| Delaware News Journal
Trying to stop the killing: this Wilmington team works for trust
Members of the Community Intervention Team work at street level to stop violence and retaliation.
Delaware News Journal
When a person is shot in Wilmington, a half-dozen people all too familiar with the city’s cycle of violence gather in a small meeting room above an empty storefront on Tatnall Street.
They strategize: Who was shot? Does anyone in the group know the family? Who could they contact?
The goal is to get in touch with the victim or his family within a day, in the hopes of talking anyone close out of retaliation, and saving a life.
The grassroots group, the Community Intervention Team, is not made up of police – far from it. And its members aren’t health care workers, in the traditional sense. But they are contributing to the efforts that have cropped up in Wilmington around a growing belief that gun violence spreads like a disease and should be treated like one.
The state’s primary effort in that direction is a separate, police-social service partnership program launched in 2019. It targets people who are identified by law enforcement as driving the city’s violence with intensive social assistance to help them exit their lives of crime.
Efforts like that one, and those led by Community Intervention Team program director Darryl “Wolfie” Chambers, have been tried before in Wilmington but were abandoned.
Officials are getting the state’s program fully staffed, and ChristianaCare is investing in its own hospital-based prevention program. Now, Chambers’ group, too, is seeking to establish itself permanently as one pillar of Wilmington’s approach to violence prevention – one that is, as Chambers calls it, “funded for success.”
“When we see a reduction in violence … then in some people’s minds it’s OK and we’re where we want to be at and there’s no need to fund [violence prevention programs],” Chambers said. “If you get sick and you’re asked to take medication, you’re told to complete your medication. A lot of times we take half the bottle and we don’t finish the bottle.”
Under those circumstances, he said, violence could return the way other diseases do: by growing resistant to available treatments.
His program has been in development since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a trailblazing report on the city’s violent crime in 2015. So far it’s gotten modest support from the state’s Division of Social Services and last year secured a $250,000 grant from the Longwood Foundation and the Wilmington Alliance.
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That’s gotten the group its Tatnall Street office space and the ability to hire on some of its case workers, but not to the full staffing level needed, Chambers said.
In the face of rising violent crime in Wilmington, some activists have called on the city to invest in prevention efforts run by ex-offenders, or by others whose status in the community gives them a unique way to reach would-be shooters without involving law enforcement. Asked about his thoughts on those programs last fall, Mayor Mike Purzycki said he was skeptical of their ability to bring down crime in the short term.
The Community Intervention Team borrows its approach from the Chicago-based Cure Violence Global model, a renowned public health method for preventing violence, though the Wilmington version is run independently of that group’s involvement or training.
The community intervention program uses street outreach workers who are respected in high-crime neighborhoods and familiar with the groups at conflict, often former offenders themselves. They intervene in potentially violent situations.
That includes talking people out of a crisis, connecting them to housing, education or job assistance afterward, and trying to change a norm of “structural inequality” in whole communities.
Wilmington officials launched a program in 2014 with Cure Violence’s help, relying on ex-offenders to deter potential shooters, but The News Journal reported in 2017 that it folded after funding dried up. A spokesman for Cure Violence said it stopped being involved in Wilmington when the local effort was not following the nonprofit’s exact, proven methods.
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A previous iteration of a violence mediation program ran from 2008 to 2009, according to News Journal archives, but also suffered funding cuts.
For one 15-year-old Wilmington boy who had been running afoul of the law, the new community intervention program gave him a place to turn away from a criminal path in the wake of being shot last year.
“I don’t know exactly what it’s called,” he said shyly during an interview at the program offices. “But I come here and they help me change my mindset, how to think about stuff. So like, I could be real angry about something, and they teach me to look at it, show me a better view, a different view of it.”
The boy, whose name Delaware Online/The News Journal is choosing to withhold because he is both a victim of a crime and a minor, had been charged with crimes like robbery last year. Getting shot, he said, was a wakeup call about the dangers of his situation.
The CDC’s 2015 study on Wilmington’s violence found that being charged with crimes as a minor and visiting the ER for a gunshot wound were among the clearest indicators that someone could become a future shooter.
Chambers said he takes in any youth who are most likely to be involved in violence, or at-risk – either as a victim or a perpetrator. They participate in workforce development and civic engagements projects, with a prerequisite being demonstrating improvement in their grades.
At the offices, the boy received tutoring and improved his grades to As and Bs. He gets paid now to participate in violence prevention programs, eliminating what he called an urge to “do stuff for money.”
“I think I used to do stuff because I was bored,” he reflected. “When I start coming here, they start helping me fill up time.”
‘The situation might have turned different’
For the program’s intervention workers, the job can come calling at any hour.
