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The Catcher in the Rhine

Ousted by City Hall, CIRV's founder believes more must be done to end cycle of violence

By Jacob Baynham · September 8th, 2010 · News
In 2006, shocked by the city’s highest recorded homicide rate and witness to a 300 percent increase in gunshot wounds at the Children’s Hospital, Dr. Victor Garcia enlisted the help of a New York City criminology professor to create the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV). Three years later, Garcia claims CIRV is “necessary, but totally insufficient.” Now he is taking his efforts a step further — consulting with community stakeholders and academics to tackle the root causes of violence in Cincinnati’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

It’s a Saturday morning, and Dr. Victor Garcia is sitting at a table in an airy foyer at the Liberty Campus of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. He has a fountain pen in his hand, and he’s hunched over a piece of paper, scribbling out the names of social scientists.

His hand moves quickly, tracing arrows from John McKnight to Peter Senge to David Cooperrider and back again. He scrawls theories alongside their names — heady phrases like “appreciative inquiry,” “positive psychology” and “systems thinking” — and maps their principles with sketches that look like molecular structures.

By the time he stills his hand, the page is a tangle of thought, intelligible, perhaps, only to him.

It’s a tangible snapshot of a mind grappling with one of civilization’s oldest questions, which carries more urgency now than ever: How does a city end the violence in its streets?

The subject is familiar to Garcia. It’s one he addressed three years ago when he helped implement a revolutionary new anti-violence program — the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV).

CIRV has had mixed results, and a year after its inception Garcia was abruptly dismissed from its leadership by Mayor Mark Mallory — a man who wouldn't even take his phone calls — but since then he hasn’t stopped brainstorming. He’s devising a new approach with his own ideas and the research of a handful of social scientists, and it starts with what appears to be outlandish hope.

Dr. Garcia believes in you.

Whether you are an Indian Hill lawyer or an Avondale crack dealer, Garcia thinks no one is born a criminal. People have an inherent desire for peaceful coexistence. Violence, he says, is a behavior people resort to when certain factors in their environment tolerate, or even encourage it.

Garcia has set himself the task of identifying those root causes of violence and crafting programs to target each of them — from health problems like childhood obesity and infant mortality to social ills like chronic unemployment and single-parent families.

He’s still in the early stages, but he says the process is the only way the city can strike a lasting blow to its homicide rates. If this was a game of cards, Garcia would be shooting the moon. But this is the welfare of Cincinnati’s most at-risk communities that Garcia is betting on, and every child trauma injury he treats is a reminder that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Arrests alone aren't enough

Garcia is the founding director of trauma services at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. From 1991-2007, he saw a 300 percent increase in children with gunshot wounds.

Every child on his surgery table brought Garcia more questions. “Are we inherently bad?” he asked himself. “Are we so violent that this is just part of our DNA?”

Garcia calls himself a “pragmatic idealist,” and he thinks it’s the circumstances in which we find ourselves, rather than some innate evil, that enable us to steal, maim and kill. He says Cincinnati has seen a rise in these circumstances, and the resulting violence is proof that we ignore them at our peril.

In 2006, the city witnessed 89 homicides — the highest number on record. At the height of the killings, the Cincinnati Police Department launched Operation Vortex, a zero-tolerance campaign to crack down on lawbreakers in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Police made nearly 1,000 arrests in 25 days, booking people for everything from drug possession to jaywalking. The operation began in Over-the-Rhine, where just five years prior, riots broke out in response to a white cop killing an unarmed black teenager. It wasn’t the neighborhood in which the Police Department enjoyed its most favorable ratings.

Garcia thought there had to be a better alternative to putting more Over-the-Rhine residents behind bars.

Ohio’s prison population has grown by more than 500 percent since 1972, according to the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. Nationwide, 2.3 million people are in prison. One in every 31 adults is either incarcerated or on parole, and those figures are even higher among young black males. Federal prisons are 60 percent over capacity.

The International Center for Prison Studies reports that in proportion to its population, America imprisons five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan.

Cincinnati’s incarceration rates are higher, of course, in Over-the-Rhine, the West End and Evanston than they are in wealthier neighborhoods, but there is no evidence the arrests are making those neighborhoods safe. In fact, Garcia thinks too strong an emphasis on law enforcement only worsens the cycle of violence.

As Garcia researched alternative approaches to fighting crime, he discovered a unique violence-reduction program in Boston devised by David Kennedy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Garcia invited Kennedy to Cincinnati to explain his idea to City Hall.

Kennedy’s model is rooted in the fact that in any given city, the majority of violent crimes are performed by a small group of people.

