Inside One Baltimore Group’s Effort to Stop Youth Violence Before It Starts
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The ongoing chase between Jamal West and Miayan in West Baltimore had been happening for months. Whenever Jamal, a 46-year-old man standing at 6-foot-4 and built like an NFL lineman, would pull up in his minivan, Miayan, an 18-year-old teenager at the time, would immediately flee. Despite Jamal’s size advantage, the wiry teenager would outrun him every time. This pattern continued day after day, with Miayan bolting as soon as he saw the van.
Jamal’s only intention was to have a conversation with Miayan. This took place in early 2019, not long after the launch of Roca, a violence prevention program in Baltimore.
"I was heavily involved in street activities," Miayan confessed. "Engaging in various things on the streets."
Miayan’s activities mainly revolved around selling drugs on street corners, where he could make over $700 every week. His crew’s significant profits from the drug trade made them a prime target for law enforcement. And just like how Miayan would escape from Jamal’s minivan, he would also run away when the police arrived. Most times, Miayan easily evaded capture in foot races with law enforcement. (To protect the identities of Miayan and other young individuals who committed offenses while minors, The Trace and The Guardian have chosen not to disclose their full names.)
While Miayan possessed remarkable speed, Jamal exceeded him in persistence. As Roca’s youth work supervisor, Jamal continued to return, often accompanied by his partner, Teshombae Harvell. Their objective was to initiate the necessary therapy to address the burdensome experiences that Miayan carried. Miayan grew up witnessing family members struggle with drug addiction and become entangled in the drug trade, only to be swept away by the criminal justice system. In his 20 years of life, Miayan had seen arguments escalate into violence, violence turn fatal, and his friends’ lives cut short. There wasn’t much hope for a brighter future.
Jamal, Harvell, and Roca required time with Miayan to ensure that he didn’t end up like many other teenage boys and young men in his neighborhood. Unfortunately, each passing day led Miayan deeper into danger.
Jamal understood Miayan’s background well. Raised primarily by his grandmother, Miayan resided in Sandtown-Winchester, an area where more than half the children experience poverty. This neighborhood is also where police apprehended and ultimately caused the death of Freddie Gray while in custody. Miayan had excelled in athletics, particularly football and basketball. However, as the challenges of escorting him to practice became overwhelming, his quick feet found a different purpose.
Many of Roca’s clients, Miayan included, find themselves caught between the illegal and legal economies. Convincing them to leave behind illicit money-making activities can be a lengthy process. Unfortunately, unfavorable incidents are prone to occur during this transitional period.
Within the past 15 years, the majority of fatal shooting victims in Baltimore have been individuals between the ages of 16 and 25. Roca, a public health initiative, focuses on addressing violence within this specific age group. This approach is not unique to Baltimore but is also implemented on a national level. The program targets males between the ages of 16 to 24, like Miayan, who have encountered the criminal justice system and are at high risk of becoming either perpetrators or victims of gun violence.
Roca adopts a long-term perspective when it comes to violence intervention. Using cognitive behavioral therapy, the program aims to assist individuals in managing trauma and regulating their responses to stress and conflict. It’s important to note that Roca is not a preventive program, but an intervention program that typically requires up to four years to produce notable results. "By teaching them conflict management skills by the age of 20, we are gradually setting the city up for success, one young person at a time," explained James Timpson, the individual responsible for Roca-Baltimore’s community collaborations.
Time is a pivotal factor for Roca. On one hand, it requires a substantial amount of time to transform a young individual’s life. On the other hand, there is an urgency to maintain constant contact with them, with the fear of missing a single phone call. This dedication explains why Jamal West even took calls from Roca participants while on a recent vacation in Jamaica. "It can strain your personal life, but we have to be there for them," Jamal emphasized.
An ongoing conversation spanning months
During their teenage years, numerous boys and young men in Baltimore carry the weight of trauma. This burden does not impede their efforts to evade authorities or Roca workers, but it does cloud their judgment. For Miayan, survival was the focal point of his life. "I have to go outside and make some money so that I can eat," he recalls thinking. Additionally, he struggled with a painkiller addiction that developed during his teenage years. When West and Harvell occasionally tracked him down, Miayan resisted their attempts to discuss decision making or leaving his current situation behind. He simply wasn’t ready.
On Mother’s Day in 2019, it seemed as though time was running out for Miayan. Despite his skills, his early morning escape from the police on May 5, 2019 would be his last. A misstep caused him to lose his balance, and gravity took its toll. Miayan’s head struck the ground with such force that he fell into a coma, experiencing temporary paralysis. His grandmother remained by his side every day, offering support and prayers. "I had no idea what the outcome would be," Deborah Moore, his grandmother, said.
