Bonus: What Do Communities Know That Police Don’t?
Spirit-centered activist and social justice leader Aqeela Sherrills is a firm believer that public safety can’t exist without the public. As the co-founder of Community Based Public Safety Collective and the force behind the famous peace treaty between two of the most violent street gangs in America, Aqeela knows what it takes to provide solutions that center the people most vulnerable and most affected by violence. He tells V what it looks like to successfully implement community-based solutions and how more cities can adopt them. Plus, Aqeela shares why residents are uniquely equipped to provide protection in their own communities and how educating and training people on the ground serves as a complementary strategy to policing.
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V Spehar, Aqeela Sherrills
V Spehar 00:05
For many Americans, the term public safety is synonymous with the police, but not for Akela. Cheryl’s Akela is the co founder of the community based public safety collective whose mission is to strengthen neighborhood leadership by investing in education, advocacy, and training of community based public safety practitioners and organizations. Akela is here to talk about what community based public safety means how his personal experiences have shaped him into the peace leader he is today and how he’s continuing to reimagine public safety. This conversation with Akela was made possible by the just trust Aqeela thanks for being here.
Aqeela Sherrills 00:43
Thanks so much for the invitation.
V Spehar 00:46
Now, before we get into all the work that you’re doing, I don’t know what your for you page or your internet experience has been like lately, but I cannot stop watching the Alabama riverboat fights have you seen?
Aqeela Sherrills 00:58
I have it is insane. Like, you know, I’ve seen all types of ridiculous memes. Like every day, there’s some new thing that’s coming out. It’s crazy.
V Spehar 01:08
It’s what’s gonna bring this country together, though, because, like, no matter what your background is, everybody, when that security guard threw his hat off, we were all on his side. I was like he is ready to go. Right. And you know, what was great about this also is, there was there was this, to me was proof that we in fact, do not need guns anywhere. People do not need guns, this could have been a much worse situation if there were weapons involved. Absolutely. It’s not often that you get to see just a good old fashioned this fight of good and evil, and the creativity of people doing reenactments and just kind of like living each moment.
Aqeela Sherrills 01:46
It’s insane, like, you know, just to watch. I like the fact that people would actually do a reenactment, you know, of what happened. It’s just like, I’m like, I don’t know. I’m still processing all of it. Honestly.
V Spehar 02:00
It’s fascinating just to watch. Yeah, groups of friends. And everybody knows their part in it. And oh, my gosh, it’s, it’s maybe the best week of tic toc content we’ve had in a long time, just everyone rooting for the same team,
Aqeela Sherrills 02:17
You know, there’s gonna mess around and be a reality. Show us something about this watch. I’m telling you.
V Spehar 02:22
They’re having some kind of, there’ll be some kind of Docu series about this, and what we can learn from it and what we can do about it. Right, exactly. So this brings me to the first thing that I want to talk about in involving your work is one of your most famous quotes is you can’t have public safety without the public. And I think the Alabama River Front was kind of an example of that. Right? This was an example of the public providing the public safety. You tell me the way you meant about it.
Aqeela Sherrills 02:53
Yeah. So what I meant by you know, you can’t have public safety without the public, right. Is that, you know, right now, you know, we live in a country, if you say public safety, people say police, right? The narrative around safety in this country has been controlled by a single ubiquitous institution that has been responsible for all of safety, and they can do no wrong. And it’s problematic, you know, because that same institution has caused, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars in collateral damage, you know, and has perpetrated harm, you know, against people, and especially in black and brown communities have been policed, right. They’ve never been seen as citizenry, that that is a part of that is part and parcel to the public safety infrastructure. Right. And so it’s important, right, you know, that you have the public and public safety, because, essentially, law enforcement enforce laws, you know, 80% of cops don’t live in neighborhoods in which they serve. So they have to be called to parachute into the community. And I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing. I mean, it has its it has its benefits, right. You know, in terms of, you know, if you’re enforcing laws, and you’re doing a safety strategy, I mean, you’re enforcing laws. Safety, I think is something that that’s more subjective, and that that is actually has to be created by community. If you look at most of the data, and, you know, across the country, at least when we started here, the work in Newark, 62% of the homicides in the city started out as interpersonal conflicts. And so, you know, it says a lot that when conflicts are actually unresolved, they actually lead to violence. And conflicts are not necessarily a bad thing. You know, there are opportunities.
V Spehar 04:38
I live up here in Rochester, New York, and I absolutely love the city. And one of the things that they did here recently was we got a new mayor, Mayor Malik Evans, who’s doing a great job and he required that if you’re a police officer in Rochester, you are required to live within the city limits which changed up a lot of the kind of like, more rednecky surrounding community It is a fracture from coming in and being able to kind of just like police at people like, now you’re suitable to the neighborhood because you got to live here too, you know, and I think it did make a big difference.