In Cincinnati, 73.4 percent of homicides are committed by 0.3 percent of the population. That small group — in Cincinnati’s case, 1,000-1,500 felons — is the target population for Kennedy’s program.

Members of this group are gathered together for what’s known as a “call-in.” Many are on parole, so their attendance is easily enforced.

These participants are then hit with a three-pronged approach.

First, the police explain that if anyone commits another homicide, the cops will go after not only the perpetrator but also his group of friends and associates for their infractions, major or minor. It’s a way of holding the individuals accountable to each other.

Next, community leaders hammer home a message about the repercussions of violence and urge the attendees to put down their guns for the sake of their neighborhoods.

Finally, social service workers present a range of programs from job training to substance abuse to mental-health treatment for those who want to leave their life of crime and start afresh.

Garcia says he brought Kennedy to Cincinnati “with the realization that his model was not the best. It was the best available, but there were some very clear limitations.” Soon after Kennedy introduced his program in Boston, Indianapolis and Oakland, homicide rates dropped, but a few years later, when the professor had left town, the same violence returned.

Garcia worried that the idea relied too heavily on one person, a “cult of personality,” if you will.

In Cincinnati, homicides in 2007 dropped to 68 as CIRV got off the ground. But in 2008 they rose to 74. Garcia openly questioned the sustainability of the model, a criticism which drew the ire of Kennedy and City Hall.

In May 2008 Garcia says he received a letter from City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. informing him that his “services were no longer needed” as one of CIRV’s leaders.

Garcia saw that CIRV was succeeding in its law enforcement aspect. As promised, the police responded to each homicide with force, for both the perpetrators and their associates.

CIRV won accolades in a 2009 story published in The New Yorker, pushed by a city eager to change its riot scarred reputation. Even as Cincinnati's homicide rate is growing again, Kennedy is busy trying to pitch the program to Chicago.

As Garcia told CityBeat in 2009, “I appreciate that, with one exception, the reductions in homicides (in other cities) were not sustained over the long term, leading me to conclude that focused deterrence is necessary but it alone is not sufficient.”

But CIRV was failing to offer a sufficient safety net of social services to support those willing to leave the street life. As of last year, 428 individuals had contacted CIRV, asking for help finding a job. Only 61 of them — just 14 percent — are now employed.

“We’ve done a great job at arresting these young men,” Garcia says. “But as a community we have not been able to deliver on the jobs.”

Fight with your fists: 'Head up'

The job shortage is a problem the Rev. Peterson Mingo faces every day. As one of 13 CIRV street advocates, Mingo tries to talk people out of a life of crime and set them on the straight and narrow. With the limited resources at his disposal, it’s not easy.

“The job situation out there has never been worse,” Mingo says. “It’d be nice if I woke up tomorrow morning and someone gave me a list of companies that would hire one of my clients. That’d be beautiful.”

Instead, Mingo pores over the classifieds.

When he finds an employment ad that fits a client’s experience, he calls and asks if the company is willing to give a guy a second chance. “We have to create our own contacts,” he says. “We have to dig up our own resources.”

Mingo is currently working with 15 clients. Eight of them have jobs or are in school. Mingo’s days are busy now — driving clients to work, checking up on job sites, meeting new clients, calling potential employers, enrolling people in substance abuse or mental-health programs at the Talbert House — but at some points his caseload has been as high as 35 individuals.

That’s far too many, Mingo says. In order to be successful in his work, he needs to spend time with his clients.

“These are not people who will say ‘I feel like giving up’; these are people who will give up,” he says. In Mingo’s ideal world, CIRV would employ 50 street advocates and have more money available to enroll people in substance abuse, mental-health and job-training programs. CIRV’s annual budget is just short of $900,000, the majority of which goes to paying the street advocates’ full-time salaries, which start at $30,000 a year.

Mingo is 61 years old and pastors Christ Temple Baptist Church in Evanston. He grew up around the city, downtown, in Avondale, on the West End, and in the mid-1960s he was part of the Lucky 13 gang. He said the trouble they got into never resembled the violence of today.

“Guys would square off and fight,” he says. “You didn’t have to worry about getting shot if you wanted to fight. A couple of guys carried knives, but that was it. And when you fought somebody, they considered you a sissy if you had to pull out your knife. Everybody fought with their fists. Head up.”

But times have changed, of course, and CIRV’s fresh approach to confronting gun violence has garnered considerable attention.

Kennedy points to Cincinnati as the best model of his program, and CIRV leaders are busy advising city administrators from Pittsburgh to as far away as Glasgow, Scotland and Adelaide, Australia, on the best way to implement the strategy.

The program’s positive reception is evident in a shelf of awards in Gregory Baker’s office at the Cincinnati Police District One headquarters.

