and connecting with shooting victims at hospitals, but it is unclear exactly what that will look like — including who will be hired to do the outreach, and whether or not they will maintain the same distance from law enforcement that CeaseFire did. 

In response to questions from The Lens, Avegno said that the Health Department is “working to redevelop these programs with both criminal-justice-reform advocates and those who have most impacted by the criminal system” and hopes to “create a violence interrupter ecosystem that hopefully reduces the burden off of law enforcement.” She said they have reached out to former violence interrupters with CeaseFire and Cure Violence.

Pep says he is watching with interest. He has yet to be contacted. 

Looking back, Pep and others mourn several years lost, as credible messengers took a declining role, then were eliminated entirely. They could have made a significant dent in the city’s retaliatory violence, if the Cantrell administration had kept them on the streets, Pep said.

Two years ago, around when Pep resigned, the Office of Gun Violence Prevention replaced the Cure Violence street-team model with a Crisis Intervention Team that connected with victims of gun violence in hospitals and family members at the scenes of homicides, but did not actively seek to intervene in conflicts on the streets. 

Pep heard that the Cure Violence model was being supplanted by the Crisis Intervention Team and resigned the next day.

That left a vacuum where there once was action, said Norris Henderson, founder of the Voice of the Experienced, who helped the program get off the ground. For instance, he described a recent spiral of connected events: a man’s murder, followed by a burning restaurant and a murdered woman.

“People see these events and think they’re coincidences,” Henderson said. But he’s heard otherwise. Though he never worked as a violence interrupter, he knew most of the people who did. “The streets talk to them,” he said. So, Pep and his staff could have intervened – had they still been on the job. 

Instead, Henderson felt powerless, he said. “It’s like, ‘Well, get your popcorn and watch.’”

‘It was working perfectly’

The ultimate demise of the violence interrupter program is curious, given the degree to which it was celebrated by city officials — including Cantrell — while it was active.  

About a dozen years ago, Henderson traveled to Chicago with colleague Robert Goodman to study the Chicago-based non-violence model, developed by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin. Upon their return, they discussed the New Orleans launch with the City Council’s criminal-justice committee chair, Councilman James Carter. 

Treating violence like a contagious epidemic, Slutkin’s model revolved around credible messengers, who prevent the spread of violence by identifying and defusing conflicts before they turn violent, and by connecting resources with people most at risk of violence, either as victims or perpetrators. While there has been some national debate around the effectiveness of violence-interrupter programs, most city leaders in New Orleans have seemed to agree that the national Cure Violence model worked to reduce homicides here.

The local program, initially called CeaseFire New Orleans, launched in 2012 as part of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s NOLA for Life murder-reduction effort. Because its pilot area was a 10-by-10 block section of Central City, most of its early messengers had roots there. 

A year later, it expanded to include a hospital-response team who would talk to family members and victims, then head to the city’s hotspots to stop retaliation. (Eventually, team members would also lead group sessions with at-risk students in selected middle and high schools.)

Five years later, in 2017, the Central City area saw a 200-day span with no murders. 

“It was working perfectly,” Henderson said.

Norris Henderson, founder of the Voice of the Experienced

But in 2013, as it expanded from Central City to the UMC Trauma Center, Henderson saw resources start to spread too thin, as the program recruited culturally competent messengers from different neighborhoods across town. If bursts of violence were popping off in Algiers, the 7th Ward or the 17th Ward, CeaseFire wanted to have someone on its hospital-response team who could find out with a single phone call what the root of the issue was — and exactly who they should speak with, to stop further bloodshed.

Before Avegno landed at City Hall as Cantrell’s health director, she worked at University Medical Center, where she came into contact with the CeaseFire team as it did hospital response, talking with victims and families and heading to neighborhoods to conduct real-time response to neighborhoods that had experienced shooting. 

In early 2018, three months before Cantrell took office, Avegno, who now serves as Cantrell’s health director, published a column for the daily paper touting the success of the program. “CeaseFire New Orleans is now considered the national model for this program,” she wrote. “Other major cities such as Minneapolis and St. Louis regularly send delegations to understand our local operations and adopt them.”

