Violence interrupters hit streets to curb Indy’s record homicide rate

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INDIANAPOLIS — During the five years of Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration, Indianapolis has spent in excess of $10 million in community crime prevention grants while struggling to find a solution to violence in the city.

Last year Indianapolis’ homicide total jumped to 245 violent deaths, a 40% increase over the year before, and if the first three weeks of 2021 are any indication, that rate has not slowed.

Desperate times call for innovative and even risky solutions.

“We should’ve started this maybe 20-30 years ago when we first started seeing the culture of violence change in our community,” said Community Violence Reduction Director Shonna Majors. “A culture and a generation takes time to reform.”

The City is betting $400,000 of its 2021 community crime prevention grant money on an aggressive and admittedly “dangerous” program to send so-called Interrupters into the homes of the most violent people in Indianapolis in an attempt to convince them to not retaliate in the wake of murders or shootings and perhaps even give up their guns and their violent lifestyles.

“We have kind of recruited some of the people that we know who are in the business and have the nerve because this is dangerous work and so we sometimes don’t know what we’re walking into, so these guys have stepped up to do that,” said Majors. “They have lived similar lives. They either used to be gang members or used to be drug dealers or used to be just in the life of violence themselves, went and served time and came back and have now adjusted their thinking to want to help those to be what they wish they had when they were going through those lifestyles to be able to transform.”

Six Interrupters, ex-felons or those familiar with violent crime, have been hired by the Indy Public Safety Foundation, the City’s partner in the project, to hit the streets both before and after violence goes down in an attempt to cool tempers and talk sense, sometimes greasing the conversation with cash, while trying to stem the flow of bloodshed.

“My job as an interrupter is to be in your community while your community is still normal and try to pluck you out and give you some information and some guidance and some game and show you the way and then push you back into your same community, don’t move up north, don’t move out nowhere, go back where you were and become a credible messenger and let’s try to change the communal norm,” said Shane Shepherd, who founded B4UFall, an organization devoted to mentoring youth and finding resources for ex-offenders. “It’s a relatively small number of people who perpetrate the most violence or the high levels of violence, so if those people can be honed in on and try to save you prior to you becoming a law enforcement issue, once you become that, there’s your probation officer’s job and your parole agent’s job, I want to get you before you become in the hospital where you can’t move again and die or you get a parole officer.”

Shepherd and his fellow Interrupters traveled with Majors to Oakland for training with interventionists in a similar program there and have already fanned out onto the streets of Indianapolis, arriving at shooting and homicide scenes to talk with participants and witnesses and get a handle on the origins of the violence.

“My career job is saving the lives or at least planting the seeds that will help save the lives of people who look like me,” said Shepherd. “You have to say, ‘I have to meet you where you are no matter where that’s at and when I meet you there, I have to start to elevate your thought process or plant new ideals that maybe you’ve never even heard of, like just because you have a failing, don’t mean you can’t get a job.’”

Shepherd, who recruits former offenders to work at Recycle Force to establish a stable job history, often as a condition of their parole or probation, preaches self-reliance and a rejection of victimhood while attempting to show particularly young men caught up in a never-ending cycle of violence that there is a peaceful alternative of earning a living without ending up in prison or the cemetery.

“There are thousands of companies who get incentivized to hire felons,” said Shepherd who collected trash for the city of Indianapolis for $18 an hour after his return from federal prison. “I need to take advantage of things that are being offered within that same system that victimized me to pull myself up by a rope.”

The job of the Interrupters is dangerous, knocking on doors and talking their way into homes of people mixed up in some of the most violent activities in Indianapolis.

Interrupters do not work with IMPD, instead referring potential participants to agencies and support services to find a peaceful exit from their environments and lifestyles.

Johnny Purchase, not an Interrupter but a paid associate of the Office of Public Health and Safety, was shot to death Sunday knocking on doors and delivering informational fliers in a north side neighborhood, reportedly by a man who mistook “Mr. Johnny” for a potential assailant he was expecting to visit.

“When I seen Mr. Johnny lose his life, it made me want to be a better Interrupter. It made me want to be more professional. More on time. Learn more stuff,” said Shepherd. “I want to make sure that we don’t let his name stop because our whole circle is now named after Mr. Johnny Purchase so when we gather, we’re gonna be gathering in Johnny Purchase’s name monthly just to make sure that we understand he sacrificed his life so we could continue his work.”

Majors attended a memorial service for Purchase with Mayor Hogsett and IMPD Chief Randal Taylor at her side Monday.

“Yes, it may have unnerved or made some people nervous about doing this work,” she said. “I just think it brought awareness about how delicate and how dangerous and sensitive this work can be, and we just continue to ask people to advocate on behalf of the work and become part of the work.

“Something that I know, he would want is for us to continue the work. He knew how important this was and that’s why he was there for it.”

Majors said Interrupters have been trained in communication skills and social media awareness as many virtual beefs can turn fatal.

OPHS also oversees the Indy Peace Fellowship which will attempt specific intensive intervention with the most violent people in Indianapolis.

“IMPD supplied us with a list of 65 people that are considered to be the most closely associated with the violence in our city,” said Majors. “We want to enroll at least thirty of those people in a very intense intentional program where they work together with their Interrupters, with the interventionists, and they will meet on a regular daily basis to keep the pulse on them, make sure that they’re not making bad decisions, so it’s kind of like a life coaching.”

After a decade under two mayoral administrations dedicating millions of dollars to programs with undefinable track records of success, Majors said the Interrupters program represents a mindset change on behalf of the City and its partner agencies in providing intervention and delivering services where its potential consumers live.

“When we come knocking on your door, we’re not coming to hurt you. We want to help you. We want to let you know what services are available in your neighborhood,” said Majors, “and we’re changing the culture of community-based organizations where they typically would sit in their brick-and-mortar buildings and wait for people to come to them. We’ve taken the resources to the people.”

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