Charlotte's 'violence interrupters' aim to counter violence, promote outreach
In Charlotte there's an ATV Team, and its acronym stands for alternatives to violence.
The innovative program uses trained community members, referred to as "violence interrupters," who have experienced the criminal justice system firsthand. They work to make connections and address community problems without involving the police.
Its focus has been on the Beatties Ford Road corridor in west Charlotte.
Cities such as Durham and Greensboro have similar programs that use this approach. In Charlotte, this program is grant-funded, and only in its second year.
As violence interrupters with the ATV Team, Donnell Gardner and Juan Hall, have an afternoon of walking ahead of them.
Their first stop is the Birch Townhomes, a couple of miles from West Charlotte High School. Gardner said they were there recently, speaking to residents after 14-year-old Gregory Holmes was shot and killed. According to police, a juvenile suspect was arrested in the case.
Gardner said that in the days following the Holmes' slaying, they set up a tent to talk to residents about issues of violence and struggle in the community.
He pointed to the unit where Holmes lived and shook his head.
"People say something like, it's getting worse. What do you do? It's really no right answer to that. But what I think is that you keep doing what you do and you keep working on the one that you can touch," Gardner said. "You know, hopefully, they can reach out to somebody else and make a difference eventually. These kids just don't know how to resolve issues properly, to live, to see another day."
It is getting worse. Last month during its mid-year crime report, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department said overall crime is up 4% compared to last year. Homicides are up 8%.
Walking through the rows of townhomes, Hall approaches a resident who said he’s lived here for three years. Hall asks if he knows anyone who needs help getting necessities such as toiletries or food. Or if a child needs mentoring, they can help them too.
Hall let the resident know that both he and Gardner have served time; they aren’t here to judge anyone and they aren’t working with the police.
"We've... recently just come home so we understand. You understand what I mean?" Hall said. "So it ain't like we, you know, we’re goody two shoes. We, we try and keep in mind where we done been."
The man took their card and said he’ll call if he sees someone in need.
One of the most challenging parts of the job — they both agree — is convincing the folks they approach that they aren’t law enforcement. Both Gardner and Hall know the west Charlotte area well, having grown up in the area or gone to school there. Both have a criminal past.
The hope is that people will see them as part of the community, people who have made some past mistakes but turned their lives around. The hope is that trust will be built.
"We're comfortable in these areas. But if I'm in Ballantyne, I'm nervous," Gardner said.
Before moving on for the day, they make a last stop at the rental property office and leave their contact information with management in the hope that they can set up a kid-friendly event in the neighborhood to keep kids busy and out of trouble.
Hall and Gardner hop in the car and drive to the next location, what they refer to as a "hotspot" — the intersection of Catherine Simmons Avenue and Beatties Ford Road.
Hall refers to the spot as the information corridor, where people talk about what’s really going on on Beatties Ford Road, he said. This is also where four people were killed during a mass shooting back in June 2020. The killings rocked the community are still unsolved to this day.
Next, they head to Catherine Simmons Avenue. A 2020 article from the Charlotte Observer referred to it as the city's deadliest street, based on data collected.
Gardener pointed to people he knew and waved. Part of the reason he became a violence interrupter was due to his past. He served time for conspiracy to distribute. When he was released, he knew he wanted to use his story to prevent young people from making the same mistakes he did.
"I decided once I got home I'd do my best to make a difference," Gardner said.
Leondra Garrett, another violence interrupter, joined in. It’s not long before a woman on the other side of the street waves at the group. Gardner said he’s been trying to help her with a raccoon infestation in her house. He walked over to talk to her.
Garrett and Hall reflect on the poor conditions of the homes. Trash litters the ground. Rent is going up. Landlords don’t seem to want to fix properties.
Gardner crosses the street and walks back to the group. He doesn’t have good news.
"She’s got bullet holes through her house and in her car," he said.
Between that and the raccoons, she’s going to have to move, Gardner said, shaking his head.
The group then continued back up the street to Lincoln Heights Park, where Garrett parked her car. At night, this park is referred to as "the Red Roof Inn" because people frequently sleep here, Hall said.
That day it was about 3 p.m., and children were playing. But prostitution is clearly going on in the area, Garrett said, as he pointed to a nearby car.
Every day is different when they go out canvassing. Some days they’ve deescalated fights. Other days they’ve been out and heard gunshots.
Recently, the group assisted a woman in distress with an addiction problem who was trying to find help. They bought her a bus ticket and found a shelter in Philadelphia, where she is from. That was a good day, a day where they gained someone’s trust and were able to help.
The group then drove back to the Youth Advocate Programs office, off Beatties Ford Road, to do what’s called a debrief.
In a couple of hours, they’ll go out again until about 8:30 p.m. It will be a completely different crowd. Certain areas of the neighborhood they would cut through during the day are off-limits now because it's too dangerous.
But this is the way to intervene, Garrett said, to try to stop violence before it erupts.
This on-the-ground relationship-building method is making an impact, Garrett said — and she wants city leaders to see that too.
"Driving through here does nothing. When you're out here in the trenches with these people, you know, no matter what time of the day or night and meeting these people where they are and asking them for what they want and just not giving them what you want them to have," Garrett said. "That's never going to make a difference and it's never going to cure violence."
What the exact cure is, the group is still trying to figure out. While they all feel like they are making an impact, it’s hard to quantify. Each time violence interrupters are successful, each time they descale a situation or find someone a resource, Gardner points out, the public doesn’t hear about it.
Interrupting violence, turns out, isn’t always loud. Sometimes it’s a soft wave that ripples throughout the community. Sometimes you can’t hear it at all.