Michael Bartley described getting a call in the middle of the night from an old friend in a “serious crisis.”
“He was actually talking about a beef, a past beef that he had,” said 48-year-old Bartley. “He was almost to the verge of actually [being] about to do some damage to somebody, acting violent.”
Bartley got out of bed to meet his friend. They talked about their childhoods, and how many children the friend had. Efforts like that aren’t always successful, Bartley acknowledged, but that conversation was.
“I make sure the people who call me, they understand the ripple effect behind their actions,” Bartley said.
The work is based in social science, Chambers said, drawing on his work at the University of Delaware. He was lead researcher on the People’s Report project a decade ago, studying the causes of street violence in Wilmington.
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The team uses shooting data, coupled with its own familiarity with those involved in crime, to understand trends in the city’s violence. Members attend trainings held by the Health Alliance for Violence Prevention, a national group of professionals who run violence intervention programs in hospitals.
It’s also an intimate job.
In interviews, the intervention team members emphasized how heavily their work is built on trust and social capital, which they described as a combination of having widespread connections in the neighborhoods and reputations for being personally invested in the community’s success.
They shy away from attention and are careful not to align too closely with any single group in town, especially law enforcement, as the association could hinder communications with would-be offenders. Chambers was reluctant to grant an interview to Delaware Online/The News Journal at all.
“We don’t want to all of a sudden catch the disease of ‘me,’ where we’re selling our brand instead of trying to save lives,” he said.
One of the most convincing elements of their “social capital” is their own experiences with street crime.
The intervention workers hold well-known reputations in Wilmington neighborhoods as men who peddled drugs and violence in the 1980s and 1990s and have since turned their lives around. Like many in impoverished city neighborhoods, they’ve also lost loved ones to gun violence.
Chambers, whose own son was killed in 2011, is one of the most recognizable faces of that narrative.
A former drug dealer who served a decade in prison in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he has since gotten a master’s degree in criminology from UD and become a trusted community leader – a presence both at crime scenes and state criminal justice reform commissions.
He recently hired Nikerray Middlebrooks, who was released from prison about a year ago after serving time for a series of violent crimes in 1996, including attempted murder. At the age of 22, Middlebrooks shot and injured two men in northeast Wilmington over a “turf war,” and later robbed and shot a third.
In 2012, a judge was so persuaded of Middlebrooks’ rehabilitation in prison that he shaved off a few years of the man’s 37-year sentence, to allow him to be eligible to apply for early release.
Having grown up in similar circumstances, Middlebrooks said his experience lends him credibility with youth who now attend programs with the intervention team. But it’s also his motivation and a way to take accountability for the past.
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“There were certain points, certain times where if I had intervention, the situation might have turned different,” he said.
Middlebrooks, now a soft-spoken 46-year-old who said he desired to change after taking up studying in prison, came home to Wilmington during what became a year of resurgent violent crime, especially among young people.
“I was at the beginning stage of this, I played a role,” he said. “To see how 20-something years later, kids are still affected … To see that now, I have a burning desire to prevent kids from becoming what I became.”
‘Changing community norms’
The shared experiences have left an impression on 21-year-old Theodore Wilson, one of the young participants in the intervention team’s youth programs who has become a peer mentor himself.
“They was going through the same stuff I was going through,” he said of the intervention workers.
He had missed months of school and was apathetic in his Riverside neighborhood, surrounded by crime.
“I don’t know,” he said, of what influenced him. “It’s the usual stuff that goes on in the neighborhood.”
Wilson was recruited to the program because he knew “Wolfie” as a family friend.
He graduated from high school in 2019 and later that year went to Sacramento, California, to receive an award for his work from the national health-based violence prevention group.
It was his first time on a plane, and his first time leaving Delaware.
“All my friends and family, they were so proud of me,” he said. “It was basically showing them a different route, different things we can do to get out of the neighborhood.”
Chambers calls that influence “changing community norms,” a process he considers just as important as preventing individual incidences of violence.
One method is through distributing resources in communities that social service workers often find hard to reach.
In November, the group held events in high-crime neighborhoods across the city, asking communities to declare “Not on My Block” to violence. It helped the group find residents who needed social assistance and connect them to jobs, said outreach worker and youth mentor Coley Harris.
The youth participants, including Wilson and the 15-year-old boy who had been shot, spent some of their hours putting together sanitizing wipes and other coronavirus-relief kits to distribute to neighborhoods in need.
“You’re not the only one out there that struggled before,” the 15-year-old said of what he learned. “The world don’t revolve around you, so it’s like, I gotta think about … how my decisions are going to affect everybody else.”
Contact Jeanne Kuang at firstname.lastname@example.org or (302) 324-2476.