At Wednesday’s Public Safety Committee, gang interventionist Mark Sutton explained how the chance to see something different led him to leave gang life behind.
“There was a guy who I knew that was just very active in the game,” Sutton said near the close of a gang intervention presentation.
“And I’m in the park with him, with his kids,” continued Sutton. “He had three of them.”
“And in that moment,” Sutton continued, “I said to him, ‘You see, you got something here, with your kids down at hand. I was in prison for 26 years and I didn’t get a chance to raise my children because I made some decisions that affected my life. It took me away from my family.’ And right on cue, his three sons came up, running up to him, they were in the park playing.
“And I said to him,” said Sutton, “‘If you ‘leave,’ they’re lost, because they’re going to follow the path that you took. And you’re not here to encourage them.’”
Sutton looked up at the Committee members on video monitors in the City Council Chambers, and said, “He told me the next day that he sold his gun, he gave it away or something. And then after that, he told me that he wanted to start his clothing company, and he’s working to get himself a recording studio.”
As Sutton explained. “It’s just a simple conversation, giving him an opportunity to shift the way he thinks, to see something different. And for me, that’s what got me to change my life. Just to see something different in my life. When I was in prison, all I thought about was ‘How can I come home and bring a different vision from prison to the streets and show my hope that we could do something different than what we were accustomed to?’”
Thus Sutton closed a powerful presentation led by interventionist and former Pasadena resident Ricky Pickens, who was joined by DeAndre Scott, a former local high school football star who uses his influence to steer youth away from the gang lifestyle.
City Manager Steve Mermell told the Committee that Pasadena and much of the San Gabriel Valley saw a sudden and unexplained rise in gang violence last December.
“We held a number of discussions about what’s the best way to approach this,” said Mermell, who explained that the City would previously have turned to people in the community who did intervention work.
“But unfortunately,” said Mermell, “We didn’t really have folks immediately available to do that. So we agreed that we would make contact with Ricky Pickens, who has a long history in the city of Pasadena, and has done this work previously in the city. Thankfully, he indicated a willingness to assist us.”
The City was seeing a 59% increase in shootings in 2020, before Pickens and his team were hired on December 30, 2020.
As Pickens explained to the Committee that his gang intervention team works to reduce gang-gun violence and help to restore peace in the community by directly engaging the people most impacted by cyclical and retaliatory gang-gun violence, whether perpetrator, victim or family member..
The team works directly with high-risk gang-impacted individuals dailyacross Pasadena and affiliated cities, including Monrovia, Duarte, San Bernardino, and Palmdale/Lancaster.
“We mediate conflicts,” said Pickens in the presentation. “We help to manage anger, by peer mentoring and offering support for day-to-day coping.”
Picken said that his team also makes referrals to service providers to ensure that individuals at the center of gang-gun violence can pinpoint services that possibly will lead them to an alternative lifestyle.
The numbers are telling.
Since January of this year, according to their presentation, the team has made 537 outreach efforts, mediated 24 conflicts, conducted 587 hours of phone mediation, interrupted 16 violent conflicts, responded to seven shootings, mediated 15 social media conflicts, held 34 meetings with gang leaders and members, generated 134 referrals for jobs and services, and helped employ 13 high-risk gang members.
Since April, said Pickens, the Pasadena Police Department has recorded a 26% decrease in violent crime beginning in April, and has seen decreases in May and June.
The group uses a “Prevention, Intervention, Enforcement” model, said Pickens.
According to the presentation, prevention consists of programs or activities designed to prevent youth from joining gangs, and reduce retaliation in violent incidents. Intervention seeks to draw gang members and close associates away from the gang lifestyle, and interrupt violence, while enforcement consists of more traditional law enforcement, prosecution, probation, and parole.
Moving forward, said Pickens, the team hopes to expand the number of Violence Interrupters, and create a central location to mediate, train, and case-manage gang-involved and gang-impacted individuals.
Pickens also hopes to develop a “coordinated crisis response protocol” for all agencies involved in gang prevention and intervention services, and develop a public awareness campaign, informing the public on how to utilize services and where to go for specific gang prevention services.
According to Picken, the older teenager is no longer the preferred target of gang intervention programs.
“We need to reach the ten-year-olds,” he said, “The sixth graders. That’s who we need to reach.”
Picken also pointed out that gang interventions are not cheap, but the price of no intervention is far more costly.
Said Pickens, “Every gun homicide burdens the public with hundreds and thousands of dollars in costs, but in just preventing one homicide, you would essentially pay for an entire program or several salaries. And that’s what you’ve got to think about.”
Added Pickens, “I believe somebody used to say in one of our community meetings, ‘You’re going to pay one way or the other, either going to be on the front end, or you’re going to pay on the back end. You’re either going to pay for violence interrupters, to help prevent the violence, or you’re going to pay police officers to do more investigations.’ And from what I understand, statistics tell me that every time that there’s a homicide, the operating budget starts at between a half-million dollars and a million dollars.”
Committee members Steve Madison and John Kennedy praised the work of the intervention program and asked City Manager Mermell to examine the possibility of extending the program contract for an additional three years.