Aqeela Sherrills 05:10
Yeah, I mean, you know, I think that law enforcement, again, it serves a purpose, and they have an important role in community. Yeah. But you also have to have a robust community based public safety, infrastructure and neighborhoods, because, you know, the intelligence that folks who live in these communities and who and experiencing, you know, some of the challenges on a daily basis, you know, the intelligence that they have around what’s going on, can never be replaced with law enforcement. And so, and I think that if we, if we invest in, in, in community based public safety infrastructure by training residents, you know, by incentivizing peace, you know, strategies, it’s much more sustainable, you know, just as a strategy. And I think it complements, you know, our existing law enforcement infrastructure.
V Spehar 05:54
And you launched the reverence project, which is a not for profit organization, which offers healing services, safety, advocacy, and community leadership training. Can you tell me a little bit about the project?
Aqeela Sherrills 06:05
Yeah, so tarp, the reverence project, you know, I launched in 2007, essentially, to create intentional spaces, to support people to talk about the deep secrets and shames in their personal life as a way of accessing the gift of who they are. Now, you know, I love the reverence project, you know, coming out of the work that I had done for, you know, some close to 20 years at that particular point, you know, when organizing the peace treaty and watch between the Crips and Bloods, with a group of friends and loved ones.
V Spehar 06:35
We are not going to skim past that you did what? You negotiate a treaty between the Crips and the Bloods? How did that come about?
Aqeela Sherrills 06:46
I mean, I grew up in the culture, you know, I used to gangbang. In lost a lot of friends and friends and family members to what a lot of social justice activists called the longest running war in the history of this country, your main street gang wars, right? In 1988, you know, I had a transformative experience, you know, in college, and this was the height of the war in LA. I mean, you know, and when I say war, I mean war, we’re talking about, you know, 1983 to 2003, we’re talking about 30,000 gang related deaths, not including those permanently maimed are incarcerated for the rest of your life behind your participation. You’re talking about communities suffering from traumatic stress disorder, hyper vigilance, vicarious trauma, and this label game that was put on us actually dehumanize the people behind it, and desensitize the public track, cry for help, right? Because the majority of those who are being who are perpetrating violence and being victims of violence, were youth and young adults in black and brown kids. And so we were deployed in law enforcement to apprehend the perpetrator. But we weren’t deployed in therapists and healers and counselors to deal with the after effects of violence. And so we allow the trauma to ripple, you know, in our respective communities, and we came up with terms like super predators and all types of stuff for black kids, right, and brown kids, you know, and there was different types of titles for other kids. Right. And so, you know, I had a transformative experience in college, I, you know, you know, met a woman there, and she changed it a women change in life, you know, when you fall in love and stuff, but I I shared with her, you know, you know, something that I had promised myself that I would never speak to, as a kid, that I was sexually abused as a kid. You know, I never, it was a transformative moment for me, because I never questioned the violence that I experienced in the neighborhood. Because ultimately, it meant to question the balance that I experienced in my own house. And I didn’t have the language for it. And I didn’t have the courage to confront the perpetrator. But I had a professor in college, Johnny Scott, who passed recently, who was a real inspiration to me, heavy reading, you know, James Baldwin, the evidence of things not seen, I read the autobiography of Malcolm X, which politicized me, but these books kind of like gave me courage. And it was the catalyst for me going back to the neighborhood and questioning the war that was happening in the neighborhood that was claiming so many of my friends and family members lives. Right. And so out of that, that wound, you know, what I’m saying was a gift was born, you know, I felt like, you know, spirit, you know, blessed us with a vision, you know, for how to transform the neighborhood in which we lived and stop, you know, some of this killing that was happening.
V Spehar 09:24
Did you find when you approached these folks that were in these gangs, as they called them, that they were also feeling seen by your experience and feeling like you were offering them another path? Or was there resistance to wanting to change the status quo?
