Ypsilanti-founded Community Violence Intervention Team pursues 14 strategies to reduce gun violence

The team came out of an effort, spearheaded by former Ypsilanti Mayor Lois Richardson, to address community violence in the wake of several gun deaths in summer of 2021.
​​This article is part of a series about mental health in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.

If a shooting victim is thinking of taking revenge, who better than a fellow gun violence survivor to convince them that that's the wrong path? That's the idea behind the WeLIVE program run by the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office, which offers victims of violence everything from peer support to practical resources to help lower the chances that the victims will retaliate.

Roger Roper of Ypsilanti is one of those working in the WeLIVE program. Roper took several bullets to the chest 20 years ago when he was robbed coming out of a convenience store and became paralyzed from the waist down. A man in a wheelchair came to his bedside in the hospital and told him he "didn't have to continue going down a bad road."

It took some time for Roper to give up thoughts of revenge, but years down the road, he ended up working with WeLIVE to "help people in the same situation going through the same things I was going through when I was younger."

WeLIVE is just one program pursuing the goals of the Community Violence Intervention Team (CVIT), a collaborative effort that seeks to prevent gun violence in Washtenaw County. The team came out of an effort, spearheaded by former Ypsilanti Mayor Lois Richardson, to address community violence in the wake of several gun deaths in summer of 2021.

The CVIT is composed of representatives from county and local government, local nonprofits and organizations, and community members with lived experience. The group developed a list of 14 recommendations and presented them to more than 40 government and nonprofit groups across the county in 2021 and 2022, with the county board of commissioners passing a resolution in support of the recommendations in May 2022.
WeLIVE team member Roger Roper.
CVIT's work isn't "owned" by any one entity, but is shared across partners that include the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office, as well as nonprofits Sisters United Resilient and Empowered (SURE) Moms, Supreme Felons, and Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper (WMBK). WMBK volunteered to host a repository of the 14 recommendations on its website.

Some of the recommendations are very specific, like No. 11, "Build a community center in eastern Washtenaw County," and No. 12, "Build community mural/safe grieving community space." Several of the recommendations are more abstract, like No. 1, "Set a clear goal: commit to saving lives by stopping violence" or No. 5, "Engage key people with empathy and accountability." CVIT partners have already been tackling the recommendations and have fully or partially completed several of them. 

"Of the 14 recommendations, eight or nine are somewhere in process," says Derrick Jackson, Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office director of community engagement. "The mural is done, and there's been some movement or progress on the community center and a community alert system."

In November, the CVIT unveiled a mural of a black rose surrounded by the names of those lost to gun violence in Washtenaw County since 2008. The mural is located at 47 N. Huron St. in Ypsilanti, on the Corner Health Center building. It was designed by Ypsilanti high school student DeShawn Chambers, and the effort was largely organized by WMBK.

CVIT Recommendation No. 2 is to "identify key people and places driving violence," and that's where the WeLIVE program comes in. 
WeLIVE team member Trevonte Thomas.
"We think that 80 to 85% of shootings in our county are retaliatory," Jackson says. "These are not evil people running around. If you don't feel safe, any one of us would do what we could to protect ourselves and our families."

To counter that, WeLIVE aims to break the cycle before it gets started. 

Trevonte Thomas, 22, was the victim of an accidental shooting by his best friend at age 18. Though he didn't hold it against his friend, he held in a lot of anger from the incident's aftermath, including online mocking about the shooting.

"It was funny to everyone on social media, or some people thought I was dead," he says. "I was soaking in rage, and I turned that onto other people and ended up in the system."

Luckily, he's been given a chance to turn his life around and use his story to help others through WeLIVE. Even before his first WeLIVE hospital visit, Thomas says he remembers telling his story at a WMBK brunch meeting and seeing little kids looking up at him in admiration.
SURE Moms Program Coordinator Florence Roberson.
"I realized there was power behind what I'm saying," he says. The chance to join WeLIVE confirmed for him that helping people is what he wants to do with his life. 

As part of WeLIVE, Roper also inspires shooting victims not to "go down a bad road" in the same way he was helped when he was younger. He says he tells them it's okay to be angry.

"But going to prison and doing a whole bunch of time isn't 'getting back' at anyone," he says. "You're not getting even. You're losing in the long run."

As powerful as those personal stories are, WeLIVE is about more than that. It's also about understanding and meeting victims' needs.

"Somebody just tried to kill them, and if they don't feel safe, they might take it into their own hands," Jackson says. "If you get them somewhere safe, they're less likely to retaliate."
WeLIVE team member Roger Roper.
Roper remembers the story of one recent WeLIVE participant, which he says "is turning out to have a great ending so far." The participant was shot, and when he got out of the hospital and got home, things weren't much easier.

"He had a lot of people he was still beefing with and didn't feel like he wanted to stay where he was living," Roper says. "We found him shelter somewhere else, and down the line helped him get a job. Now he's working and living in a whole new community and he's doing well."

SURE Moms intervenes in community violence in a different way, offering a peer support group for mothers of young people in the juvenile justice system. Florence Roberson, SURE Moms program coordinator, says that many young people find help in detention, where lots of support services are available.

"But once the kids go back home, and if you go back into the same situation that got you there, that wasn't a lot of help," Roberson says. 

SURE Moms groups help mothers who suffer from lack of support and might feel shaky in their parenting skills.
WeLIVE team member Trevonte Thomas.
"Many of them want to be better mothers but they don't know how," Roberson says. "Some of them are just tired of the whole thing and don't know what to do. I had a mother come in to her first meeting and she was suicidal because she was so tired of it all."

She says she offers support, but it's the support of the mothers' peers that is most helpful, "talking with other mothers who have been through it and have seen the worst of the worst."

The program's successes include two SURE Moms going through an entrepreneurship course. Another participant is about to be awarded a college scholarship.

Jackson says that many pieces, from WeLIVE to the mural to the work of SURE Moms, are part of "an ecosystem for violence intervention."

"It's beyond the Sheriff's Office. The CVIT, all these other community-based initiatives, all these components need to come together to deal with gun violence," Jackson says.
SURE Moms Program Coordinator Florence Roberson.
While many of the recommendations still need work, Jackson says CVIT members are already seeing success with WeLIVE and other interventions.

"One of the ways we're measuring success is by those connections. How many people who are violently injured are willing to work with us?" he says. "Some people say no, but the number of people who have been saying yes is a pretty good sign."

CVIT members track other outcomes from their interventions, like whether the victim is in school, employed, or has a safe place to live. The most important outcome, of course, is if a victim chooses not to pick up a weapon and seek revenge.

"It's hard to say one small program is making this large impact on public health, but we know of at least five different situations where a survivor did not retaliate," Jackson says. "So that's at least five fewer shootings, and potentially more, because we know that retaliation can go on and on."

Read more about the formation of the CVIT and all 14 recommendations here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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