CeaseFire Columbus: When the Killings Stopped

What a short-lived experiment can teach a city struggling with gun violence

Theodore Decker
tdecker@dispatch.com
CeaseFire Columbus leaders Deanna Wilkinson, Frederick LaMarr, Cecil Ahad and Dartangnan Hill outside Family Missionary Baptist Church

For this march, they will head west, to the spot where a bullet ended the life of Jaleel Carter-Tate five days earlier.

It is Sunday, Oct. 4, and about 25 people have gathered at the Family Missionary Baptist Church on Oakwood Avenue, the starting point for this monthly plea for peace. A gusty storm front races toward Columbus from western Ohio, but no one talks of canceling the event, the 132nd march against gun violence held by a grassroots collective known as Ministries 4 Movement. Today marks 11 years of marching, through 44 seasons, and a discouraging weather forecast isn’t about to end the streak. 

Carter-Tate was 25 years old when he died on the South Side on Sept. 29, in the 800 block of East Whittier Avenue. Columbus police were called before 10 p.m. and found him bleeding from a gunshot wound. He died on the scene, becoming the 116th victim of homicide in what is shaping up to be the bloodiest year on record in Ohio’s capital city. 

The marchers stop at the spot where Carter-Tate fell. A nearby street sign has become a roadside memorial. Mylar balloons are tied in a tangle to the post, and crowded below is a cluster of stuffed animals. At first blush, they seem like an odd tribute to a man in his 20s, seated as they are among an assortment of liquor bottles. But teddy bears are common at memorials marking deaths that are as untimely as they are violent. They are futile bids to turn back the clock. 

A few speakers step forward. One man says a dispute over a sports bet may have caused Carter-Tate’s death. If true, it is in keeping with the trend that most of these killings are not the result of the drug trade, as many would have you believe. They inevitably arise from what criminologists call “interpersonal disputes,” a catchall term for an array of petty beefs and more serious grievances that in some instances fester for years before exploding on the streets. A bumped arm in a packed nightclub leads to a spilled drink, then to words, and finally gunfire. Trash talk on social media inflames tensions between rival teens. A young boy sees his older brother killed and waits until he is grown, sometimes for years, to impose street justice on a shooter who avoided arrest. 

But what happens if an outsider steps into these volatile situations, someone from the neighborhood with street cred, good intentions and impeccable timing? Vulnerable young people might regain control of their emotions, stopping themselves from acting on violent impulses. The people involved in this march can attest to the power of these interventions because, well, they’ve done them. Nearly a decade ago, they launched a short-lived pilot program called CeaseFire Columbus that coincided with a dramatic drop in violence in a 40-block section of the South Side. 

This group was within striking distance of a strategy that, if it had been embraced by the city, might—just might—have saved Carter-Tate. Instead, they march in mourning. 

***
Minister Aaron Hopkins, left, and Rev. Frederick LaMarr lead a march against gun violence in November.

Columbus is on track in 2020 to record its most lethal year for homicidal violence. In 1991, 139 people were killed. That was the height of the city’s crack cocaine trade, and that record stood for nearly two decades as killings hovered around 90 to 100 each year. Murders jumped in 2017 to 143, only to fall back in 2018 and 2019 before surging again this year. 

In fact, the violence has soared to such levels in 2020 that Mayor Andy Ginther and his administration have been regularly addressing it, even during a year dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and weeks of racial justice protests. 

In his fourth violence-related news conference of the summer, Ginther pledged $200,000 in federal money to each of four nonprofits, which in turn could pass some of the funds on to smaller groups. 

Earlier in the summer, the mayor also announced the formation of violence intervention teams and outreach at hospitals. But the most promising development came in October, when the city announced it was partnering with David Kennedy, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and the director of the National Network for Safe Communities. For $80,000, the city hired Kennedy to help suss out who and what is driving the city’s violence. That study is expected to take six months. 

“The theory is that there is a small percentage of individuals committing the large amount of violent crime that is taking place in our community,” says Ned Pettus, the director of the city’s Department of Public Safety. 

That is not a new theory, or one that is unique to Columbus. In fact, it was one of the foundations of CeaseFire Columbus, which was founded in 2010 and run by Ministries 4 Movement. Criminologists say gun violence is driven by a fraction of a percent of the population. A 2011 Ohio Attorney General study, conducted by Ohio State University, found that offenders convicted of three or more violent offenses accounted for less than 1 percent of the state’s population but a third of all violent crime convictions over nearly four decades. 

Kennedy helped to pioneer a carrot-and-stick approach to reducing gun violence in Boston in the mid-1990s, an effort that came to be known as the Boston Gun Project’s Operation Ceasefire. Once identified, those key players on the street are called in to meet with law enforcement and told they will be hammered relentlessly as long as they continue to engage in violence. But if they are serious about leaving street life behind, a vast support network will help them. As word of the Boston success spread, cities across the country adopted similar efforts. 

