City program sends personal message about gun violence

Cmdr. Luke Languit, social services coordinator Angel Garcia and program manager Gerri Bachicha work together on the city’s Violence Intervention Program to try to disrupt cycles of violence. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

It’s been a little over 13 months since Albuquerque announced it was launching an ambitious plan to try to turn the tide of gun violence that has left hundreds injured or dead over the past several years.

The “Violence Intervention Program” now has a skeleton crew that works with an Albuquerque Police Department commander to deliver “custom notifications” to people affected by gun violence to try to get them help so they can get off the path they’re on.

There are some promising signs.

In a mid-December interview, program manager Gerri Bachicha said workers have performed 74 interventions since late March, and none of the people they have worked with have been reported for committing a gun crime, or any other crime that they know of. However, she said, they will monitor the people they have brought into the program for a long time.

“We know that it’s not falling off within six months, but we need to continue to track that to see if it falls off within a year, within a year and six months, within two years, and then we need to increase our ability to lengthen that,” Bachicha said.

The program draws from Oakland’s “Operation Ceasefire” and was developed with the help of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Social services coordinator Angel Garcia said an intervention begins when APD Cmdr. Luke Languit go to a person’s house to perform what they call “customs.” They present the target with a letter personalized with their criminal history and tell them they could face more serious legal consequences, or get seriously hurt or killed, if they continue to engage in gun violence.

Then, he says, they offer to connect them with resources they might need, such as job training, food banks, rental assistance or help getting into school.

“I’m working with one gentleman who was a victim of a gunshot wound,” Garcia said. “He ended up telling me if we hadn’t gone to knock on his door he was waiting to get better to go retaliate – to go shoot the people who shot him.”

He said a member of that man’s family saw what was going on and was inspired to get help as well.

Languit said they consult with law enforcement partners in the FBI and the District Attorney’s Office about whom to approach. Almost all are involved in criminal groups or gangs.

Some of the people chosen for an intervention have been victims themselves, while others were at the scene of a shooting or were otherwise connected to the violence rippling through the city.

“Mostly these are all group-involved folks who have been harmed through gun violence and are – according to statistics – more likely than other people in our community to be harmed again through gun violence, or even killed, or to maybe end up in jail because of gun violence,” Bachicha said. “We want to intervene in that cycle so they don’t have to live that type of life anymore.”

APD says shootings have decreased in recent months; however, there were still more this year than the previous year. That’s true of many cities throughout the country – including Oakland, which had previously credited a 30% decrease in gun violence since 2013 to its operation.

Ultimately, Bachicha said, the Violence Intervention Program will have been proved successful if shootings decrease overall. However, with many crime-reduction efforts going on across the city, it might be hard to tell which strategies were most effective.

“Sorting that out, what correlates to which program, what really helped, what really worked, that’s going to be important research going forward,” Bachicha said. “We are going to be partnering with (the University of New Mexico) for some of that research. It’s going to take a lot of research, and it’s going to take a couple of years to have enough data to look at those correlations.”

The city initially asked the Legislature for $10 million for a statewide fund, $2 million of which would go to Albuquerque, to start the program in cities across New Mexico. However, the request was formulated too late and the funds weren’t included in the legislative budget for the 2020 session.

Two entities did get grants from the city to help with the program. Youth Development Inc. received $468,090, and Bachicha said its workers made some house calls but the COVID-19 pandemic has caused problems and now they need more training. The University of New Mexico Young Hospital Children’s Health Center received $264,910, and that contract is still in the final stages of execution, according to a city spokesman.

In mid-December, Mayor Tim Keller and interim Police Chief Harold Medina participated in one of the notifications. In a recent interview, Medina said one of his biggest takeaways from the experience was seeing how much parents care and are trying to change their children’s behaviors.

“We see the potential with assisting parents and making sure that they know the resources that are available to them to help their adult kids and make sure that their adult kids keep moving in the right direction,” Medina said. “That’s on the side of building trust, understanding and having empathy with the community, on the one hand. But on the other hand, we deliver the message that if you’re engaged in violent crime, we’re going to be a law enforcement agency, and we’re going to take you into custody.”

Garcia, who said he was involved with gangs in California from ages 12 to 33, draws from his own experiences as he tries to help others. He said he’s been shot and stabbed and spent years behind bars.

Garcia said that as a teenager, he resisted his uncle’s suggestion that he move to New Mexico to live with him and escape the cycle of violence.

That changed when he got out of prison in October 2017. Four days later, he moved to Albuquerque.

“The only condition I was given by my uncle was I had to enroll in (Central New Mexico Community College),” Garcia said. “From there, everything started happening for me. I got involved in the honor society. I did a lot of community service. I became president of the student government, and I started advocating for students with criminal records to the point where we started a resource center.”

Garcia said he graduated with an electrical trades degree, but Keller heard him give a speech and the city offered to interview him for the case management position. “I love my life now,” he said. “My mom smiles every day as opposed to being worried every day. And that is a beautiful feeling I’d like to help someone else get.”

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