ST. LOUIS — Phyllis Curry remembers each minute that ticked by the night of Aug. 28, 2016: the sounds of a car crash just blocks from her home in Ferguson, Missouri, the growing feeling that something was wrong, and the string of phone calls she made when she should’ve been getting ready for bed.
“Fifteen minutes, he hasn’t arrived home. I go looking for him. I can’t find him. He’s not answering,” she said. “Come to find out, after calling the police stations, the hospital and the morgue, my son was at the morgue. He had been shot three times and died on site.”
It’s been almost three years, but the heartbreak is still fresh. Curry uses the corner of her living room to display pictures of her son DeAnthony, along with his trophies and basketball jersey.
“My son did not grow up to be a productive adult due to this unfortunate situation,” she said. “So my mind is now like — I just need to get the word spread. I need people to know. I need them to take this serious. It’s like a cancer, and it’s spreading daily.”
According to FBI data, since 2014, St. Louis has had the highest murder rate of any American city with more than 100,000 people, and new research from the University of Missouri shows the vast majority of these deaths involved a gun.
“Some days I can think about my son and I can’t breathe, I have a panic attack, and some days I can laugh and then cry and then laugh again,” said Sharon Crossland, who has lost multiple family members to gun violence in St. Louis. “More than anything else, I don’t want another mother to have to experience what we experience every day — to have to live with the thought of losing your child or to have lost your child.”
Curry and Crossland are part of a growing number of voices calling for an end to the violence through a nonprofit called Better Family Life. The organization supports members of the community through a variety of avenues, including education, housing, community service, the arts and an increasingly popular new program that works to de-escalate gun violence.
“Life was taken for nothing you know?” said Byron Mischeaux, whose grandson Jirah Campbell was fatally shot in 2016. “But if the people had got together and went to one of the de-escalating centers or somewhere and they talked it out and tried to come up with a better solution, my grandson would still be living.”
The process to de-escalate violence starts as soon as the nonprofit hears about the conflict, either through outreach workers who canvass in the community or phone calls to the organization’s de-escalation hotline.
“The fact of the matter is people don’t go to churches with this information, people don’t go to the police, students don’t go to the principal,” said James Clark, Better Family Life’s vice president of community outreach. “This gives a credible way for the community to participate in this gun violence crisis that we’re in right now.”
Once they hear of an ongoing conflict, the team works quickly to gather information about each side of the issue, scouring social media feeds, making phone calls and reaching out to community members who might know more about how it started.
“We target third-party people who know of a conflict and then we ask them to come in and we sit down with them and we get very detailed information about the nature of the conflict, who the parties are,” Clark said. “We want to get as much information on both adversaries or multiple adversaries. Then we go into their circle of care: mom, dad, grandmother, favorite aunt, brother, sister, child’s mother, child, in some instances, and then we find the best avenue to approach the adversary.”
After gathering enough information, the team asks both parties to agree to a stand-down period, which can take anywhere from an hour to more than a month to negotiate. Next, they work to get both sides to sit down with a Better Family Life mediator at one of the de-escalation centers.
“When you have somebody who’s a mediator, you have to be good at what you do,” said Carl Smith, the nonprofit’s lead mediator. “Because you have to ask those probing questions: ‘Where did it start? Can it be de-escalated? Do we have to continue with this, because it only leads to death?’”
More than anything else, I don’t want another mother to have to experience what we experience every day — to have to live with the thought of losing your child or to have lost your child. Sharon Crossland
Before joining Better Family Life, Smith served for 12 years as a juvenile crime detective on the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, and he was one of the city’s first gang investigators.
“I’m happy to have retired police officers to come on because it’s really like detective work,” Smith said. “You have to evaluate individuals and knowing that you’re going into a dangerous territory, whether it’s their home or their turf.
Once both sides of the conflict agree to meet, Smith works to persuade both parties to sign a truce or non-retaliation agreement. But if that doesn’t work, there are backup plans.
“If we get to a point where we know that we cannot de-escalate it, we’ll let them know, ‘You gotta get out of town,’” Smith said. “We’ll get them a bus ticket, get them out of town, put them with another relative. Sometimes they’ve gone places where they didn’t even have a relative, and we’d put them up in a hotel and stuff and assist them with getting a job. And at least we’ve saved a life.”
