Group Violence Intervention offers shooters a way out

The Philadelphia-run program targets groups involved in gun violence for social services and increased law enforcement.

Thursday, June 9, 2022
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A Philadelphia anti-violence initiative offers support and a warning to individuals and groups involved in shootings.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- After Sunday's South Street shooting added urgency to Philadelphia's gun violence crisis, the city continues to search for solutions.

Group Violence Intervention (GVI) is one evidence-based approach. The program reduces gun violence by working within social networks to deter groups from shooting. It identifies individuals and groups who are involved in violent activity and targets them for social services to help break the cycle of violence, as well as increased consequences if they do pull the trigger.

"We notify these folks like, 'Hey, I know who you are, I know what you've been up to,'" said Erica Atwood, Senior Director for the Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice & Public Safety, which oversees the office that runs GVI. "'Here are the options: You continue on the path that you continue on and you're going to land right into the criminal justice system. But here's an opportunity to take advantage of social services, supports and diversion programs that exist.'"

The program connects participants with behavioral health supports, employment opportunities and other needed resources. Its focus, according to Atwood, is "not just jobs, but how are we taking care of individuals who are looking for a sense of belonging -- which is why they're in these groups -- and so how do we give them a positive sense of belonging, some positive care and concern, so they do not do harm or receive harm."

Since its launch in August 2020, GVI has identified 598 candidates for the program, attempted 1,191 custom notifications and completed 302 direct contacts with candidates as well as 239 collateral contacts with their family members. Candidates identified by GVI have been arrested six or more times on average. Their median age is 19 years old and 96 percent of them are Black men.

Program meetings, termed "call-ins," give candidates a way out of street life and a warning that violence will not be tolerated.

"We want to be able to tell you that we value your life, you don't need this kind of street life, we have services for you," said Dr. Caterina Roman, a criminal justice professor at Temple University who evaluated a previous implementation of the GVI model in Philadelphia. "Do you need emergency housing? Do you need job training? Do you need access to certain jobs? Let us help you."

Arguments and retaliation are common causes of gun violence in the city, motivating more than half of shootings in a recent sample cleared by the Philadelphia Police Department.

To reduce these incidents, GVI identifies conflicts brewing between groups and warns those involved that resolving their clashes through gun violence will trigger harsh law enforcement action.

"You create an expectation that there are consequences, but there are also benefits to not engaging in shooting behavior," said Dr. Ruth Abaya, manager of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health's Injury Prevention Program.

In the current GVI implementation, 147 individuals are receiving case management, 104 of these participants are receiving additional services and 89 of them have been connected to employment. The average age of those who accepted services is 24, and all of these individuals are Black. Thirty-two percent of those who accepted services were shooting victims before their engagement with GVI; After their first engagement, only three percent have been shooting victims.

The GVI model has been effective at reducing shootings in some Philadelphia neighborhoods where it was implemented in 2013 through a program called "Focused Deterrence," led by the District Attorney's Office and the Philadelphia Police Department. Over a two-year period, areas that were targeted with the program saw a 35 percent decrease in shootings, while similar areas that were not targeted saw shootings increase by six percent.

However, when Roman and other Temple University researchers analyzed shooting outcomes on a gang level, their findings were mixed. Of the 14 gangs targeted, nine had reductions in shootings, one had no change and four had shooting increases so large that they offset the positive effects on the other gangs.

According to Roman, the gangs that had no change or had increases in shootings tended to be younger, larger and more active on social media than the gangs that had reductions in shootings.

"This is where data come in, where we are going back to law enforcement and saying, 'We need to be focusing on these three groups who are not changing their behavior,'" Roman said. "We do think that there is a message that's reaching groups, but not all groups."

It's also important to look at potential harm of all interventions, Roman added. She noted that critics of the earlier program claimed it targeted individuals who had already left their violent lifestyles behind, including one who missed his graduation because he was arrested on an old violation.

Evaluation of the current GVI implementation is underway, with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania hoping to complete their research on the program's effects later this year or in early 2023. According to Atwood, early indicators suggest the program is working.

"The outcome that we're beginning to see is reduced engagement with the justice system and law enforcement with these individuals that we identify, engagement in employment and positive activities, reduced recidivism for some of the individuals that have stayed engaged, continued contact with our caseworkers," Atwood said.

For now, the program is growing: This fiscal year, it will quadruple its case manager staffing from three to 12, expand to all police divisions and host at least five group call-ins. But ultimately, Atwood hopes GVI is successful enough that it can be eliminated.

"How do we make it so we have a system where I am not needed?" Atwood asked. "That is my vision."

Learn more about gun violence in Philadelphia, the communities it affects and local solutions -- and submit your own ideas to stop the shooting -- at 6abc.com/gunviolence.