In a budget hearing late Tuesday, D.C. Councilman Charles Allen vowed to find funding to restore and continue investing in the District's Violence Interrupter program, which is facing a major cut in the currently proposed budget.
"We're going to change that because I don't believe that we can handle fewer violence interrupters, I think we need more - and I think that's what our communities need," said Allen, who chairs the Public Safety Committee which has oversight of the Metropolitan Police Department and the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement.
On Monday, nearly 100 members of the public urged the D.C. Council to shift money away from MPD to instead fund community initiatives like the violence interrupters.
"I love my community and I feel like an authority. I feel more authentic than anybody you can bring in front of them," said Edward Ford, a violence interrupter better known as 'Man Man.'
Ford has lived the life he wants DC's young people to avoid. Before becoming a violence interrupter, he was part of the violence, shot four times while still in his teens.
"My mother was murdered when I was 14 years old, my father went to prison when I was 6 years old," Ford said.
But you won't find him making excuses. Ford went to prison for 18 years after a shooting when he was just 17. He emerged as a man who learned a lesson, one he now shares on the streets of DC's Park View neighborhood, where he grew up.
"We believe violence is preventable. And if we engage with people and form relationships with people, we can get people to think for a change," Ford said.
Ford says the city's three dozen violence interrupters have convinced young people to give up their weapons and negotiated talking instead of shooting between groups who can't get along.
"I think I have pretty much built up an image where if you've got an issue … you know you can come to me," Ford said. I'm not gonna judge you, I'm not gonna tell nobody."
He says his background equips him to deal with people because he's lived their struggles. An automatic trust he says even the best officers simply cannot build.
"It actually digs deep into the community, knows sort of what's going on in the community and who the players are and can address violence before it starts. That's not a police function," said Monica Hopkins, Executive Director of the D.C. Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Hopkins says she was outraged to see Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed an $805,000 cut to violence intervention within the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, while at the same time adding more than $17.5 million to the $540 million police budget.
"There is this notion that is absolutely false, that putting more police on the streets actually prevents crime, and that is not true," said Hopkins.
The District has had 76 homicides so far this year; that's a 12% increase over this time last year, which was higher than the year before that.
"We don't need to just put money into into a police force. We need violence interruption. We need stable housing. We need great education," said Allen.
Despite cries from protesters to "Defund the Police", Mayor Bowser has defended the budget she proposed in May.
"I can tell you what we have submitted is what we think we need for public safety, not a penny more and not a penny less," Bowser said during a news conference on June 8.
She declined a News4 I-Team request for an interview for this story. Instead a spokesperson sent a statement from Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue talking about the many ONSE programs that were maintained and even expanded with funding. His statement did not specifically address the violence interrupter cuts. Read his full statement below.
ONSE has touted drops in murders and assaults with a deadly weapon in several of the specific communities the violence interrupters serve. Read more here.
"Our job is to take that budget and to ask the tough questions and to make changes where necessary. So that's what we'll be doing," vowed Councilman Allen.
In Tuesday's budget oversight hearing, ONSE Executive Director Del McFadden answered questions about how the budget cut would affect the program.
"As far as the violence interruption contracts, that reduction is $426,000," Del McFadden said. "When we negotiate and meet with the contractors, I believe that it will result in fewer."
Allen said he found the cuts deeply troubling.
"I realize you've got to deal with the budget that's coming to you, but I don't think we can let that stand," Allen said to McFadden.
He even addressed any violence interrupters who might have been watching the televised hearing.
"We are deeply grateful for what you're doing and putting yourself in harm's way to be able to achieve that, it's really inspiring," Allen said.
Ford says there are no news cameras or officers around when violence interrupters are doing their work, but he sees results.
"You can't document a homicide that never took place. But we have ended numerous would-be or could-be homicides," Ford said. "When I hear 'Defund the Police' actually, I hear invest more into the people."
Statement from Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue:
When Mayor Bowser submitted her proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget and financial plan, DC HOPE (Health, Opportunity, Prosperity, Equity), the focus of our investments in the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (ONSE) was to preserve the Pathways Program and the ONSE Leadership Academy. Despite a substantial loss of revenue resulting from the global coronavirus pandemic, the
Mayor’s proposed budget reflects our ongoing commitment to good government and fiscal responsibility, without compromising our DC values. We were able to maintain the agency’s flagship program, the Pathways Program, and are planning for three cohorts in FY21, each class with up to 25 participants. The Pathways Program, which was established nearly two years ago, has served 99 of the District’s highest-risk individuals and the FY21 budget also preserved funding for the ONSE Leadership Academy at Anacostia High School through a $1 million federal grant that will expand this program to two additional high schools. The $1 million in federal funds does not appear in the published budget book as it was still being released from the federal government at the time. When you take into account these funds that will be added into the ONSE budget, their overall budget will increase from FY 20 into FY 21.