Memphis Gun Down sets sights on a safer South Memphis

The Memphis Gun Down program is seeing positive results in its second year helping youths avoid making poor decisions and quell violence on the streets of South Memphis and Frayser.
 
"Programs like Memphis Gun Down are vitally important to a city like Memphis that has some crime concerns," says Memphis Gun Down Director Bishop Mays. "Between 1980 and 2011 there were more than 600,000 people killed by violence on the streets of America, and a large percentage of them were men and boys of color."
 
Mays believes behavioral therapy and change is a better solution in many cases than jail time, and he thinks many youths just need to hear some positive reinforcement and alternatives.
 
"Sending people to jail is not the answer. We need prevention and intervention, education and people making better decisions. We need a cultural change, a value change, to change the violence in America," he says. "We want everybody to understand that they have value, that they can be an asset."
 
The Gun Down program, which got underway in late 2012, is funded for two years by a Bloomberg grant. The focus of the first two years has primarily been in Frayser and South Memphis. The five main components of Memphis Gun Down are suppression, by focusing law enforcement on the small number of young men committing gun violence; community mobilization; better youth opportunities through education, jobs and community activities; intervention; and organizational change and development.
 
Bishop cites successful programs like "Operation Cease Fire" in Boston and "Summer Night Lights" in New Orleans and Los Angeles.
 
"In Los Angeles, they have over 30 community centers open during peak crime times, and it provides a safe zone for all citizens to come to," he says. "We brought that model to Memphis and implemented it last summer for six weeks in the Frayser community. It was very successful, and it provided a safe zone for more than 1,100 families."
 
Another successful community mobilization effort is the free "Midnight Basketball" tournament that will begin in late June. The five-on-five double elimination tournament is expanding this year and will rotate through various locations in South Memphis, North Memphis, East Memphis and Frayser. Last year more than 30 teams competed, and this year more are expected.
 
"One of the things we've noticed is that activities for young people are different now compared to 30 years ago. Back then they had more government and private choices to keep them occupied, like community centers, baseball or basketball leagues and parks," Mays says. "We don't have as much of that now for our young people, and with an idle mind some will be subject to make some poor decisions."
 
Bishop points out the challenge of pairing up the business community with potential employees with criminal records and lower education levels. "Once you get a felony conviction, you are very limited in what you can do to provide for yourself and your family, so oftentimes those individuals are thrust into a world of gangs and violence because they made a poor decision," he says.
 
Memphis Gun Down also assists with re-engagement into the community after serving prison time.
 
"We began a mentoring program last summer, and we are looking to re-implement that this summer," says Mays.
 
Memphis Gun Down also partners with the Multi-Agency Gang Unit, which includes the Memphis Police Department, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, the Shelby County District Attorney General’s Office and federal agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
 
"Our approach is we want to intervene on the streets, in the hospitals and in the schools," he says.
 
At the Regional Medical Center (now Regional One), over a three-year period more than $80 million was spent on victims of violence, averaging nearly $70,000 per person.
 
So Gun Down initiated a successful hospital-based violence intervention program used in Baltimore.
 
"We send a liason to talk with these individuals while they are in the hospital to discourage them and/or their friends from retaliation," Bishop says. "The real feather in our cap when it comes to intervention is the 901 BLOC Squad."
 
Delvin Lane is the supervisor of the squad, which is modeled from similar groups in Los Angeles, Baltimore and New York City. He and four other Gun Down intervention specialists assist troubled youth and their families with things like educational opportunities, employment training and assistance, mental health services and substance abuse treatment.
 
"In the urban areas, I would say eight or nine out of ten kids are involved as a wannabe, a gonnabe or a full-fledged person that is active with that [local street gang and clique] lifestyle," says Lane, a former gang member and drug dealer who reformed in 1999 and began working with Streets Ministries, one of the largest youth outreach ministries in the city. He spent 12 years there before joining Gun Down. "Our duty is not to convince guys to leave their gangs. Our duty is show them options and alternatives to a different type of lifestyle. That's what I was able to do. Someone showed me a different way of life."
 
Gun-related violence seems to be on the rise, as last year from January to October the squad responded to 39 shootings and since then they have responded to 64. Lane and the other intervention specialists focus on preventing retaliatory shootings by arriving early on the crime scene and working with the victims and their families.
 
"To date we've deterred 125 situations where guys were in a very heated conflict and no one was shot behind him," says Lane, who cites the fact that crime is down 38 percent in South Memphis as evidence that Gun Down is helping to make a difference.
 
Lane also works with a conflict resolution team in South Memphis that calls him in when trouble is brewing between young men, in a preventative effort to sit everyone down for a round table meeting seeking peaceful solutions before the shooting starts.
 
One of the Gun Down success stories is Martavious Newby, sophomore guard for the Ole Miss basketball team, who attended Booker T. Washington High School.
 
"We're going to continue to beat the pavement to make sure our communities become safe," he says.
 
In the next couple of years Mays hopes to expand the Gun Down program to other parts of the city.
 
"Our vision is to bring Memphis Gun Down to a scale to increase our street intervention team from five to 15 individuals, and to bring the Gun Down collective approach to more communities throughout the city," he says.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
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