Landrieu-administration reports were similarly optimistic. A 2016 NOLA for Life progress report claimed a 15 percent decline in the average “shooting rate” – shootings per 1,000 people – during the program’s first three years when compared to the prior three, and noted that more than 300 violent conflicts had been identified and mediated. Reports also contained glowing testimonials about how the overall toll of violence had shifted in other ways, through connections with jobs, practical advice, and changed personal outlooks. 

“Everyone was boasting and bragging,” said Henderson, who saw the program as a success, ready to expand and become more successful, if given the right support.

The program counted Cantrell as one of their stalwart supporters. “She was down with CeaseFire,” Henderson recalled.

In a 2018 op-ed, published months after her inauguration, Cantrell announced that her administration would “broaden the scope and reach” of CeaseFire under a new name, Cure Violence. “Gang and gun violence interruption efforts will continue,” she wrote.

In 2019, Cantrell released a Generational Gun Violence Reduction Plan that included Cure Violence as one of its three “core components.” 

Even today, the Office of Gun Violence Prevention website bears traces of that plan: it claims that it has a Crisis Intervention Team that is following a Cure Violence model to interrupt conflicts “before they turn violent, by using culturally competent messengers as violence interrupters and mediators.” 

Then, over subsequent months and years, the Cantrell administration and the Office of Gun Violence Prevention shelved the “credible messenger” model. 

Partners outside the city saw it too. Charlie Ransford, Senior Director of Science & Policy with Cure Violence Global, said that he recalls the city’s relationship with the national organization — which once provided training and technical support to the New Orleans program —  began fading out when Cantrell came into office. 

“And so at some point, though, we became no longer contractually involved,” Ransford said. 

The once-vigorous program just faded, Henderson says.

“I saw it unravel in front of my face,” he said. “It was like what they say about the month of March. It came in like a lion, went out like a lamb.”

‘We lost momentum’

Though gradual, the program’s changes began in the early days of the Cantrell administration.

In May of 2018, Cantrell’s transition team recommended that she scrap Landrieu’s broader NOLA for Life plan, concluding that it was over-reliant on “short-term solutions” and utilized “under-funded programs not directly connected to the goal of violence reduction.” (In addition to CeaseFire and other social interventions, NOLA for Life also included law-enforcement interventions that utilized controversial predictive policing software.)

But Cantrell said she would continue with the violence interrupter portion of the program. In the fall, she announced the Cure Violence initiative, pitched as a beefed-up version of CeaseFire. The new initiative officially expanded the program beyond the Central City target area, while adhering to the Cure Violence national model, with violence interrupters at the center.

Cantrell also convened a gun-violence-reduction task force, charged with creating “a comprehensive plan to measurably and sustainably reduce gun violence in New Orleans.” 

The task force was highly supportive of Cure Violence, emphasizing that it “must continue to operate” and noting the importance of credible messengers, according to a 2019 memo to Cantrell from Joshua Cox, who oversaw Cure Violence as strategic director to the mayor.

“The value of community engagement and relationship building cannot be overstated in the pursuit to identify, mediate, and prevent conflict that could result in violence,” Cox wrote. “It is difficult to measure the effect of Cure Violence, as you cannot calculate how many shootings would have happened if Cure staff had not been present. However, other municipalities that did attempt to quantify the effect found that communities and neighborhoods where Cure Violence staff was present had less violence-endorsing social norms.”

Philosophically, the administration seemed to be placing its wholesale support behind Cure Violence and its violence-interruption model. But behind the scenes, something different was happening.

It’s unclear whether that disconnect flowed from the administration’s initial determination to differentiate itself from NOLA For Life efforts or whether management decisions, and indecision, took it in another direction. 

As Cantrell took office, Cure Violence staffers were told that change was imminent, said Pep and another longtime co-worker, Hakim Kashif.