Aqeela Sherrills 09:40
It was all of that. I mean, it was resistance. I mean, you know, you start at home. So you know, I started in with my folks who I grew up with knowing all my life, you know, because you grew up in a culture you take it for granted. Yeah. You know, and, you know, one day I you know, went up, I mean, in my activism, right, went to the neighborhood meeting you You know what I’m saying? And, and started challenging some of the ideas, you know, asking them, I asked the homies, why we was you know why we was waging the war, and who was winning it that we was waging against these cats that look just like us, that we grew up with all our lives that we got kids by the systems. And like, every time somebody died, we pull out a little 40 hours, and they remember it, and we hit the name up on the wall, but then nobody is there to provide direction and guidance for the kids that get left behind. You know, and so I was like, Yo, like, who’s winning the war that we waged against each other? And folks was like, Man, that’s a deep question. And so we started talking about, you know, how can we negotiate our conflicts differently, that every time we get into it, nobody has to die unnecessarily, then we have to figure out a different way to be able to resolve our conflicts peacefully amongst each other. And so that became a strategy. And Minister Farrakhan, you know, I get choked up even talking about this man, because it was such a unique time in history, you know, in terms of, like, man, just the amount of death, you know, that that happened, you know, and it seemed like, nobody really gave that care, you know, because of the framing. But Minister Farrakhan came with a stop to killing tour in 89. And that inspired a bunch of us to go and hear the ministers message that at the sports arena, we took about 25 of our homies from the neighborhood, to hear the message. And, and then there was a message passed around, it’s gonna be a meeting up at Jim Brown’s house as a neutral ground to talk about a piece. And, and so we started that work. And it took us about four hard years of intense meetings sitting in a room with our enemies, or cats we consider to be our enemies, people who, you know, you’ve been shot by or you shot at, or, you know, you murdered, you know, one of the loved ones. I mean, we’ve had intense conversations with rooms with folks on those particular issues. And we emerged with, you know, hey, you know, in some cases, it was like yesterday in the neighborhood, we stay in ours. And in some cases, it was there were real, it was real transformation, you know. And there’s a bunch of stories, we produced a few documentaries on it, one of them called watts. Wa TTS is an acronym for us in the neighborhood, we say that it stands for we are taught to survive the WA TTS and so yeah, so you know, this has been a catalyst, you know, really for for a lot of the work that that that I’ve done over the past 30 years, you know, that has culminated into a lot of the work that I do nationally now around public safety.
V Spehar 12:53
You brought up an interesting point that there was these folks that look like you that live in neighborhoods just like yours, and you maybe had an altercation with them. But on the same side, they might be your brother in law, or they you might be uncle’s to the same child, in some cases, literally. And in that way, or a family literally.
Aqeela Sherrills 13:10
Yeah, watts, watts is 2.2 square miles across, it has the largest concentration of public housing west of the Mississippi, I literally have kids by me and a couple of dudes that I had issues with had kids by the same girl. I know, like, it’s that close.
V Spehar 13:26
Like we have more in common than we don’t. And we need to get together on the same side of this.
Aqeela Sherrills 13:31
That’s right. Railroad tracks separate, you know, two housing developments on the east side of the tracks and two on the west side of the tracks, you know, but But you know, what one of the we utilize kind of esoteric says one of the tools, you know, to divine, like kind of the strategy that we launched around the peace treaty, because the poor housing projects in Washington, like a perfect 90 degree angle, and the high pot news basically runs from Nickerson garden to Jordan downs, you know, so we were like, This is the biggest Krypton and blunt neighborhood kind of like on the west coast that has the type of, you know, the gravitas in in notoriety, right, for being like, kind of a rough place, right. What’s it’s like, you know, Brooklyn, you know, on the east coast or something, right. And, and so, we realized that if we, if we organize a peace treaty and watch, we would create a domino effect in neighborhoods across the city and potentially across the country, and then actually reverberated around the world, like we found ourselves in South Africa. You know what I’m saying? Wow, and so I took a group of folks to South Africa, and when we were there, man, we ended up hooking up with brothers from the Phillippi Township, who, you know, like they had organized a peace treaty. They’re one of the biggest gang in the township was called the Americans.
V Spehar 14:50
I’m not surprised, but yeah, well, everybody wants to do with it. First of all, I was born in 1982 as a child in Connecticut, and I thought that I It was like into, I thought I was a part of hip hop and what was going on in LA with the Bloods and the Crips. Right, right, Snoop Dogg and everything. And we were watching all the music videos growing up with this whole thing. And it’s like, everybody wants to do what that neighborhood was doing. Right. So when it was violence, it was violence. And when it was peace, it was peace. And it really did set the tone even for little white kids, netiquette unhealthy behaviors, which you may not have even known right, you know, oh, no, we.
Aqeela Sherrills 15:26
You know, I had the fortune like when we when we launched American with Hall of Fame. Football great Jim Brown, who recently passed, right. I remember I can took us to multiple cities all across the country. So this 15 Chapter, self esteem life skills curriculum that we developed as a as a for profit company became the basis for the peace treaty that we organized in the neighborhood, because he was teaching basically, short skills and human development, how to make better decisions around your money, you know, how to get angry and not pick up a pistol, you know, how to deal with your family life, you know, it was really, it was really a really powerful tool, right? And so, through America, we got an opportunity to travel and live in multiple cities, I lived on the road for four years back then, in multiple cities across the country. I live in Salem, Oregon, I organize a peace treaty between between the native brothers up there, you know, in the local Latino gang, you know what I’m saying? In Salem, Oregon, right? It’s like, insane. And that was cats up there who was claiming Grape Street to white kids?
V Spehar 16:27
Yo, yeah. Eminem gave us all the audacity, once he was out, we were like, oh, where it now.
