Tackling Gang Violence


Stepping over boxes, Rev. Peterson Mingo points to a poster with dozens of faces, all of them victims of Cincinnati's unsolved homicides.

His wife's only brother is among them.

Mingo is getting ready to pick up a group of men from a suburban apartment complex where they've been landscaping for about eight hours. Most of the men, like himself, have served time in the state's prison system.

Now Mingo tries to help the men, who remind him a little too much of his younger self, through Cincinnati's Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV).

Other cities are paying attention. In Toledo last month, Police Chief Derrick Diggs and Mayor Mike Bell announced the Toledo Community Initiative to Reduce Violence, or TCIRV, based in part on the program introduced in Cincinnati in 2007.

The initiative, which kicked off at a meeting between city leaders and nearly 40 parolees and probationers identified as gang members, is intended to reduce gang-related shootings and homicides, which in the past year increased significantly.

No Overnight Change

The changes won't happen overnight, cautioned Robin Engel, a criminal justice professor at the University of Cincinnati who has worked with Cincinnati's anti-gang initiative since day one.

“This offender population has been lied to all of their lives,” she said. “They're going to be brought in, they're going to be told a message, and they probably won't believe it, and they're probably going to continue with business as usual.”

In Cincinnati, it wasn't until the second, maybe even the third, call-in session, that changes were noticeable.

In 2007, Cincinnati recorded 62 homicides, a number that since has fluctuated but never again came close to 2006 levels of the record 90 homicides, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. This year, Cincinnati has recorded 14 homicides to date.

An analysis of the 42 months before and after implementing the Cincinnati initiative found an overall reduction in gang-related homicides of 42 percent and 21 percent fewer shootings, Engel said. It's almost impossible to determine what impact is a direct result of the initiative and how other factors,
such as the economy, weigh in.

Getting the 'Right People'

But Mingo said he knew in his heart the initiative would work in Cincinnati from the first time he heard of it. The strategy can work in other cities too, he said, “if you have the right people in place. That's the key to the whole program. Having the right people in place.”

Mingo drives many of the men to work in the morning, picking them up at the Evanston Baptist Church before 6 a.m. and retrieving them from the job site a little after 3 pm. Mingo knows all of the men personally and the baggage they come with. It's easy for him to connect. His story isn't much different. In 1958, he lost a brother, Morris Fluellen, to street violence. And in 1974, another brother Charles Ball, was killed by Cincinnati police.

His brother, Joea Harris, was shot and paralyzed, losing both legs, before he died as a result in 1985. Two other brothers — Robert and William Ball — are dead. One from AIDS and, William, well, Mingo's not really sure how he died.

He has another brother, Eddie Ball, who has been in a state prison since 1979 for voluntary manslaughter. His brother-in-law, William Clendening, was killed in 2003. Two of Mingo's nephews, including one he raised, Kenny Mingo, a talented athlete, died in 2005.

The other, whose lifeless body was found behind a dumpster, he doesn't like to talk about. Mingo's childhood wasn't easy. His parents split and remarried. His father lived in a different part of town; his stepfather was in jail. One day, Mingo said, after coming home from school, he found his mother standing in a window ready to jump. He pulled her back inside.At only 47 years old, his mother, “an outstanding cook” and “one of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen,” died.

In 1967, Mingo joined the Marines as a way to get out of the certain hell he found himself in, he said as he drove through Evanston, honking and waving, calling out by name to nearly everyone he passes.

“You ready to work?” he yells at one young man walking out of a convenience store.

Mingo left the Marines in 1971, coming home to Cincinnati. Before long, he was up to no good. In 1974, Mingo found himself in court, facing charges for 27 robberies — all from a seven-month period.

“I was completely off the hook, totally,” Mingo said.

He plea-bargained down to seven, and after serving about four years in a state prison, he was released after an assistant warden asked for him to be paroled

“It's not every day someone gives you your life back,” said Mingo.

In 1984, Mingo joined the Rose Chapel Baptist Church. Ask him now, and he'll proudly say he's celebrating his 21st year as a minister since he started in 1991 at the Christ Temple Baptist Church.

Helping Young Men

Since then it's been his calling to help young men who are caught up in dangerous business. For a while he visited families in his neighborhood at dinner time, always asking for a bit to eat, certain to compliment the cook no matter how awful the food might taste.

“It was building relationships,” he said. “I found if you can eat with somebody and not complain about the roaches on the floor, and you can eat with them and not complain about the smell, you build relationships with people. Getting to feel what they feel, experience what they experience, see out of
their eyes.

“A lot of times, if the house was in really, really, really bad shape, I made sure that I came back. They
always got another visit from me.”

The need for improved community-police relations in Cincinnati was never more clear than in 2001, when an unarmed black man was shot and killed by a white city police officer, igniting four days of race riots.

City Councilman Cecil Thomas, then the executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, said once the riots ended, “we started to have a tremendous amount of gun violence” with an overall increase in gun-related crimes.

Thomas, who also spent 27 years as a Cincinnati police officer, set about repairing strained police- community relationships.

Focusing on the Perpetrators

He and others started by looking at what caused the “civil unrest” and who was “perpetrating a bulk of the violence.”

Their study found that those involved in violence tended to be black males, ages 14 to 25. The dropout rate of African-American males in Cincinnati, in 2000, was double that of white men — 33 percent compared to 17 percent, according to Census data. During the same time period in Toledo, the dropout rate for African-American males was 30 percent compared to a dropout rate of 17 percent for white men.

“We knew that education had to be one of the factors involved in the whole issue of crime and violence,” said Thomas.

Comparing Cincinnati's response to violence built on the approach taken by Boston during the late 1990s, developed by David Kennedy, now the director of the Center on Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College in New York.

