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Grand Rapids, Kent County leaders call for using COVID-19 relief funds toward anti-violence resources

To curb violence in Kent County, community leaders advocate using CARES Act dollars to implement the Cure Violence program and invest in community organizations engaging local youth.
Kent County Sheriff LaJoye-Young speaks at a September 1 press conference held by community leaders.

Kent County Sheriff LaJoye-Young speaks at a September 1 press conference held by community leaders. /Kent County Sheriff Office

A coalition of community leaders are calling for more resources to address Kent County's recent rise in shootings and thefts, which they say is directly tied to the pandemic.

In a September 1 press conference organized by Grand Rapids Second Ward Commissioner Joe Jones, he and other leaders advocated for using federal CARES Act dollars the county received for COVID-19 relief to pay for the resources.

The resources the leaders seek are implementation of the Cure Violence program, which applies disease control methods to prevent violence, and deeper investment in community organizations engaging local youth, like the Boys & Girls Club and LifeQuest Ministries.

Among those joining Jones at the press conference and advocating for CARES Act funds toward the resources were Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker, Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young, and Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne.


Connecting the dots

Jones, who’s also the President and CEO at the Grand Rapids Urban League, said he's seen firsthand how the pandemic's mental health and financial tolls have led to residents – young ones in particular – being more susceptible to committing crimes.

"There's a correlation, I believe, from my perch at the Urban League, that the experiences or the things that we're seeing today, there's a direct correlation between the pandemic and the response, attitudes or behaviors of our young people in particular," said Jones.

"And the fact that at the end of the day our youth have nothing to do," he added.

Kent County Prosecutor Becker shared similar experiences, noting that the lack of in-person schooling this year and continued shutdown of many community organizations' programs have led to many young residents with less constructive things to do. He said the reduction of in-person support systems is tied to charges his office had to file recently against eight juveniles, for 72 different crimes related to breaking and entering offenses.

"A lot of times we say, 'okay, well it's the summertime that this kind of wraps up,' but we have many schools not going back full-time," said Becker. "And even if they're in school, virtual or full-time, what are they doing after school?"

"The Boys & Girls Club, great organization, has been virtually shut down," he continued. "The YMCA's been shut down, virtually. The kids don't have things to do after school. They don't have the programs. The programming's been cut."

Crime numbers reported by the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) further elaborate. Chief Payne said there have been 21 homicides in Grand Rapids so far this year, with at least half of them confirmed as gun-related. Many of this year's gun-related homicides were tied to young adults. Last year saw 18 homicides and nine the year before.

In addition, the GRPD has responded to more than 60 automobile dealership and cell phone retail store burglaries since June, involving the same group of around 20 juveniles and a handful of young adults, the GRPD reported. Their burglaries have expanded beyond Grand Rapids city limits, into Wyoming, Kentwood, and other local jurisdictions.


Cure Violence approach

While violent crime in Kent County has long been an issue, the leaders pointed to this year's uptick – particularly among youth – as reason to allocate some of the county's CARES Act funds to accelerate solutions.

The Cure Violence program, chief among the solutions advocated by the leaders, has been discussed by city and county officials since 2012. While city and county budgets haven't had room to implement the program in previous years according to Jones, Kent County's receiving of $114.6 million in CARES Act funds from the federal government provides an opportunity.

Founded in 2000, the Cure Violence program aims to stop the spread of violence in communities, its website says, by using the methods and strategies associated with disease control: detecting and interrupting conflicts, identifying and treating the highest risk individuals, and changing social norms.

The program trains and deploys residents within affected communities as "violence interrupters" and outreach workers to mitigate conflict on the street before it turns violent. It's an evidenced-based model that's been employed in cities across the county, like Chicago and Kansas City, and countries across the word, like South Africa and Syria.

Cure Violence is ranked as one of the top ten NGOs by NGO Adviser in 2019. Its successes in other cities include a 63 percent reduction in shootings in New York City, 30 percent in Philadelphia, and 48 percent in Chicago. The stats are produced by multiple independent studies, available on Cure Violence's website.


Next steps

Jones said implementing Cure Violence in Kent County will run about $750,000 per year.

He and the other leaders are hoping to raise, along with their community partners, an excess of that amount for the next three to four years.

To help, local nonprofit Realism is Loyalty and the Grand Rapids chapter of Moms Demand Action have launched a GoFundMe campaign for getting the program off the ground in the county. They're hoping to raise $250,000 – to not only contribute to the plan's future implementation, but send a message to area leaders and residents that community interest is rising.

The leaders who spoke at the September 1 press conference and those organizing the crowdsourcing campaign already have other local leaders voicing their support. City commissioners Jon O'Connor and Kurt Reppart, representing Grand Rapids’ First Ward, both reiterated their support this week.

"I have always supported Grand Rapids finding a way to bring Cure Violence to our city, as I believe it can bring positive outcomes as we deal with ongoing violence in Grand Rapids," O'Connor said. "Cure Violence on its own is not the solution for preventing all violence, but it can be a great supporting piece as we work to improve outcomes."

Jones said city and county officials are still fleshing out the logistics of using CARES Act funds to bring the program to the area, with the goal to begin to see implementation of it in the coming months. Kent County also wouldn't be the first area to use such funds for violence prevention, as the Chicago area's already done the same, Jones noted.

In the meantime, leaders will push for CARES Act funding to organizations with established relationships with neighborhoods belonging to much of this year's crime – something that can be done now. Such organizations include Realism is Loyalty, LifeQuest Ministries, and the ACLU of Michigan’s Smart Justice Campaign.

Kent County Sheriff LaJoye-Young, responding to a question during the press conference about why leaders are just now trying to pour these resources into the neighborhoods, replied rhetorically: "Why not now?"

"We have to start. We have to start the initiatives, sustain the initiatives, and grow the initiatives for them to be effective. Young people need to know you care about them this year when you have funding, and that you're going to still be there next year, and the year after that, to help mentor them to have an adult life that's effective and prosperous."

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