In 2008 and 2009 CIRV won top honors from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and in 2008 it won recognition from the National Criminal Justice Association.

Baker is CIRV’s civilian director, and he’s pleased with the program’s progress. He is aware that Dr. Garcia would like to address a wider range of social maladies in Cincinnati, but Baker says CIRV’s nearsightedness is to thank for its success.

“(Garcia) has gone to the broader picture,” he says. “One of the beauties of CIRV is that it is so narrow and it is so focused. It’s focused specifically on group-member involved homicides. It’s not necessarily trying to address education, socio-economics and jobs … It’s focused specifically on reducing homicides.”

Baker admits that funding is an ongoing concern for CIRV, especially as the city faces a $60 million deficit. City Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz has called to cut city funding for CIRV altogether. Baker defends the program's value, stating it has permanently revolutionized policing in Cincinnati.

“I think CIRV has a good balance,” Baker says. “We provide hope, help and opportunities for those persons that would take advantage of it.”

But when those carrots fail to lure people away from violence, the police retain their sticks.

“Then it’s necessary for law enforcement to engage,” Baker says, “and do what they do best.”

Creating a new approach

In Garcia’s mind, a truly balanced approach to violence would strike at the heart of the self-repeating cycles of poverty, lack of health care, high school dropout rates and broken families that enable the killings to continue unabated in Cincinnati’s crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Garcia grew up in Harlem, N.Y., and he knows firsthand what it feels like to grow up in a community that a city has written off. He’s watched kids lose their fathers to alcoholism, penitentiaries or the streets, and seen them grow up hungry and drop out of school to join gangs, eventually finding themselves in the same situation as their parents.

Rev. Mingo, who knows Garcia as “Doc,” echoes this with his own experience.

“When you don’t have a father, you don’t have an inheritance,” Mingo says. “You don’t have a beginning, because you can’t see where you came from.”

Garcia says most young men in poor inner-cities don’t find their identity in their future professions, like boys might in the suburbs. Instead, they make their mark with shoes, cars, guns and the women they impregnate.

There are few expectations for their lives, and even less hope, and crime presents a rare, alluring opportunity to distinguish themselves.

Down the road, the children they sire will grow up in the same social wreckage and the pattern will continue.

“This cycle portends poorly for future generations (for) decades to come,” Garcia says. “This is what keeps me up at night and makes me want to holler and should compel us all to no end.”

On Sept. 11, Garcia will hold a collaborative workshop at the Cintas Center at Xavier University with two internationally renowned academics, Peter Senge and David Cooperrider, and more than 70 community representatives, business CEOs, gang members and nonprofit leaders from around Cincinnati.

The group will identify which social ills need to be redressed and strategize the best way to confront them. Garcia says it will be a valuable first step in overcoming the enabling drivers behind violence in Cincinnati.

City officials were unable or unwilling to adequately address the need through CIRV, he adds.

As Garcia told CityBeat shortly after his ouster, “Unless we are able to deliver on the promise of hope and help, CIRV will not and cannot keep the black community engaged as willing partners in what must be a generation-long initiative to effectively address the structural and cultural forces the drive and enable inner-city violence.

“These are forces that are not going to give way to solely the threat of sanctions,” he added back then. “The early results in the realms of connecting with gang members and getting them to seek help exceeded everyone’s expectations. And in my view, it is continued results like those we achieved in the early goings of CIRV that will necessary for sustained reductions in shootings and homicides. Law enforcement alone cannot bring this about. My vision, one shared with many other members of the CIRV team, was ultimately of using CIRV to transform the impoverished areas of the black community and in so doing bring about the fundamental changes that are needed to sustain the reductions in violence over the long-term.”

'Who's throwing them in'

“I don’t disagree on the need to focus on the most violent groups and mete out justice where it is warranted,” Garcia told CityBeat last year when we began tracking his next move. “Where there is disagreement is that the exclamation point should be on services — on an equally credible and meaningful opportunity to make a legitimate, legal living wage. That is not being an evangelist. It is being a realist.”

In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield has a dream that he is standing at the edge of a cliff, facing a field full of playing children. It's his job to catch the kids who wander too close to the edge. It’s a rare moment of self-worth in an otherwise nihilistic existence, and the character feels a sense of duty in his task.

I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff,” he says. “What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”

Dr. Victor Garcia is no Caulfield.

But he turns to a similar metaphor to describe his own sense of purpose in his long-term vision of dropping Cincinnati’s homicide rates for good.

“If people are drowning,” Garcia says, “someone has to save them. I would be the one going upstream to see who’s throwing them in.

“I’m not naive enough to think that everyone can be saved,” he adds. “But I would submit that the vast majority want out of that lifestyle.”



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