In 2002, Thomas started the Street Worker Program, which sent individuals — many with criminal backgrounds — into the streets to meet the at-risk population and encourage them to take advantage of services and programs the city offered.

Cincinnati officials reached out to Kennedy for help in developing a more inclusive strategy designed specifically for Cincinnati. Kennedy's crime-reduction initiatives, which have been implemented in communities across the country, have won numerous awards.

Kennedy also now heads the National Network for Safe Communities, which works with cities across the country in similar programs.

'What's Different?'

“It took me awhile because it was like, 'So what's different?'” he said. “We're going after the bad guys. Of course we're going after he bad guys. So what's different?”

Mark Mallory, an avid supporter of the initiative , said Kennedy had to explain a few times that some people, given the opportunity, would change their behavior and that a very small portion of the population was responsible for a very large portion of the violent crime.

Cincinnati police Lt. Col. James Whalen, also the assistant chief, said there was pushback from all over: community members, government, the police department. “All the cops seemed to have heard about was the social services and the helping end of it,” the assistant chief said.

“It's not hug-a-thug, we're going to have a meeting, and we're going to cry, and they're going to put their guns down and never offend again.

“That's not what this is about,” he said. “There is a social services piece that is genuine, a community building piece that is genuine, and there's a law enforcement piece that's real. That's what I told the officers. Our part is law enforcement; that's what we do.”

Now, the community appears to support the city's efforts.

A large mural — a black gun inside a red circle with a line painted through it, and “Stop the violence” painted above it — is a plea on the side of one Over-the-Rhine building.

The near-downtown neighborhood was, in 2001, one of the central locations for the city's race riots. Nearby there is another sign above a business that reads, “Help the police stop the violence. Save a loved one.”

City Councilman Thomas said that since CIRV was implemented, calls to the city's Crime Stoppers program have increased.

He points to a recent shooting that injured a 4-year-old boy in Avondale, what many say is the most dangerous neighborhood in Cincinnati. He said he went to the media saying “the maggots that did this will be under arrest; we will know who you are in a short period of time because people are going to
tell us.”

Sure enough, he said, the calls came in and police had a suspect.

“We're operating as a group,” Thomas said. “That's the moral-voice piece and people operating as a group and not standing out there by themselves. Folks feel comfortable going to court as a group saying, 'We don't want you in our community,' and all of that works.”

Football Coach

These days, Mingo coaches a football team, the Evanston Bulldogs, for—mostly—at-risk youths,leading church, and spending time with his wife, children, and grandchildren.

There's also the men he mentors as he drives them to and from work, men like Demarkus Brown. Demarkus Brown, 21, started carrying a gun when he was 14 years old. Kicked out of his family's home he started sleeping in cars — any he could get into.

“I was off the chain so I wasn't really worried about nobody breaking in,” Brown said. “I always had something to protect me so they had to protect theyself if they broke in.”

For money he would rob people, he said. As a juvenile he was arrested twice, once for drugs and another time for a shooting, of which he was acquitted.

Brown said he finished one year of college at a University of Cincinnati branch campus, studying business management, before being arrested.

“I seen everybody was good, fresh to the T, and the money just got in my way,” Brown said. “It got in my eyes. I wanted money now.”

Brown has known Mingo since he was a boy and, now that he's on parole, he's using that time and connection to try to do better. It's hard though, not to think about going back to the quick, easy money. Church, the job, and his one- 1-year-old daughter, An'bri, keep him motivated.

If it weren't for Cincinnati's Initiative to Reduce Violence, he said, he would probably try to do some of the same things. He's hoping that with the work he has this summer, school will be paid off and he can return to finish his degree.

“I'd still be dedicated to trying to find a job and doing what I got to do to change,” he said. “Because facing 20 years at 18, it's a big mountain on you and once I got out and got away from it, I told myself I'd never go back to that predicament.”

If he could, he'd tell the guys running around with guns to settle down and think about what they're doing.

“You either going to end up dead or you're going to jail if you keep living the same lifestyle,” Brownsaid.


There have been pitfalls in the CIRV program.

Its focus on individuals 18 and older leaves room for juveniles to be manipulated by adults who are afraid of facing federal charges, said Thomas.

“We started to see a lot of your older dope dealers, 20 and older, going to the younger kids, 15 and 16 years old, and say, 'Hey, I'm going to hire you to shoot so and so,'” he said.

“We start to see the younger individuals now perpetrating the violence and the only reason that was occurring was because the older guys are telling the younger ones, 'You don't have to worry about federal prosecution, you ain't got to worry, you're just going to juvenile court and you'll be out by

Thomas said officials “knew this was going to happen” and tried to start a similar initiative for youth offenders, but, without funding, the program was put on hold.

Funding has, in recent years, also become an issue, although officials say they are working to restore money for the initiative.

For the 2011 fiscal year, much of the budget — funded through city coffers — was cut; CIRV's annual funds dropped from $861,590 in 2010 to $289,530 in 2011. For 2012, the city budgeted $274,830.

“[Funding] affects the number of individuals we can hire, OK, but the approach to policing remains exactly the same,” Mayor Mallory said, adding that CIRV's budget would be increased “pretty soon.”

“Hopefully that won't happen again because, if this is going to work, and Professor Kennedy pointed this out from day one, you have to sustain it,” the mayor said.

“You can't do it for two years and stop. You can't do it for three years and stop. You have to maintain it. If you don't, you will see the return in group-related homicides.”

Taylor Dungjen is a staff writer for The Toledo Blade, and a 2012 John Jay/ H.F. Guggenheim Reporting Fellow, which led to this project. This is an abridged version of a two-part series which appeared in The Blade May 6 and May 7, 2012. To see the entire series, please click here. She
welcomes comments from readers.

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