Immediately, they were told to stop working the streets, canvassing neighborhoods and distributing CeaseFire information. “We lost momentum when you walked in the door and said, ‘We ain’t doin nothing,’” Pep said, recalling the instructions that came down from the mayor’s office. They were told, he said: “Don’t pass out no more CeaseFire t-shirts, cards, fliers, wristbands. That was the call that came down from City Hall.” 

The Cantrell administration did not respond to questions from The Lens regarding Pep’s characterization of those instructions.

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, they were further pulled away from violence-interruption work, working at COVID-19 testing sites and helping with anti-contagion efforts within homeless populations.

The confusion surrounding the program was described in an August 2020 memo from Cox to Cantrell, in which Cox described scrambling for grants to keep the office afloat financially to the point of having to lay off six part-time employees. (The money to make it through the year would come from a $100,000 grant and an additional allocation of Wisner Fund revenue.)  

Cox also saw problems beyond finances. “Cure Violence has been plagued by the lack of a clear vision and strategic approach for reducing gun violence,” he wrote. 

Cox believed that the Cure Violence team had gotten off-track through the pandemic-related assignments. “While noble, those assignments aren’t directly linked to gun-violence reduction, and the targeted community engagement required to act swiftly and effectively during a violent conflict was not happening,” wrote Cox, noting that he was searching for a new executive director for the program — a job that would eventually be given to Pep.

The fundamental model still seemed intact. Though hobbled by the layoffs, Cure Violence still retained nine violence interrupters and one administrative person.

Under the heading “strategic restructuring,” Cox’s memo outlined his own vision, to re-organize staff with a focus on five ZIP codes, in Mid-City, the 9th Ward, West Bank and New Orleans East. He assigned each ZIP code zone to a specific team member who would “be responsible for building lasting community relationships in the area and leading the response to a shooting that happens.” Team members would be evaluated based on violence-reduction in their specific areas over time, he wrote. 

That stretched the interrupters thin, Pep said, and led to insufficient resources for at-risk people who ended up on their caseloads. 

‘They could not produce the amount of paperwork that was required’

The following year, in 2021, the restructured program was again restructured, with the creation of the Office of Gun Violence Prevention. 

The new office hired Tamara Jackson, a licensed social worker and executive director of the victim-advocacy group Silence is Violence, to head up a new hospital and community outreach team. 

Jackson’s hospital team talked with victims and their families. They addressed clinical matters such as counseling and did risk assessments to address how victims could be safely released into a community where they had just been shot. They also launched two desperately needed services, providing for victim reparation and relocation, she said. 

A second team, the street team, responded in real time when shooting incidents happened, talking first with the victim and family members, then engaging with neighbors, putting up signs and handing out information about their efforts.

But the new street team did not actively seek out or mediate conflicts, nor did it ascribe to the “credible messenger” concept in hiring. The new office also failed to maintain the strict separation from law enforcement maintained by CeaseFire. 

Jackson found no violence-interruption data when she arrived, she said. Gathering data was also nearly impossible, because the staff of violence interrupters fell far short on the paperwork needed to document community interactions, Jackson and Young said.

“I wasn’t getting those reports,” said Young, who began making staff changes. “I had to hire people who were willing to do those reports….We hired social workers, who knew how to evaluate and assess. We did follow-ups, family visits, at homes and in the hospital – which were documented.”

Jackson realized that a significant number of street-team members were not doing paperwork because of literacy challenges. Despite that, some street-team members made concerted efforts, she said. “Some of the guys really worked hard. But it was difficult for them. They could not produce the amount of paperwork that was required. I developed forms. Hospital-response intake forms, most times, were not even filled out. And when the city moved to an electronic database, they just could not do that.” 

Henderson would argue that literacy should not be a job requirement, given the nature of the work. “I know people who can’t spell their name, but when they tell people on the street to stand down, people listen. Very few people can do that,” he said.

Jackson’s criticisms go further, to the model itself, which she doesn’t believe has ever been effective in New Orleans. The model was developed in Chicago to prevent planned gang violence, she emphasizes, making it a mismatch for New Orleans, where much of the violence stems from simmering interpersonal disputes.