Aqeela Sherrills 16:38
Straight G’s too you know, like, in every neighborhood, I don’t care where it’s at, you know, it’s like, it was interesting. And it was great to see, you know, to have that type of access to places. And, and to see, you know, how the disease of violence, you know, had crept through, you know, this culture of Krypton and blood and, and found its way in all of these different cities across the country. And so we got an opportunity to help to, to bring the medicine, you know, to try to cure some of what what, you know, we created in LA, we wanted to bring the cure to other cities, and beginning to some of the violence.
V Spehar 17:21
What did this mean to the elders of the community, also, who oftentimes carry that sorrow and grief for the whole community of losing young people surviving so many years in the midst of this and not always having a ton of power to, to do what they wish they could do. As this piece started to go on in the neighborhood started to heal, and people started to believe in themselves and take up for each other. How did the elders of this community react to your work?
Aqeela Sherrills 17:46
I mean, I think the elders really embraced the work because, you know, one of the things that we said that after the peace treaty, you know, kids start playing in the parks again, you know, your grandmother started walking the streets again, you know, right. The violence actually, you know, just, you know, it restricts everything in the neighborhoods. So, you know, the elders really celebrated it. And they were also catalysts of the work as well, you know, my mom’s, you know, a mother why God allowed, you know, my mom’s is celebrated in the hood, you know, has been an entrepreneur and training, like, kind of young entrepreneurs in the neighborhood forever, right? You got individuals I totally better who just passed, you know, what I’m saying? Why central Latino organization? I mean, these, you know, Imam Mujahid who gave us the masjid, you know, to, to host the hard conversations around the peace treaty in the community. You know, Ted Watkins, you know, who CAC, the West labor Community Action Committee, like the elders, I mean, man, they they really embraced us. And they supported us, you know, they introduced us to people, they provided, you know, a resource where it was available. I mean, you know, folks didn’t have a whole lot of money. You know, but they gave the time and they gave me wisdom. And they gave what little they had to support it. And so, you know, it’s one of the reasons why I think that, that the movement still persists today, you know, around community based public safety, it’s still alive and just was so fortunate, you know, in the last couple of years with the Biden administration, turbocharge and work by you know, you know, first launching the White House community violence intervention collaborative, which I had the the fortune of directing, you know, for, you know, for the, for the White House, and then, you know, passing the Safer Communities Act, you know, putting some $250 million into community violence intervention, this is a movement, you know, that that, that is has been primarily, like kind of a community driven and community led by black men and brown men primarily, you know, we would of course, you know, the women holding the foundation of this thing together and as always, the brothers go out there and literally put their lives on the line. They leverage their religion kinships and we’ve been fortunate that you know, that we’ve had strong, like, you know, women as interventionist, but as well as kind of the real administrators in many cases, who hold these, these Mom and Pop organizations together with bubblegum and, you know?
V Spehar 20:19
Share with folks who are listening at home about the Safer Communities Act and how it’s worked so far.
Aqeela Sherrills 20:24
Sure. And I’ll talk about the Safer Communities Act from the perspective of implementation, you know, because we can talk about the policy, you know, that was put forth and that was passed, it’s a part of a larger package of bills, that that that supported both law enforcement and community based solutions, you know, things like getting guns off the street, you know, like all of those types of, you know, procedural justice, training stuff and everything that are so, so needed within law enforcement, I’d be surprised, I have the fortune of working with command staff and cities all across the country, and they need it, you know, what I’m saying right, was ain’t going nowhere. And so we need to make sure that they have the training. The other side of it was this $250 million investment in community violence intervention, as a complementary strategy to policing. Now complementary doesn’t mean that there’s intel sharing, you know, this is to all our CBI practitioner partners on the ground. No, we’re not giving Intel to the police about who’s doing what in the neighborhood, the community has more intelligence than law enforcement ever had. And with the proper training and school, in tools and resources, we can actually do the intervention to prevention and treatment, you know, as we talk about, you know, through this public health frame, because those who are closest in proximity to the disease of violence have to be equipped with the skills and the resources, right. And so the Safer Communities Act in the first round last year, these dollars came through the Department of Justice, DOJ, through BJ, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, put out $100 million in the first tranche, they funded 46 organizations across the country to do community violence intervention as a strategy. In cities. These grants spent spend about 22 states, they are about a I would say about a third of them are our community based organizations. A third of them are our municipalities or counties and cities. And then I would say another small tranche of them are law enforcement agencies, right. And we’re fortunate, you know, my shop, the community based public safety collective, along with the Health Alliance for violence intervention in cities in the United I was fortunate to bid for the contract to be the lead TTA training and technical assistance provider to help implement the CVI strategy. And all of those cities amongst us organizations for the federal government, unprecedented first time that a black lead agency is doing this particular work, especially with the staff that we hire, you know, because a lot of, you know, our staff are, of course, you know, 2030 year vets, you know, in the field of community based public safety, but they also, you know, have had some justice involvement, some of you know, in the past, and we think that that actually strengthens their ability to be able to provide support for for the implementation of these community based strategies. So that was the first tranche of 100 million in March, they put out the second tranche of 100 million. So in the next, I would say, probably, in the next month or so, another 30 to 35 agencies and these grants that are given out through the federal government, they range in the range of about $2 million over three years. For implementation, some of them are have a have a research component connected to it, some of them don’t. And, and they’re funding wildly different agencies, you know, most have some community violence intervention experience. And there’s a few that don’t, this is something that that’s new to them. And so that’s great, because it gives us an opportunity to continue to help to inform the field and and build on this whole body of work in terms of training and technical assistance for the organizations as well.
