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Cure Violence Advocates Defect From St. Louis Program, Claim ‘Sabotage’ By City Leaders

A man crosses the street in Dutchtown on November 22, 2019.
File Photo / Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Dutchtown, in south St. Louis, is one of the three neighborhoods where local officials and advocacy groups agreed to start a Cure Violence site.

An advocacy group that campaigned to bring Cure Violence to St. Louis last year is pulling its support from the crime reduction program.

Two leaders within the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression resigned Monday from the program’s oversight committee that they worked to create. The coalition leaders, Jamala Rogers and John Chasnoff, say city officials have ignored the committee’s advice and are not dedicated to the program’s public health approach to reducing violence.

For the Cure Violence program to be effective, the city must focus on providing mental health services, conflict mediation and drug rehabilitation, Rogers said during a press conference Tuesday. Instead, the city is straying from a community-centered approach and will “sabotage” the program, she said.

Last week, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards backed a plan to bring in 50 federal agents to reduce violent crime and fill a shortage of local police officers.

There have been 163 homicides in the city this year as of Tuesday. Homicides through July are up about 37%, compared to the same time period last year.

City officials say the plan to temporarily increase the police presence in St. Louis, called Operation LeGend, will not interfere with Cure Violence initiatives. The city can run both programs and not lose the trust of the community, Krewson spokesman Jacob Long said.

“This is not an ‘either-or’ situation,” Long said. “This is ‘both-and’ situation.”

Despite the increase in homicides, coalition leaders say bringing in more police is not going to reverse decadeslong problems with violent crime in a matter of weeks.

“We know it's hard to break away from old models and old patterns,” Chasnoff said. “But we've been trying these arrest-and-incarcerate models, you know, intensively now since the Reagan administration, and we have high levels of violence in the city and shown an inability to solve our problems that way.”

Coalition leaders say they're worried that community members will start to mistake the Cure Violence employees as federal agents.

If that happens, Chasnoff says Cure Violence staffers won’t be able to build the trust in the community needed to effectively mediate conflicts that could turn violent.

“We're afraid even if they don't actively merge the two programs, it's hard for community members to keep straight all the government programs that are happening,” he said.

A national program, Cure Violence helped dramatically lower crime rates in cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. The coalition and the Organization for Black Struggle, an activist group, spent $7,500 to bring Cure Violence to St. Louis in 2019. St. Louis is one of the few cities in the country where activists, not government officials, asked Cure Violence to come.

The Board of Aldermen allocated $7 million to fund Cure Violence last year. One Cure Violence center opened in June in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood. Two others, in the Dutchtown and Walnut Park neighborhoods, are in development. Krewson announced in July the new centers would open by August, but coalition leaders have cast doubts on whether that timeline is realistic.

The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and Employment Connectionoperate the program sites, and the St. Louis Health Department manages the program’s funds. The volunteer-run committee has no authority over the money. Initially, it focused on planning and launching the three sites with the health department, but now it will provide oversight to the sites.

The five members left on the committee will continue to advise the rollout of the program. The coronavirus pandemic has slowed the program's progress, because the health department is under-resourced and doesn’t have enough staffing to implement sites on its own, a spokesperson for the committee said.

Coalition leaders say they still intend to still be in touch with the Cure Violence sites and help staff.

“We think we can speak with maybe a louder voice and a more credible voice from the outside,” Chasnoff said.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.