In many ways, life has slowed down during the coronavirus pandemic but gun violence persists, challenging outreach workers who are trying to stop the violence despite social distancing restrictions.
Michelle McDaniel, a program manager and outreach worker with GRASP, a Denver gang intervention program, says that on any given day, her trauma pager goes off at all hours. She watches the alerts come in, looking for young people who have been violently injured, many by gunshot. Usually, McDaniel rushes to the hospital to meet them.
“There’s something to say about somebody coming into a room where a young person is really scared, vulnerable, contemplating what’s going to happen,” McDaniel said. “There’s just an energy of somebody being in your room, present with you, that can hold your hand while doctors are stitching you up or help you read paperwork that maybe somebody didn’t take the time to make sure you understood.”
As a violence interrupter, one part of McDaniel’s job is to develop a relationship with the injured kids in that vulnerable moment and then connect them to support services like mentoring and job training.
Michelle McDaniel, an outreach worker with a gang intervention program in Denver, discusses the challenges of doing violence interruption work while social distancing.
KUNC / Leigh Paterson
“I’m not a doctor. I’m not an officer or detective or your parents,” she said. “I’m not here to get you in any trouble. I’m just here to make sure you’re OK.”
Hospital-based violence intervention programs operate in dozens of cities across the country, although the Denver program, At-Risk Intervention Mentoring (AIM), is the only one in the Mountain West. From the moment young people arrive at the hospital, the goal is to stop the cycle of gun violence by helping individual kids stay out of trouble.
Today, that job has fundamentally changed. Because of coronavirus restrictions, McDaniel and other outreach workers are barred from the hospital, a limitation that has affected how she does her job.
“It just has to be done a little differently over the telephone, because then they really can’t see us,” McDaniel said. “They really don’t know who we are or why we’re calling…definitely the quality is going to be impacted.”
Violence interruption programs all over the country are being forced to adapt. Some of their work has shifted to providing necessities like food and diapers. In Washington, D.C., two violence prevention groups, Cure the Streets and Murder Free D.C., are partnering with a local nonprofit to distribute meals. For many groups, face-to-face violence interruption work has gone virtual. For instance, Gideon’s Army, a Nashville-based organization, is trying to do conflict resolution by phone instead of gathering opposing parties in a room together, according to reporting by the Trace.
“One of the key aspects of violence interruption is to be able to respond immediately,” explained Pat Hedrick, director of Denver Public Safety Youth Services.
These days, that’s complicated. Hedrick says that before, when a kid called an outreach worker because some sort of incident was unfolding, an outreach worker would normally rush to see them.
“Pre-COVID, it was somebody jumping in a car and heading over to that young person immediately and having face-to-face communication to settle and calm them down,” Hedrick said.
Now, much of that work is being done over phone and video calls, or in person but at a distance — with an outreach worker standing on the sidewalk, talking with someone standing behind a screen door. Because of this, advocates describe dealing with two public health crises: the pandemic and gun violence. At the beginning of May, 20 city mayors, including Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, sent a letter to congressional leaders requesting emergency funding for violence interruption programs as gun violence intensifies in some areas.
“Unfortunately, crime has not been quarantined during this COVID-19 crisis,” said Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen during a recent meeting on youth violence prevention, noting an increase in aggravated assaults in southwest and northeast Denver.
“These are gun crimes. Serious crimes where we’ve actually seen some spikes… It is impacting our communities of color,” Pazen said.
In Denver, gun crimes have not abated. Since the city’s Stay-At-Home order took effect on March 26, 171 aggravated assaults involving a gun have been reported, compared to 110 during the same time frame last year. Gun murders also increased during that time period.
“When we’ve had to change the outreach model and go to virtual meetings, instead of that face-to-face, it really has an impact on our collective approach on how we do something about this,” Pazen said.
Michelle McDaniel says she’s not surprised that aggravated assaults are up in northeast and southwest Denver because those neighborhoods are generally underserved and tend to have more crime. Now, parents in those areas are dealing with job losses while young people are losing their support systems like schools and recreation centers.
That leaves the clients she works with vulnerable.
“Our kids — their well-being, their mental health, their security and sense of safety,” McDaniel said, “All of that’s at stake.”
Data from the Denver Police Department shows that for the past few years, violent crime has generally increased during summer months. McDaniel says right now feels like the calm before the storm as lockdown restrictions in Denver are slated to begin easing.
“The tension is just building in those communities,” she said. “I’m expecting our young people to start acting up. In all honesty, I’m kind of preparing for that.”
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.