The Regional Peacekeepers Seek to Keep Community Members –and Hope – Alive
By Rosette Royale
When a gunshot is fired in King County, Khalid Adams finds out through an alert on his phone. Then his time as a violence interrupter begins.
If he’s close by, Adams may deploy to the scene. Once there, he’ll confer with any of the dozen or so other violence interrupters who may have arrived. If they show up before the police, they try to assess the situation, which can be chaotic: Someone may be lying in the street, deceased. The victim’s family members may be there, upset, angry, in shock. People may gather around to observe, wanting to talk about or debate what happened, which can trigger those related or close to the victim.
“So we’re coming to deescalate the situation,” Adams said, who works for Community Passageways, a local nonprofit that helps create alternatives to incarceration for young adults and youth. “And to show these people that we’re here for you. It’s all love. We’re here for you. We know what you’re going through.”
Violence interrupters are members of communities deeply affected by firearm violence, which is crucial, Adams said, because people at the scene may be more willing to open up to folks they know or have seen before. Once at a scene, a woman confided in Adams about her work struggles, which caused frustration in her non-work life, not to mention concerns about a son who was incarcerated – and to top it off there was a shooting? He listened, understanding she needed to vent, which, he said, is not easy to do with the police. A violence interrupter can help to address that need. “Sometimes, people just need somebody they can talk to and let it out,” he said.
Adams understands the importance in the work, because he can relate to the people he interacts with at the scene of a shooting. “I’m a violence interrupter,” he said, “because I was once a part of the violence.”
As a young person, Adams didn’t have adequate access to food, shelter and clothing. Without those bare necessities, he sought out opportunities to acquire what he lacked, opportunities, he admitted, that were tied to violence. “So [I was] looking up to the people in the streets and the gang members and the drug dealers,” he said. “And [I was] thinking that this is the way that I can succeed.”
Instead, he was incarcerated at 19. He remained in prison for 10 years. Upon his release, he tried to play catch up. The opportunities he pursued led to another bad end. He was incarcerated again, this time for five years.
But upon his second release, he saw, when he looked at fellow community members, something different. “I seen people that I knew was doing the work, being violence interrupters, giving back to the community,” Adams said.
Witnessing those community members inspired him to get involved in intervention work during critical moments, to create positive social change on the local level. And that core principle – seeking and working toward solutions to firearm violence – is part of what motivates Adams and others who are part of the Regional Peacekeepers Collective.
Keeping the Peace
Launched in June 2021 by Zero Youth Detention, the Regional Peacekeepers Collective (RPKC) is a pilot program that employs a responsive “go-first” strategy to address the increase in gun violence and firearm homicide in King County. Its efforts hone in on those most at risk: the 100-150 young people seen in Harborview Medical Center Emergency Room for gun-related injury in any given year.
The need in local communities has been acute. In 2021, 88 people in King County were killed by gun violence, according to the “2021 Year End King County Firearm Violence Report,” issued by the Crime Strategies Unit of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Another 372 were shot but survived.
Of the 460 fatal and nonfatal shooting victims last year, 225 were Black or African American. Of those, 61 were boys or young men 18-24 years old.
Eleuthera Lisch, who focuses on gun-violence prevention for Public Health - Seattle/King County, said RPKC was born out of a belief that in order to address gun violence, community members had to be involved – and that they could provide services and support quickly. “Young people were dying,” Lisch said, “and we really needed to go right away, into the field, and call on people already doing the work.”
RKPC acts as an umbrella for seven organizations and institutions across King County: Choose 180, Community Passageways, Freedom Project, Harborview Medical Center, Progress Pushers, Renegades for Life and the YMCA. Together, they address three core issues:
Intervention: responding immediately to critical incidents and interrupting violence based on real-time data on shots fired in the region
Prevention: connecting highest-risk youth with outreach workers to decrease negative contacts with law enforcement, as well as improving access to services for those youth and their families
Restoration: providing support through programs that offer client services and more, along with creating community events and helping to secure mental-health and grief services
Lisch said the RPKC takes its cues from work that’s occurred in communities that have faced the painful aftereffects of firearm homicide, whether in the present or the past. “We talked to early leaders, elders in the Black Panther movement [about] their contributions in Seattle, in Oakland, in Chicago,” she said, “and the connection between all those people working to elevate community, to fight back against systemic oppression, to create pathways of community-led agency over a variety of different issues.”