V Spehar 24:11
And the proofs, there isn’t just a silver bullet to this. There’s all different types of communities who need different things. And like, Y’all just heard him say some of this money is going to police departments to provide the training that the police department wants this isn’t to replace police departments. This is folks like my cousin Jimmy, who’s a cop in New Haven who’s like, I would love to know this. Like, I would love to not be coming in and have them be afraid of me and me be afraid of them. And then we’re all acting squirrely, like I want to just know that we’re all on the same page here, trying to just protect our neighborhood in a way that makes sense.
Aqeela Sherrills 24:42
There’s a couple of things I think is really important for folks to understand around community based public safety, and why it’s so important as as you know, as a function of our shared safety strategy. Right? We have to shift this whole narrative around policing being a ubiquitous sensor. To shoot for safety in our community, because it puts our cops in harm’s way, honestly, because they can’t be therapists and teachers and lawyers and counselors, I’m like, they have a limited capacity. And we sometimes we forget, you know that they have families and sins that they have to hold as well. You know, that’s a real high threshold in terms of arrest and prosecution family. Yeah, it’s like, so one of the things that are high risk interventionist, or you know, they call them, crisis intervention workers, they call them credible messengers. These are folks who live in the neighborhood, who might have some justice involvement, who know everybody, and they mama. So it’s a relationship based strategy. And they leverage their relationship, capital and neighborhoods, you know, to prevent violence. So for instance, for hospital based violence intervention program, we might have individuals from the neighborhood who are trained as community health workers embedded in a trauma unit at the hospital. So when people get shot from that neighborhood, and they go to the hospital, there’s people in there that know them. Because in most cases, if a white nurse comes up to these black faces that are laying in the bed and got shot, and say, Hey, I have a set of programs I want to provide for you, they’re gonna say, No, exactly, you know, but it Pooky come up to me the laying in the bed, and it’s like, right here, what’s going on, man? Anyway, we got the services for you, we’re gonna make sure that you get back and forth to your doctor’s appointment, we’re going to transfer you for therapeutic services to the to the newer community street team, who have 16, free sessions of therapeutic sessions, they’re going to they’re going to help you to get Medicare and Medicaid, they’re going to help you to get hardship stuff, you know, this is this is that connective tissue that has been missing in terms of our, our public safety strategy, we’ve done very well in the past in terms of deploying the cops to apprehend the perpetrator. But now we have to, we have to feel the other part, which is to deal with the after effects of the violence, you know, the trauma, you know, you know, the poverty, all of the things that underscores to violence in the neighborhood, and residents and communities can do this. And, and, you know, cops want to go back home. And so we, we want, we want to live in a safe neighborhood, you know, and we want our cops to be to feel safe to we want them to show up fully rooted in their humanity, you know, and we want them, we want to make sure that when they’re having emotional psychological breaks at the job, that they can get, you know, services without being ridiculed as well, because it’s a big thing for them. Like, if they got any type of emotional or psychological stuff, and they voice it, they can potentially get rubber guns, and that’s, you know, and if you’re a black cop, or brown cop, you know, it’s you got one foot out the door, it’s a, so the thing that we have, as the public got to help law enforcement with is shift the culture, you know, around policing internally. And the way that we do that is that we do some of the birth.
V Spehar 28:02
What kind of person does really well, at this work? I know that we’ve said in the past that the expression once a gang member, always a gang member has hindered people’s confidence when it comes to switching over to being a different type of worker, but can also be super helpful. Yeah, what kind of skills do you need to be successful at this?
