New York City is enlisting “violence interrupters” to help enforce social distancing rules in black and Hispanic neighborhoods where there is distrust of the authorities, the New York Times reports. Violence prevention groups like one called Street Corner Resources are part of a broader effort by the city using civilians to encourage people to follow social-distancing rules rather than relying solely on police. Mayor Bill de Blasio made that a priority after viral videos of heavy-handed arrests in black and Hispanic neighborhoods prompted public outrage and enforcement data showed stark racial disparities in arrests.
The “credible messengers” are mostly young, black and Hispanic men, from the same demographic groups that have been given summonses and arrested the most for pandemic-related offenses. Many have past involvement in gangs or crime, experiences they use to defuse conflicts before they escalate to violence. Working for 50 violence prevention groups coordinated by the mayor’s office, messengers were already handing out face masks and other supplies and responding to 311 complaints about social distancing when local police commanders asked them to. Eric Cumberbatch of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said the city would like them to play a bigger role in helping to persuade young people to take actions to curb the epidemic. In addition to the antiviolence workers, the city will appoint 2,300 clergy and city workers, and others as “social-distancing ambassadors.” Dr. Gary Slutkin, an infectious disease specialist who created Cure Violence Global, whose prevention model is used in cities like Chicago and New York, said that unlike officers, who rely on their authority to gain compliance, messengers are trained to persuade people to change behaviors willingly. “Behaviors aren’t really effectively changed by force,” he said.