PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Darrell Redmond gets plenty of phone calls. He woke up to six or seven voicemails on a recent Wednesday morning — all from people looking for his guidance.
“’This is going on, can you come talk to me?’ My child is dealing with this, my child (is) dealing with that,’” the 43-year-old said.
Getting people the help they need — and keeping youth on the right track — is Redmond’s round-the-clock job.
Along with Reggie Gatling, 39, and Lamont Madison, 46, Redmond is one of Portsmouth’s “credible messengers” — people who have earned respect on the streets because they know what it’s like to turn down the wrong path.
Now, with two-plus decades of time served behind them, the group is determined to keep the peace in a city — like others across Hampton Roads — struggling with gun violence.
There were nine people killed and 58 shootings in Portsmouth between Jan. 1 and March 31. In the same time frame last year, eight people were killed and there were 48 shootings, according to the Portsmouth Police Department. The shooting data provided by police counts incidents reported, not the number of victims. It also includes fatal and non-fatal shootings.
A comprehensive plan from the city — unveiled last year as residents’ concerns over violence reached fever pitch — aims to tamp down crime while nipping its causes at the root. Credible messengers are one part of the multifaceted strategy.
The crime prevention and reduction plan pinpoints numerous actions the city can take to address the issues, including the addition of new programs directed at city youth and increases for police officers to help attract and retain staff.
Gatling, Madison and Redmond aren’t out to solve crime. Their job is to use their deep ties in the community to perform outreach work in neighborhoods most affected by crime, and de-escalate disputes before they turn deadly.
The credibility they’ve cultivated since leaving prison goes “a long way,” Gatling said. “That makes it kind of easy to de-escalate a situation compared to the average person.”
How violence interruption works?
The idea is straightforward ― that “if you got the right players in the room, the problem is not going to happen,” Redmond said.
Ambition struck Redmond in June 2019, when he got out of prison after 25 years and returned to London Oaks Apartments, where he grew up.
“Coming home and seeing the state of how the city was … it was something that I started speaking to people about, because as we know, lived experiences can be a deterrent to crime and violence,” said Redmond, who studied credible messenger models while in prison.
Within days of his release, Redmond launched Give Back 2 Da Block.
The organization aims to “provide youth with a vision,” Redmond said. There’s afterschool mentorship, passing out turkeys for Thanksgiving, toys for Christmas, hosting open mics and more. Soon, he aims to bring dozens of Portsmouth youth to a conference to hear from formerly incarcerated people who turned their lives around.
Last year, Redmond’s efforts got back from the Gun Violence Intervention Program — a grant administered through the state’s department of criminal justice services. Portsmouth secured a roughly $500,000 grant to support the city’s efforts to reduce gun violence. City leaders said the money will be used to support the violence interrupters and other community-based violence prevention programs. The grant was awarded in June 2021, and the money runs through June 2023.
As a concept, violence interrupters have been around for decades. Medical epidemiologist Gary Slutkin launched the most well-known model, called Cure Violence, in 2000 in the West Garfield neighborhood of Chicago.
Cure Violence approaches violence as a public health problem. It figures that violence is contagious — that it infects communities. Advocates purport credible messengers can stop the transmission.
Jeffrey Butts, a researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, likens it to the decades-long — and eventually successful — campaign to end smoking.
“So can that strategy be used to reduce the incidence of gun violence? And that’s the big question,” Butts said.
The model is “promising,” said Butts, who has studied violence interrupters. But it can be tricky to quantify conflicts that don’t happen.
Still, even a handful of conflicts defused by interrupters can prevent homicide’s repercussions — such as broken families, lost jobs, incarceration, retaliatory shootings or orphaned children, Butts said.
Credible messengers’ principles have existed in Black communities long before getting branding, said Talib Hudson, the director of research innovation at the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay. From pastors outside in neighborhoods to people returning from incarceration hoping to share learned, “there’s been this kind of work going on in the community for generations,” he said.
What Hudson has observed recently, though, is a formalization of the role. In Virginia, iterations of credible messengers backed by public funding have emerged in Charlottesville, Richmond and Hampton in the past year.
Unlike policing, the community-based approach to violence prevention can promote healing in neighborhoods facing compounded traumas — and not just from gun violence, Hudson said.
“We’re talking about systemic racism, we’re talking about socioeconomic segregation,” Hudson said.
Violence prevention at the community level is “not just about how do we get someone to put down a gun — it’s how do we help this person heal so they don’t want the gun, they don’t need the gun,” Hudson said .
No such thing as a normal day
For Gatling, Madison and Redmond, the work encompasses that of the community organizer and mediator. And there’s no normal day.
Part of the job is geared toward shifting social norms around violence. They connect teenagers with jobs, distribute food to the homeless, lend a listening ear to those mourning the loss of loved ones. The list goes on.
“There’s no job that we don’t do,” Redmond said.
They also mediate would-be shootouts before bullets fly.
Oftentimes, the situation starts with a call to Redmond. He passes out business cards with his personal number. People phone him “fussing,” he says.
Gatling, Madison and Redmond drive over slowly, analyzing the who’s who of the conflict as they approach. That has to happen within seconds. They ask themselves: Do we know these people? Do we need to call in others? Are they armed?
“If we know them, it’s easier,” Redmond said. “When they see us, they act like ain’t nothing going on because they know the accountability part with us.”
But if called to mediate among people they are unfamiliar with, “we have to take more precaution with the situation,” Redmond said.
Sometimes, that means making calls to others who know those involved in the dispute. Other times, the group has to diffuse the situation themselves.
“’Man, whatcha doing? Like, really — you want to throw your life away?’” Redmond said.
Often, the young people they talk to don’t want to pull the trigger. They are scared, Redmond said, and see a gun as a deterrent against people who have it out for them. Besides, he added — the kids don’t know how to use guns.
That’s when credible messengers can de-escalate and reroute. In the short-term, it can mean getting them to put down a gun. In the long term, the credible messengers help young people secure jobs and offer tutoring to keep them off the streets.
“A lot of people just be looking for outlets to get out,” Gatling said.
To be sure, the job of a violence interrupter can be dangerous. In Baltimore, three Safe Streets outreach workers have been fatally shot in little more than a year. At least one was working when he was killed.
Still, the Portsmouth-based group says prison prepared them for chaotic situations.
It helps to have each other’s support, too. Gatling, a self-described observer, reels Redmond in when he gets ahead of himself. Madison, calm and even-keeled, jokes that he has barely aged since the 1990s because he was “on chill mode” in prison.
“It’s a challenge, but we are definitely up for the job,” Gatling said.
After grappling with spates of deadly shootings that prompted city officials to call in federal law enforcement, Portsmouth hasn’t seen a person shot dead since February. But the work is never finished for the trio, who say they’re always looking for the next way to make a difference.
“People still getting shot, people still getting killed, crime is still happening, people still affected, people still mourning,” Redmond said.
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