Aqeela Sherrills 28:17
So do you know we like to say like, say, at the Newark community street team, where we’re the anchor, nonprofit in the south Ward, now, the majority of the individuals that we employ, you know, have had some type of justice involvement, right. And so we always like to say that we don’t have a corporate culture, but we have a corporate infrastructure, right. So there are verbal warnings. There are written warnings. There are course corrections there. So there’s a graduated disciplinary process there last chance agreement, we have a thing, a social kind of policy built into our workforce development strategy called the Donnie McClurkin calls. Right. You will Donnie McClurkin is, is a gospel singer. And he has a song that you can go you fall down seven times, you know what I’m saying and get up, you know, it’s a spiritual thing, right? And so we’re like, you can fall down seven times, and NCSD, you know, what I’m saying? And we’re gonna help you up. And so I think that the type of individuals that we employ are that population that that is most difficult to employ, right? We work with felonies with, you know, with trauma and issues. We when we employ folks though, we have a workforce development model that was developed by, you know, our brother, our resident genius at NCSC. Its name is Professor Toby Sanders. And it’s built on andragogy and transformational education, you know, we it’s it’s built around the hero’s journey, so every every person that we employ through the organization, if they didn’t Excel well in school, you know, because we live in a country that you know, your your how you do in school is supposed to determine your aptitude in life, right. You know, one of the things that we try to do help folks to do. It’s around the emotional intelligence, helping folks to recognize that there’s the gift in the wound, you know what I’m saying? That that, that we that we try to help them to access their, you know that their destiny force in their life purpose. Because people don’t want to just as they don’t just want a job, they want to be connected to something that’s bigger than them, right. So we try to help to inspire that and find that through through a series of readings, watchings writings, you know, that the professor Sanders takes to, you know, all of the staff through. And so we employ everybody, and we turn over a lot of people to, and we don’t see it as a failure, right? We see it that as because we don’t deploy anybody in the field without being trained, because it teaches you how to, you know, to resolve conflict, how to de escalate situations, how to recognize when there’s, you know, trauma how to how to build teams, like it’s to really good training. And so all the folks that go through the organ that goes through the program, and even if they transition out of the agency, they’re part of the family forever, because they they’re going to always have that, you know, that culture, you know, that we imported, right?
V Spehar 31:15
Forget that stuff, even if you don’t do it forever. I was a volunteer at the crisis hotline for a year and a half. And I still what I noticed somebody act in a certain kind of way, I’m like, it clicks right back in for you even as like a civilian or a normal person. That’s right, that kind of stuff matters. And if nothing else, what we find that we’ve talked to other experts who are in the same field, is when you take somebody who nobody believed in before and who you know, was just going to be a tool, and you give them tools, and you make them a part of the solution that is going to fundamentally change their brain chemistry, and they’re going to feel differently, and they’re going to do better, whether that’s with the organization or just at home or, you know, when when, when called upon. And it has been successful. I was reading about in Newark, in particular, which Newark is like Baltimore, like Rochester, like Chicago, people have a lot of thoughts about what it is and they don’t know. But the number that people want to see is the rate of homicides is down in Newark as a result of this program and this change of strategy and of working with the police and whatnot. Can you tell me a little bit about Newark specifically and some of the success?
V Spehar 32:16
Sure. So when we lost our initiative here, in 2014, so a little bit of context. So I’ve known Baraka, the mayor, Mayor baraka for close to 30 years now, we’ve been activist organized his brothers in the movement. In 2004. He caught me on the phone and told me, there was a war happening out here in the streets. And he said, all these kids is running around who’s a principal at Central, the biggest high school in Newark, and he was like is all these kids run around here in perpetuity? So when he was running, he said, they said there was some great treat, you know, so we laughed about it, right? Because grapefruit is my neighborhood in blocks in LA. But great food happened to be the biggest crip gang in the city of Newark, and in the state of New Jersey, right. And so 2004, we hook up, we do it a peer exchange, we bring some of the brothers from there, we come out we from from Jersey to LA and watts. And we come out there and we meet folks, and we develop this relationship in 2004 that resulted in the peace treaty in the city. And it expanded 10 years. So when Baraka became mayor, he asked me to come in and build out his community based public safety initiative, the newer communities reaching and so we had 103 homicides in the city that year. Two years later, you know, the consent decree went into place. But we launched NCSE, with 16 independent contractors. And with the goal of reducing, you know, violence in the south Ward, we targeted the south Ward, because that’s where violence was concentrated in city, in the first two years of our collective work in the mayor pivot in the city on his public statements of public safety strategy, given me kind of free rein to develop that community based initiative, high risk intervention, assertive outreach victims advocacy with law enforcement as a partner. We had 12% reductions in homicide in the first two years. year three, year four, we had the pandemic hit, right, public execution of George Floyd, you know, created a real inflection point in the country. We rode that momentum, and all violence spiked in cities all across the country. Our you know, the year before we had a six year low in terms of homicides. So we went from 103 homicides to 51. In 2020, we had we kept our numbers flat that year, when violence spoke all across the country. In addition, our officers didn’t shoot their revolvers not once during the whole year.