There is no single formula for successfully reducing violence, but the most promising approaches are built upon a base acknowledgement that to reduce violence in any city, you must engage directly with those violent offenders. “That’s what characterizes everything that works,” Kennedy says. 

***
Davontay Womak, left, and Terry Felder listen to Frederick LaMarr, center, with Cecil Ahad, right, in 2016

During the October march, Deanna Wilkinson speaks to the gathering about a 15-year-old boy killed recently on the East Side. Two years earlier, he’d participated in the Urban GEMS gardening program she began in 2015. The program started with a small garden beside Family Missionary Baptist Church but has expanded since, teaching children to grow and sell their own produce while building confidence, healthy choices and life skills. Many have grown up surrounded by violence. 

“These are complicated lives,” says Wilkinson, a criminologist and associate human services professor at Ohio State University. She touches on the frustrations of violence prevention work, the occasional politics, the constant struggle for funding. “These young people are worth a lot,” she says. “Every time we lose one, we lose a huge part of our city.” 

In 2007, Wilkinson brought together an array of city officials, law enforcement agencies, human service organizations, community activists and faith leaders to form the Youth Violence Prevention Advisory Board, a group meant to brainstorm solutions to gun violence. Through the board, she got to know better Tammy Fournier Alsaada, a leader of the People’s Justice Project. They joined with Cecil Ahad, a South Side activist known as Brother Cecil and the founder of Ministries 4 Movement, and the Rev. Frederick LaMarr, the pastor of Family Missionary Baptist Church. Both were doing their own work to provide mentors and positive role models for young men and boys at risk of falling into their neighborhood’s cycle of violence. 

That group of four formed the core of what would become CeaseFire Columbus. “We were a really good team,” Wilkinson says. 

“Dr. Dee, she had all the statistics, and she could do the numbers and paperwork,” LaMarr says. “Me and Brother Cecil, we had the boots on the ground.” Fournier Alsaada, Wilkinson says, had a strong drive and a special ability to distill conceptual research into plain English. 

Ahad also had forged a relationship with Dartangnan Hill, a founder of the neighborhood’s Deuce-Deuce Bloods street gang who had tired of the violence. After Ahad’s nephew was murdered, the pair held in November 2009 what became the first neighborhood march. “It was Dartangnan who really introduced us to a lot of people, who opened a lot of doors up for us,” Ahad says. 

This Columbus collaboration was inspired by the work of Dr. Gary Slutkin, a Chicago physician and public health expert who noticed gun violence spread like an infectious disease. Like Kennedy, Slutkin’s intervention efforts focus on reaching those who are most likely to spread violence, but his tactics differ from his fellow researcher. Slutkin’s initiative, Chicago’s CeaseFire (now called Cure Violence), avoids partnerships with law enforcement and instead relies on street-level violence interrupters who, because of their own history on the streets, carry respect and are able to defuse volatile situations before they lead to gunfire. Over the longer term, these interruptions accrue, reinforcing that violence is no longer “necessary” or tolerated. Caseworkers, meanwhile, support those who want out of the life, while community activists labor to change societal norms through public education campaigns and neighborhood marches. 

In 2010, Wilkinson invited Ministries 4 Movement to implement a Columbus version of the Chicago model. Local leaders based their operations at LaMarr’s church and trained in Chicago. They drew up a detailed proposal for a pilot program and sought money to pay for it. They made a pitch to Mayor Mike Coleman’s administration and asked for $750,000, which would have paid for two sites for a year. “They are completely ready,” Slutkin said during a 2011 visit to Columbus. “They need government support.” 

They didn’t get it. Coleman did not put the project into his budget and went instead in another direction, throwing his support and city money behind a Recreation and Parks program known as Applications for Pride, Purpose and Success. APPS sought to provide an outlet for young people at city recreation centers, along with mentoring, job training and high school equivalency. Its violence-prevention component stumbled in the first year due to infighting, but the city wrote off those troubles as growing pains and considers the program a success. According to Recreation and Parks Department annual reports, APPS defused about 400 potentially violent incidents throughout the city between 2016 and 2018. 

Ginther, then a City Councilmember and chairman of the Safety Committee, did not support the CeaseFire proposal at the time because he thought APPS was a better fit. “Through APPS, the city was able to offer social programming and violence intervention in cooperation with nonprofits,” Robin Davis, Ginther’s director of media relations, says in a prepared statement. “The only piece we didn’t have at that time was the ‘call in,’ where a select group of violent offenders who are likely to continue down that path would be offered social services and workforce development to change their likely trajectory. We have since added this through our Safe Neighborhood initiative.” 

Still, the local CeaseFire group persisted, seeking private donors and federal grants to get off the ground. Without the endorsement of city leaders, they never got enough of either to establish their full vision. They carried on anyway—and got results. Between 2011 and 2014, in their core 40-block area in the 43206 ZIP code, shootings dropped by 76 percent. All of 2011 and 2012 passed without a gun-related homicide within those boundaries. In the preceding two years, four gun homicides occurred in the neighborhood, with three more recorded just outside it. This new run of peace was remarkable, considering the neighborhood’s previously violent history. Between 2007 and 2009, incidents of gun violence in the quietest city police precinct occurred at a rate of 13.5 per 10,000 people, Wilkinson found. In the precinct that included CeaseFire’s core neighborhood, gun violence incidents during the same time period were reported at a rate of 200.5 per 10,000 people. 

