Mayor de Blasio has pointed to community-based violence interrupters as a key part of his approach to addressing shootings, but top NYPD brass have been notably absent from those public discussions — a move that’s now setting off alarm bells among criminal justice experts.
Ife Charles, a violence interrupter with the SOS Bed Stuy program, appeared at the mayor’s Wednesday press briefing to explain the work she does and how she plans to address the shootings that have left her neighborhood reeling.
“Part of this work, people have this notion that it happens immediately. It does not,” she said Wednesday, as the mayor looked on.
Charles then used the example of a woman who now works with her as taking “years” to reach.
“She’s actually working with us,” she said. “But it took years of us having conversations and her doing trial and error.”
NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea was not present for the briefing. Neither was anyone else from the NYPD.
The mayor’s approach — one where he highlights violence interrupters and seems to downplay the NYPD — is one that criminal justice experts are now starting to notice — and question.
Maki Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that while there are merits to the methods used by violence interrupters — also know as the Cure Violence movement — the mayor is making a mistake in placing so much emphasis on them in the wake of recent shootings.
“I have never seen such an uninformed and uneducated approach than I’ve seen in the last four months from him,” she said. “To come up with this soft approach during this spike in violence, this is not the time. A soft approach is once you mitigate the problem, and then you try to prevent it in the future.”
Methods used by violence interrupters include mediating disputes between gang members before they turn violent, offering mental health services and pointing at-risk people to long- and short-term job opportunities.
Haberfeld said while those methods can be effective, overemphasizing them sends the wrong message to police, criminals and to the public, including the families of victims mourning the loss of a loved one.
“He’s just oblivious to what’s happening. People who make tons of money selling drugs — they’re not going to be dissuaded by you talking softly to them,” she said. “I don’t think — I know. This is my profession. I know based on research I’ve been doing for the past 30 years.”
Eugene O’Donnell, an adjunct at John Jay and a former prosecutor in the Brooklyn DA’s office, said the absence of the police from recent public discussions and the reliance on violence interrupters indicates a “lack of urgency” on the mayor’s part.
“He’s not outraged by it,” O’Donnell said.
De Blasio is not leaving the NYPD out of the equation, though. On Wednesday, he said there would be an increased police presence in areas where shootings have taken place. But the absence of any top brass at press briefings — especially on the heels of fatal shootings — could lead to the perception that the main thrust of his approach is the Cure Violence initiative.
“The fact that the police department is not there is saying something,” said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. “The perception is that he’s gone totally soft.”
City Councilman Ritchie Torres described the mayor’s messaging as “erratic” — that he’s gone from defending the NYPD during anti-police protests to distancing himself from them.
“It hardly inspires confidence in how the city is being led,” he said.
Haberfeld also pointed to the disbanding of the NYPD’s Anti-Crime Unit, which focused on taking guns off the street.
“This is not the time for experiments,” she said. “Police can not do much about this except to go out and get guns off the street, and the way to do that is undercover officers. Now, they’re assigned to other units.”
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