V Spehar 34:40
Cory Booker, yes, it’s a very exciting,
Aqeela Sherrills 34:48
That Cory Booker energy man, that’s, that’s not man, that’s not like, but we’ve we’ve had a huge impact in terms of violence and violence reduction. So we’ve now have seven consecutive years in a row of decreases of homicide and overall violence. We’re no longer on the top 10 most violent city lists where we had a covenant position for almost 50 consecutive years, you know, we, you know, our consent decree, you know, is, is, is hopefully, you know, coming to an end. I mean, we still, I think that we’ve made a lot of advancements, in terms of, you know, reforms within NPD. You know, I think that there’s still some things that needs to be done. And, you know, we still need to do better, and, you know, data sharing, and, you know, a few other things and stuff and everything, just amongst the collective movement on the ground, but, but, you know, it’s leadership too. So, you know, I have to give it up to our visionary leader, you know, my brother Rashon, a rocker, you know, I mean, he, you know, he has been really the catalyst, you know, to the work. I mean, he’s given me a lot of free rein, to pull in all of the experts in the in the best resources, in order to launch a strategy. Three months ago, he put out about $20 million in ARPA funds to fund his community based public safety organizations like, and this has been a, you know, a long time coming, like, we’ve been, like, NCST is probably one of the most well, resources organizations in the country now, because of the work we do. I mean, NCS T is now the newer community street team about 130, staff, you know, shoot impact, you know, on the community. So, you know, a lot, lot, lots of great infrastructure in the city, I think that people are just seeing, like the potential of Newark, I think that in the next couple of years, we’re going to see, like Newark, like, kind of like, I mean, in terms of violence, like way down, one of the things that we have to like, kind of make sure that we also keep our our hands around, is, you know, what happens when, when violence goes down, development and safety goes hand in hand, development goes up. And so the cost of it in Newark is going up. And we want to make sure that that a part of our coordinated strategy is that that residents in this community can actually afford to live here and can stay here and can thrive here, not just, you know, having an apartment or a house, you know, what I’m saying, but, you know, have some have a real stake in the real estate in this place? You know?
V Spehar 38:03
You don’t want to fix it up, just to have to hand it over. Exactly. That’s right. Yeah. Right. So where do you see this work going over the next couple of years? Like, what’s next for you?
Aqeela Sherrills 38:13
Well, you know, for me, I think that, that, that, ultimately, this this work is about shifting the public safety narrative in this country. And I think that, that, you know, when I, when I look at, like, kind of urban neighborhoods all across the country and see the the conflicts that exist in Europe last year, right, 40,000, you know, people were killed, you know, by guns alone. You know, the number one cause of death of black men, you know, in boys between 14 and 25, is gun violence. This is my life’s work, you know, and I’ve said, I’ve spent the rest of my life doing this, you know, right. And so developing strategy, one of one of one of the goals is that community violence intervention or community based public safety will exist as a as a complementary strategy in every city in the union, you know, no war or, or sea, you know, should have a community based public safety strategy that is functioning as a complement to their law enforcement, because policing doesn’t necessarily do safety. Safety is not just the absence of violence and crime. It’s also the presence of wellbeing in the infrastructure to support victims and survivors in their respective healing journey. Crime stat says nothing about whether or not people feel safe in communities, we have to continue to innovate and create tools that actually, you know, measure the most vulnerable, like, you know, like, how are they feeling in a community because, again, safety is subjective. You know, it has to be based upon like, how do the people who live there, right, and so we have to like kind of include, I mean, it’s about like, this work is about improving people’s quality of life. Black people have never really felt safe, like, you know, in this country? You know? And so I’m like, What is safety? Right? Right. There’s an organization that that I that, you know, the Alliance for Safety and Justice, California Safety and Justice, crime survivor for safety justice, this agency I co founded with the largest Survivors Network in the country. And that’s the question that we would ask, like, what is safety to people? What does it mean? And so, ultimately, I would like to see, like, you know, one of the big debates right now is okay, a lot of these dollars that are supporting community violence intervention, community based public safety in these cities are ARPA dollars. And these ARPA dollars run out and 25. And they’re like, so what happens after that? I’m like, What do you mean, what happens after that you move general fund dollars since sustained the work. I’m like, the same way that you pay for the police department and the fire department and EMT, you pay your community based public safety, folks because they’re irreplaceable. You ain’t never gonna be able to you know, like how to replace Pookie, you know, who knows, right? Him and Charlie them and all of the folks. If you give him a couple of dollars, you can leverage this relationship and pull people to the table stop people from getting shot. I’m like, yo, man, I’m gonna it’s worth it.
V Spehar 41:19
Hey, Pooky, Pooky. Like, what? It’s all we’re asking what I did, I worked on the other side of this, which goes in tandem, when you say safety is not just the absolute absence of violence, it is what makes you feel safe. I used to work in food security in Baltimore. And I would do it and I would show up looking like me. And then I made friends with Miss Linda Taylor, Miss Linda was the grandmother of the neighborhood that I was working in. And as soon as I made her house, the distribution point for all the food programs we were doing, people were showing up, we were doing recipes, we were doing trades, if not more food than ever before. And when you see things like that provide safety. So provide safety, food security, clean drinking water, education, jobs, yeah, good roads, at safe houses to live in, not being afraid of the police showing up at your house or not, or being afraid that they won’t show up if you call like, it’s got to be all of those things that creates safety. That so much yeah, yeah, you gotta pay Miss Linda, and you got to pay Pooky.