***
Ahad, right, speaks at the spot where 17-year-old Lamont Frazier was killed in 2013.

The front arrives, and the rain starts, big heavy drops that fast become a downpour. Pastor LaMarr ducks under the umbrella of a fellow marcher. Those without cover will be soaked from head to toe by the time they return to the church, but they take the rain in stride and resume the call-and-response chants led by Minister Aaron Hopkins. 

Am I right or wrong? 

You’re right! 

Is my faith still strong? 

Still strong!

Before the march, Wilkinson set up several outdoor tables filled with produce grown by gardening program participants. The tables are heaped with bags of jalapeños, tomatoes, squash and honeydew melon. She urges marchers to take what they want; any donations go to the family of the boy she’d mentioned during the march. But in the deluge, most run straight for their cars, and Wilkinson is left to load much of the produce into her Nissan Leaf hatchback. At the same time, Fournier Alsaada’s car battery is dead, stranding her in the church lot. Wilkinson hops into Fournier Asaada’s car and the pair catch up while Ahad runs home for jumper cables. 

All seem unfazed by an afternoon gone slightly awry. When you are out to save lives, particularly young ones, the setbacks can be heartbreaking. With stakes that high, a dead car battery and a cold, driving rain barely register as inconveniences. 

Violence intervention takes 24/7 dedication, fearlessness and honesty. If Ahad tells a young man to call him before doing anything rash, he has to answer when that call comes in at 2 a.m. If LaMarr promises to be there for a young man’s court appearance, he had better show up or he will lose that young man’s trust. “People can be at their breaking point at any moment,” LaMarr says. 

Derrick Russell, onetime leader of the Short North Posse, spent 13 years in prison for his role in the notoriously violent gang. When he was locked up, he says he wrote to about 50 pastors looking for guidance. Just one wrote back. “That was Pastor LaMarr,” he says. 

Russell now works with Ministries 4 Movement and on his own initiatives to mentor city youth. “People see our sincerity,” LaMarr says. “The main thing is that we continue to do it. We continue to support people not just when they’re ‘right’ to help them get better, but when they’re ‘wrong’ to help them get right.” 

“You gotta go deep,” Ahad says. “You can’t just go out on the corner and hold a cookout.” Many well-meaning intervention efforts “don’t go deep enough,” he says. “They don’t know them guys, the real shooters.” 

Ahad has theories why the city ignored the fledgling Columbus CeaseFire, which ended in 2014 when its cobbled-together funding dried up. He knows that the involvement of Hill, the former gang leader, made some public safety officials uneasy and others angry. He, LaMarr and Hill also painstakingly documented and reported to city officials the corruption of a particularly notorious member of the police gang unit who is no longer with the division. Asked specifically about Ahad’s suspicions, Davis says Ginther was unaware of either issue at the time and that neither factored in his decisions. 

Whatever the reasons, Ahad says, “The city people shied away from us. It was like we were hands-off.” 

Wilkinson hopes city leaders embrace Kennedy’s approach, where law enforcement plays an active and more traditional role than in the Chicago model that she and the others championed. “There is still very strong control over the message of public safety in the city,” she says. “The Kennedy model is more palatable to a place like Columbus.” 

And it can work if properly implemented and funded. But fickle political winds, changes in police administrations and dwindling financial support have eroded progress in cities that have seen gains using both Kennedy’s and Slutkin’s models. 

Dr. Jonathan Groner, medical director of the Center for Pediatric Trauma Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, is optimistic that the city will shift from a piecemeal approach to a more comprehensive plan. “I do worry about funding,” he says. “There’s no Pelotonia for firearm injuries, [and] the community that is most affected is the least empowered.” 

***

They begin the 133rd march by heading east. It is early November, the Sunday before Election Day. There are twice as many marchers today as in the previous month, and they are led by a teen drum corps instead of Hopkins’ call-and-response. The marchers walk in pairs along the sidewalks and eventually turn south to Whittier. Since the October march and prayer at Carter-Tate’s street memorial, the homicide count in Columbus has risen to 140, and the young man’s murder remains unsolved. 

“It’s so big, it gets to be disheartening,” Ahad acknowledges. “There’s just so much to this.” But he pushes aside those darker thoughts whenever they intrude. 

Today it is too cold for rain; the first snowflakes of the fall fly around the marchers. Back at the church, they keep things short, though not because of the weather. Many are headed to the Franklin County Board of Elections before it closes at 5 p.m. They know what it takes to bring change. They know it can come slowly, maddeningly so. But with the right mindset and constant pressure, they believe it is inevitable, as certain to arrive as the turn of seasons.