By Brendan O'Brien
CHICAGO - On a warm evening last spring, Bo Deal got word that a teenager had been shot at a street corner in Chicago's Austin neighborhood. He raced to the scene and quickly pieced together from eyewitnesses what had gone down.
A 17-year-old named Javell Gates, he learned, had taken a bullet to the foot while buying a snow cone from a street vender. Deal recognized the teen's name - he was friends with his father, Jervelle Gates.
Within minutes, Deal was on the phone, trying to calm the father, fearing that the man would want revenge. Deal's job is to stop that from happening.
He is one of more than 200 outreach workers in Chicago trained in conflict resolution and employed by non-profit organizations. Their mission is to step into volatile situations and prevent further violence in a city plagued by an epidemic of shootings in recent years.
"I'm just trying to save lives," said Deal, 42, a field manager for one of the non-profits, Metropolitan Family Services. "I get out and grind daily to try to reduce some of the violence in our neighborhood."
Over the last 15 years, similar programs have sprouted up in Los Angeles, New York and other big U.S. cities. Studies have shown violence intervention programs can be effective in reducing shootings and deaths.
Such an approach has attracted renewed attention since the death of George Floyd while in custody of the Minneapolis police in late May. The killing sparked calls for police departments to be defunded and to shift more money into community-oriented crime prevention programs such as the outreach work performed by Deal and his colleagues.
"It's not that we overfund police; it's that we underfund community-based violence prevention. You can't just arrest your way out of violence, but you also can't just program your way out of it either," said Thomas Abt, senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has touted violence intervention as a vital tool in the city's crime fighting ecosystem. In January, she announced a $7.5 million investment in local non-profit organizations employing these workers, saying the city would move toward more community-based approaches to crime.
The job is part conciliator, part social worker. Many are former gang members, who use their neighborhood connections to get tips about disputes bubbling up on social media or street corners. They then use their skills to broker a peaceful resolution before the dispute can turn deadly.
It has been a busy year for Deal and other outreach workers in Chicago. The city has experienced its second most violent year in a decade, in part because of the social disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, criminologists say.
When a shooting or stabbing takes place, field workers reach work with the victim's family and friends to cool tensions and prevent retaliation, just as Deal had done when Javell Gates was wounded.
On May 29, the day of the shooting, Javell's father, 36-year-old Jervelle Gates was at home under house arrest awaiting trial on a federal gun case when his son called to say he had been wounded in a drive-by shooting. His friends, Javell told his father, were rushing him to the hospital.
"I'm sweating - I'm that mad," recalled Jervelle Gates when asked by a Reuters reporter how he felt after his son called.
The elder Gates said he called the sheriff's department, asking if he could leave the house to meet his son at the hospital, but he was denied permission.
Feeling even more agitated, Gates considered tearing off his ankle monitor and bolting. He went to his car, started it, but hesitated, knowing if he left he would become a wanted man.
"Somebody just hurt somebody that I love, how am I supposed to react?" said Gates. "I call the gang bangers asking them what's going on with my son ... I needed a target."
Next he called Deal, an old friend, who was expecting his call after recognizing the name of the victim who was shot.
"Bo knows everything. If Bo doesn't know yet, Bo can find out," Gates said.
Deal told Gates the gunman acted alone and the suspects were in custody. But he stopped short of providing the father with any more specific information, concerned it would be used to exact revenge. Instead, he let Gates vent.
Over the following days the men spoke about life and the future, conversations which Gates said changed his perspective on the best way to move forward after the shooting. He is now seeking employment and volunteer opportunities.
"Success is the best revenge," Gates said.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)