Aqeela Sherrills 42:15
That’s right. We’re currently doing after, after the White House initiative, we’d love to stay a multi city, a 12, city five year initiative with the goal of reducing near term violence in each one of these cities, you know, 20%, the first cohort 15 And a second cohort 10% in the second cohort. And so we started with, like, kind of some of the cities that we worked with through the White House. And so, you know, we’ve been working heavily for the past year and a half now in Newark, in Baltimore, in Indianapolis, in Baton Rouge. And so we’re starting to see the work take root, you know, next week, we’re moving, you know, capacity building dollars to the tune of a, like, almost like a half a million dollars. Now, it’s a three year grant, right, you know, for about five different organizations in Baton Rouge, and then in newer, but it’s significant, you know, what I’m saying in terms of these dollars, that they get to help them to tighten up their the fiscal administration of their organization, right. The programmatic infrastructure, they might want to re engineer something, they might want to hire some new staff, maybe they got a federal grant, and they need, you know, they need, you know, four to five months payroll, because it takes 1000 years for the for the government to pay you. Right?
V Spehar 43:28
Well, and to put those reports together, you need a specialist to report on the grant spent, yeah, that’s a whole full time job just to tell them how you use the money.
Aqeela Sherrills 43:37
Right? Right. So these are the types of things that we’re helping organizations with in communities all across the country. And we’re also helping cities to think through how they actually move their dollars to support community based organizations, because you might have a, you know, a great mayor, you know, who has the political will to make it happen, but just don’t know how they just don’t have the experience of, you know, navigating municipal government in order to move the dollars to the ground, so that it becomes a win win, you know, you know, for the community and for them politically, right. So, we’re fortunate that we get to work at all of those different levels, integrating this, this into the DNA, you know, of our existing public safety, infrastructure, and creating opportunities, you know, a career path, man, you know, for for folks, you know, who previously were disenfranchised and disconnected, and who had totally just divested from the system, because a large part of this population, the folks that we work with, I call it the largest decentralized movement in the country, have has been dis disconnected from the system. And now, this is a this is a point of entry for people to play a significant role in safety in their own respective community, and they want to do it, you know, they want to do it. We just need to build the infrastructure and put the systems in place so that they can actually absorb the investment and that’s what we’re doing so the next three to five years. You know, I’m like, you know, 10 toes down, building, community based organizational infrastructure, helping to inform and advise cities on how to move dollars to the ground. And, and then working with, you know, our law enforcement partners to better understand, you know, how this work is a compliment to them. And that, you know, and not an alternative.
V Spehar 45:23
Aqeela it was so great to chat with you today, is there anything we didn’t get to talk about, you want to make sure folks know about?
Aqeela Sherrills 45:28
I would say that, you know, for all of the folks, you know, who might live in communities that are disconnected from this respective work, I would say, go visit because this strategy can be adapted in an established anywhere family, you know, and it’s not just about community based violence and gang violence and all that type of stuff. Right, you know, intimate partner violence, you know, it’s all of the things that that that it’s very, yeah, you know, and so, you know, check us out, you know, check out our websites, you know, you know, follow us on social media. And you know, add some new things to your repertoire.
V Spehar 46:09
As new things you appetite Yeah, learn. Well, if you ever need help from white kid from Connecticut, who knows all the words to ice ice, baby, I’m there next time. You need somebody to help. Give me a call. Yeah. I’ll be there for you. Yes. Thank you so much for being here.
Aqeela Sherrills 46:28
Thank you so much. Wonderful.
V Spehar 46:33
Another huge thank you to Aqeela for joining me today and thank you to the just trust for making this conversation possible. And if this conversation got you interested in community based public safety, do like Aqeela said and check out the website for the community based public safety collective at CBPScollective.org. Be sure to tune into Friday’s episode where we dig into the headlines you may have missed leave us a five star rating on whatever platform you’re listening on. Follow me at @underthedesknews on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube and we got a Patreon now it’s patreon.com/underthedesknews and guess what friends there’s even more be interesting with limonada premium subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content, like NPR pop culture critic Aisha Harris talking about the dark and dirty movies from the 1990s that shaped us millennial girly, subscribe now in Apple podcasts. V Interesting is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Kryssy Pease, Kathryn Barnes and Martin Macias. Our VP of weekly programming is Steve Nelson. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittles Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Mix and scoring is by James Farber. Music by Seth Applebaum. Please help others find the show by reading and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us across all social platforms at @VitusSpehar, @underthedesknews and @LemonadaMedia. If you want more V Interesting. Subscribe to Lemonada Premium only on Apple podcasts and follow the show where ever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.