According to the nonprofit, conflicts are considered resolved after the team monitors the situation for two to three weeks, then conducts monthly follow-ups for the next six months to confirm there is no further activity.
The idea for the de-escalations started in early 2016 with a simple phrase: “We must stop killing each other.” Clark made a handful of T-shirts and yard signs with the message after hearing the words repeatedly from the community. He says he ran out almost immediately and kept making more. Now he estimates there are 14,000 signs around St. Louis.
“The yard sign campaign grew, and as it grew, we started getting phone calls,” Clark said. “People calling in saying, ‘Hey, I see your yard signs everywhere, but you all should know that Byron and Mike have a problem, and when they see each other, someone’s going to get shot.’ So I say, ‘Well, who’s Byron and who’s Mike?’ I would go about de-escalating the conflict.”
As Clark started getting more calls for help, he began establishing the first brick-and-mortar locations for the de-escalations in December 2016. Better Family Life now has two full-time gun violence de-escalation centers operating out of churches in St. Louis. They also employ 12 outreach workers in the field, and five staff members at the de-escalation centers. The team of five includes two mediators and a licensed psychologist.
“This is a lifesaving service,” Clark said. “Without this, when you look at those [conflicts,] someone was going to get shot, and then what is the ripple from that? What’s the hospital expense? What is the expense on law enforcement? What is the psychological damage done to both families?”
According to data collected by Better Family Life, the team has answered 124 calls on the de-escalation hotline, completed 78 home visits and defused 83 conflicts since 2016.
This is a lifesaving service. Without this ... someone was going to get shot, and then what is the ripple from that? What’s the hospital expense? What is the expense on law enforcement? What is the psychological damage done to both families? James Clark, vice president of community outreach at Better Family Life
Paula Neely is one of these success stories. She said she called the de-escalation hotline in 2017, after her son ran for his life from a man who was trying to shoot him.
“The closest person lost to gun violence was my son’s father,” Neely said. “After experiencing that a couple of years ago, once I learned that my son could have possibly have been a victim like that, I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t even be able to cope in life.”
Neely said James Clark was the first person she spoke to at Better Family Life, and he led her through the de-escalation process.
“He gathered all the information,” Neely said, adding that Clark also talked to her about her son. “He found the other individual that my son had the altercation with.”
She said Clark worked to aid both sides of the conflict, including helping her son’s adversary find a job, and assisting her son with a trip out of town while Clark calmed tensions in St. Louis.
“That’s one thing I can really say that I’m really proud of being able to go to the de-escalation center, too,” Neely said, “because not only did they stop the violence, but they do things to prevent it from happening again, by trying to help them with other alternatives in life.”
Local, state and federal officials have also praised the de-escalation program, and Clark has received awards for doing this work, including one from President Donald Trump. In December, Clark received the Project Safe Neighborhoods Award for Outstanding Community Involvement from the Department of Justice. But Clark is quick to say that there is still work to be done.
“There is no doubt that we’ve had an impact,” Clark said. “There is no doubt that we’re working to move the needle. But it’s not time to pat ourselves on the back.”
St. Louis police have already dedicated more resources to some of the city’s highest crime areas. In January 2018, St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden dubbed a group of 12 neighborhoods in north St. Louis “Hayden’s Rectangle” and sent 50 more officers to patrol the area. Hayden said this “hotspot policing” has helped lower crime in the area, but he has also pointed out where Better Family Life’s work has filled in the gaps.
In an interview with St. Louis news station KTVI, he went as far as to say, “Right now, we’ve seen working with Better Family Life, a lot of people come to them about conflicts they wouldn’t normally tell me about otherwise. Say things like, ‘I can’t tell police I shot somebody.’”
In July, the nonprofit received more than $400,000 in funding from the St. Louis Regional Crime Commission and the federal Project Safe Neighborhoods program. Clark said most of the money will go toward his goal of employing 50 outreach officers and defusing more conflicts.
“There’s going to come a generation that will look at these last 25 years or more, where killings of African Americans has become accepted and expected, there’s going to come a generation that’s going to say, ‘It’ll never happen again,’” Clark said. “That’s what we’re working towards right now.”