That is the way it’s been for Cure Violence since it was launched. At any given time, it has both stalwart critics, who feel like the program is misguided, alongside hardcore adherents, who sing its praises. 

Ultimately, that’s because – as Cox noted in his memo – something that doesn’t happen cannot be counted. So data can show interactions with Cure Violence and its presence in communities. It can show declines in shootings, but it can’t explain why they declined. 

Even if everyone did every piece of paperwork: its numbers can never deliver the ultimate data point: how many murders did Cure Violence truly prevent?   

Data aside, Jackson doesn’t shy away from her critique. Despite the earlier, glowing praise from officials, Jackson doesn’t believe that the credible messenger model was ever effective in New Orleans.

She believes that the much-vaunted drop in violence in Central City was largely due to economic trends that had largely gentrified the neighborhood. Beyond Central City, she didn’t believe that Cure Violence hadn’t followed new trends quickly enough. “As crime moved and shifted, the program didn’t move and shift,” she said.

Following her instincts and her understanding of the existing data and research, Jackson pivoted to a more “holistic,” clinical social work perspective, using her hospital team to focus on victims, their families, and the community. 

With that approach, she said, it wasn’t productive to keep law enforcement at arm’s length. 

“I’m not investigating the crime at all,” she said. “But I put them in touch with the people who can answer their questions. Because victims want to know the officer investigating their case. They want to know, if someone was shot in their car, can they get their car back, or can they get property out of that car? …. So I didn’t view it as Pep describes, where we’ll compromise the safety or integrity of the team.”

Young said that another reason for the shift in mission stemmed from a suspicion that some interrupters had continued engaging in illegal activities — a relatively common issue in interrupter programs throughout the country. Just last month, a former Cure Violence staffer pleaded guilty to federal drug charges and is facing a minimum ten-year sentence.

Pep said that relapses in New Orleans were handled swiftly. “The moment we found out, we dealt with it.”

When asked about the new approach to violence-reduction, Young usually cites the office’s Barber Shops and Beauticians Fellowship, a seven-week program that trained shop owners in conflict resolution. He believes that the program, which was part of his larger vision of community-based “peace ambassadors” was more likely to succeed because it trained people already in the community, instead of bringing in credible messengers.

Pep, who trained the first cohort, scoffs at the idea that the program was a suitable replacement. “They’re not on the street,” Pep said. “How can you interrupt violence from the barbershop?” 

‘We got caught up in the politics’

Pep and his former colleagues say that the decision to abandon the violence-interrupter model was a deadly mistake – one that stemmed from a political desire by Cantrell to distinguish her administration from Landrieu’s, not a considered calculation of its effectiveness. 

At a city council committee meeting earlier this year, during which former Cure Violence staff member Hakim Kashif testified, City Council President JP Morrell echoed that sentiment.

“It is unconscionable to me that we had programs like CeaseFire and Cure Violence that worked, and they were dismantled,” Morrell said. “We’ve never gotten a reason why that happened, other than they were holdovers from the last administration.”

The Cure Violence staff, too, believes that their work became mired in forces beyond their control. “When we came under the second administration, we got caught up in the politics,” Kashif said. 

The biggest question is whether at least some of the rise in violence in the city can be pegged to the decision.

“As I always say, the streets talk,” Henderson said. “How do 11, 12 and 13-year-old kids have guns? The street team would already know where the guns were coming from. They don’t even have to ask. It comes to them without them even asking.” 

“When you have a violence-interruption model that works, you squelch the beef,” Morrell told Kashif at the council meeting. “What’s been lacking is when you guys were taken out of the equation, there is no one squelching the beef.”

The expertise provided by the Office of Gun Violence Prevention’s Crisis Intervention Team could provide more needed heft to the overall violence reduction strategy, Pep said. But he believes that the larger strategy is incomplete without credible messengers working at arm’s length from law enforcement.

“The social work piece was good, I’m with that,” Pep said. “But you can’t get around the credible people who could go into the community and talk to Lil’ Peanut. Because Peanut ain’t talking to nobody he don’t know…. The credible messenger was that relationship.”