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'Not the program Lexington should emphasize right now.' Local congregations and the mayor aren't quite aligned on how to reduce violence

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Scott Davidson
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Wikimedia Commons

A vocal faith-based activist group comprised of 26 congregations is at odds with Lexington’s mayor over a particular violence prevention strategy the group claims will get to the root of the city’s increasing homicides.

BUILD – that’s Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct Action – are pressing for the full implementation of a national program known as Group Violence Intervention, or GVI.

But how effective would GVI be in Lexington?

Mayor Linda Gorton has doubts, writing in a statement that her conversations with Police Chief Lawrence Weathers, faith leaders, the Human Rights Commission, and others raised red flags about how the intervention strategy might target communities of color.

Cheryl Birch, who lost her son to gun violence, told WLEX that’s not a concern for her.

"Even though (the mayor) says she doesn't want to implement it because it would target us, as far as the Black community, but it's the Black community that's affected... the most. So to do nothing is just as bad," Birch said.

Gorton noted in her statement that there are "many positive components of GVI that are similar to other violence prevention and intervention programs that I fully support, and have ensured that our team prioritizes."

There’s also the question of GVI’s record in other cities.

Louisville adopted the strategy in the fall of 2020 and has faced criticism over the pace of implementation, likely slowed by the pandemic. Louisville Police Chief Erika Shields explained in an LMPD's On the Record podcast last year that GVI involves face-to-face conversations with those affected to break the cycle of violence.

"It really is going in and making someone aware that people out here that don't know you actually really care about how you do. So let's try to work to figure out how we can change the trajectory of your life."
Louisville Metro Police Chief Erika Shields

While Gorton alluded in her comments to cities where GVI hasn’t worked as well as expected, defenders point to success stories across the country – the closest being a 41 percent decrease in group-involved homicides in Cincinnati.

Read Mayor Linda Gorton's full statement below.

Dear Members of BUILD,

On March 8, 2022, I received via email a press release from B.U.I.L.D. demanding that I implement GVI in Lexington, KY. Out of respect for the church members who are part of B.U.I.L.D., many of whom I know, I am choosing to reply by addressing facts and the administration’s actions.

Group Violence Intervention (GVI) - As the elected official ultimately responsible for the decision to implement this or not, I take violent crime very seriously. I rely heavily on the experts who work in this environment. I have consulted with Police Chief Lawrence Weathers, law enforcement, the Director of One Lexington, street outreach workers, community activists, faith leaders, the ACLU, NAACP, and the Human Rights Commission. All expressed serious concerns about the targeting aspect of GVI, and the serious damage it could do to the relationship among government/law enforcement and communities of color.

In an effort to determine whether GVI is a tool that could be successful in Lexington, last year my administration researched some cities that use GVI to learn about whether their data shows a decrease in homicides. When we met with National Network for Safe Community (NNSC) representatives, they stated in a BUILD meeting in Fall 2021 that they were at a loss to explain why GVI wasn’t working in some cities.

The above two factors combined to make it clear that GVI is not the program Lexington should emphasize right now. There are many positive components of GVI that are similar to other violence prevention and intervention programs that I fully support, and have ensured that our team prioritizes.

There are many organizations that promote programs as the best models for addressing violence. GVI is one of them, and shares many similarities with other programs.

Numerous social and economic factors play a part in violence. Along with proactive, community-focused policing, we also focus on the upstream, root causes of violence. For example, every day we work to address affordable housing, homelessness, strengthening our workforce, youth programming, job training, substance use disorders, and rental assistance, just to name a few. This represents a significant increase in funding for our community violence intervention program.

Flock Cameras: My administration has consulted with the ACLU, Human Rights Commission and NAACP several times regarding the use of Flock cameras. They shared their concerns, agreed that these concerns were addressed in the policy outlined by the Lexington Police Department, and will continue to monitor the implementation and reach out if they have any issues. Flock looks at crime analysis data across the board to recommend placement of its cameras. For BUILD to make a statement about the mayor installing cameras in already “over-policed communities” without even knowing where the cameras are is problematic.

I will continue to work aggressively with our community partners to address homicides in our community. We know that overall the larger category of violent crime in Lexington decreased 4% when you compare 2020 to 2021. We will not let up on our efforts to support people to choose a path of non-violence.

Sincerely,

Linda Gorton

Mayor