The model has garnered support from political officials near and far. Last summer, former Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that, over a two-year span, the City of Seattle would invest $2 million in RPKC. King County had already dedicated $1.47 million in support of strategies to prevent gun violence, which included funds for additional staff to launch and support RPKC.
In June 2021, The White House also identified King County as one of 16 national jurisdictions committed to using federal and other public funding to strengthen local tactics to address community violence intervention efforts. Representatives from the jurisdictions, joined by policy experts, technical assistance providers and representatives from 15 foundations and corporations, including Microsoft, met with federal officials in February, their third meeting as a group. The White House initiative is slated to end in late 2022/early 2023.
A key tenet of RKPC, said Lisch, is that it centers collaboration. There “is no one single person, no one single organization, no one single solution,” she said, “but a group of folks working collectively towards something, to broaden a web of support through the region for our young people and their families that are most directly impacted by gun violence.”
Prevention Strategy: Building Bridges
Paul J. Carter III offers his support by connecting, as quickly as possible, with survivors of firearm violence. Carter meets them at Harborview Medical Center, where he works as a violence-intervention prevention specialist. He begins, he said, by introducing himself and his role, then follows up with an initial assessment by asking survivors how they’re feeling physically, mentally and emotionally. Throughout his engagement, he speaks honestly with survivors, telling them, “I’m here to help you, not here to judge. … I may not have all the answers, but I’m here to listen.”
The role of violence-intervention prevention specialist at Harborview is integral to RPKC, and Carter began in the position in late October 2021. During his first four months, through late February, Carter said he connected with 17 young people, between 16 and 24 years old. He estimated that 11 of those survivors were Black or African American.
Once a connection is established, Carter tries to determine survivors’ needs and critical issues: Do they have secure housing? Are they fearful they may experience retaliation for the incident that brought them to the ER? When were they first exposed to a firearm? He then shares all relevant data with King County partners.
He also serves as a bridge between Harborview staff and survivors, he said, to ensure everyone experiences clear lines of communication. “I may have a patient who doesn’t feel like the doctors and the nurses are understanding what he’s talking about,” he said. “And as a bridger of sorts, and liaison, I can explain to those staff members what this person means.”
While building bridges between people may be a talent he was born with, finding ways to communicate with Harborview staff, as well as his family, became skills Carter had to perfect for himself, after he was shot.
In October 2015, Carter had been traveling with a friend to pick up someone in trouble. Carter was in the back seat of his friend’s Jeep. An altercation began – and Carter was shot in the jaw. His esophagus was torn in half, which surgeons at Harborview repaired. They inserted a tracheostomy tube and removed half a lung. Carter lay in a coma for three days.
When he awoke in the hospital, he saw his mother, Yvette. Unable to speak to her because his jaw was wired shut, he wrote a question on a whiteboard: “Are these my real teeth?” She told him yes, then broke the sad news: The friend in the altercation had died. Carter remained in the hospital for two months, part of a lengthy healing process that involved occupational, speech and physical therapy. He learned to speak again.
“People say, ‘Wow, you must have been in some pain,’” Carter said. “The whole time I was hospitalized, like, the pain I had was in my body, nothing in my face where I’d been shot. It’s one of those things where I kind of felt like, it’s good that I don’t remember sometimes, but it’s kind of sad. Not bad, but it’s kind of sad.”
Sadness was one of numerous emotions Carter faced in the wake of the shooting, and he sought counseling to bolster his mental and emotional health, counseling that he continues. While he was in Harborview, a nurse told him that when he recovered, he needed to return to the medical center to help others. He agreed, volunteering in a Trauma Survivors Network, where he engaged with other recovering patients. That involvement led, in part, to his current position as violence-intervention prevention specialist.
Carter said his role in RPKC allows him to help survivors acquire resources and wraparound services. It also allows for connection. “When you actually meet with them one on one, or face to face, they give you so much respect. You earn their trust,” he said. “As soon as they get around some of these good people we have, they see that life is worth living.”
As a violence interrupter with RPKC, Adams, too, sees the value and worth of the people he meets. Helping to instill the belief that life is worth living is a solution of sorts to firearm violence, he feels, as it generates hope – not only for the people he serves, but also for himself. “It’s just like a good feeling,” he said of his engagement with young people. “I love seeing their faces, I love seeing their smiles. I love when the kid’s calling me, ‘cause it’s like, man, I’ve been waiting to help you.”
Photos by @ArtbyFrederick