West joined Moore in keeping watch at Miayan’s bedside. For two months, he visited him at the hospital. During this time, it was only Miayan, his grandmother, and West – not his crew. It was during this period, fresh out of a coma and temporarily paralyzed, that Miayan finally decided to give Roca a genuine chance. This marked the beginning of the conversation that West had been eager to initiate since early 2019. In that hospital room and during physical therapy sessions, where Miayan learned to walk again, he began to work through his trauma with West.
The same year Miayan fell, the year he turned 18, Baltimore experienced its deadliest period in history. By the end of 2019, 348 people had been killed, with a significant portion of the victims being young individuals aged 16 to 25.
A comprehensive approach to reducing violence
The term "Roca" translates to "rock" in Spanish. This organization was established in Massachusetts during the late 1980s as a means of addressing the challenges faced by young individuals grappling with poverty, violence, and limited job opportunities.
"These young people find themselves in uncontrollable situations at a very young age, but they possess the capacity to learn the skills needed to react differently," explained Kurt Palmero, director of Roca-Baltimore. "However, it’s unrealistic to expect an immediate transformation."
Roca deploys youth interventionists like West and Harvell in a manner similar to Safe Streets, a prominent violence prevention organization that sends trusted messengers to defuse conflicts. However, Roca’s youth workers go beyond addressing the immediate trigger by spending time with each referred youth, teaching them how to process their emotions in non-violent ways and helping them avoid environments where they may be exposed to violence.
Typically, it is the police, carceral system, or social services agencies that refer young individuals to the Roca program. Poor behavior or reluctance to participate, as was the case with Miayan, does not disqualify them from receiving support. While this may not appear to be the most efficient approach to addressing the root causes of violence, the staff at Roca believes that their long-term strategy is the most effective way to reduce conflicts in a city where minor disputes can escalate into fatal incidents.
Molly Baldwin, the founder of Roca in Massachusetts, introduced the program to Baltimore in 2018. At that time, the city was on track to witness its fourth consecutive year of 300-plus homicides. Impatience was mounting in City Hall, having experienced turnover in police commissioners, two of whom lost their positions due to their inability to curb violence. Timpson, a prominent figure in violence interruption and a Baltimore native, joined Roca after his involvement with Safe Streets, lending credibility to the program. Following a political battle over funding, the city contributed $2.5 million over four years, which is a fraction of Roca’s overall cost. Roca’s primary funding comes from philanthropic organizations such as the Abell Foundation in Baltimore and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Roca-Baltimore has yet to witness a full cohort of participants completing the program’s four-year duration, making it difficult to measure outcomes precisely. However, there are indications of success. Among those who have completed the Massachusetts program, 84 percent have avoided subsequent arrests.
Roca’s supporters often use an analogy to describe the length and persistence of the program. They believe that young individuals are not naturally inclined to think long term, which is why they require a support system to guide them until they reach a point of understanding and clarity. Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank focused on criminal justice solutions, compares this to college, where young adults are given the freedom to make mistakes and grow.
Roca’s main objective is to assist individuals in developing long-term plans for their lives. However, helping young men and women overcome crises can be an incredibly challenging and never-ending task. One morning in May, West and Harvell went to Southwest Baltimore to pick up Tyron, a participant who has been with the program since its inception. The topic of discussion that day revolved around how Tyron’s housemates disrespected him.
Tyron, who was arrested for armed robbery at the age of 16 and subsequently referred to Roca by Baltimore’s Department of Human Services, is now 20 and is actively seeking a way out of Baltimore. He compares his situation to a plant that cannot grow if it remains in the same pot. This analogy offers insight into Tyron’s intelligence and his ability to express himself. During the drive to the grocery store, Tyron engaged in a backseat debate with Harvell, resembling a lawyer arguing his case.
Tyron’s upbringing was marked by foster care, with his biological parents intermittently present in his life, causing him to feel abandoned. This feeling of inadequacy was the driving force behind his conversation with Harvell. Although the conflict may appear insignificant to others, it holds great significance for Tyron and many others in similar situations. When faced with tension, people often respond by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Palermo, another member of the Roca team, mentions that their participants typically choose to fight because it offers them a sense of comfort.
To address the situation, Harvell retrieved a deck of laminated cards from the center console of the minivan. These cards listed various components of cognitive behavioral therapy. He specifically focused on the "think, do, feel" card, suggesting that his method of communication may not be effective with Tyron’s housemates. However, Tyron was resistant to this suggestion. Despite this, Harvell patiently allowed Tyron to express his frustrations. Eventually, Harvell subtly implemented cognitive behavioral therapy without Tyron even noticing.
West, who initially established contact with Tyron, reflected on their journey. He noted that Tyron was initially challenging to work with, but over the years, through consistent sessions like this one, he has gradually embraced Harvell’s approach. According to West, Tyron was barely literate four years ago, but now he is an avid reader and has developed a somewhat know-it-all attitude.
After leaving the grocery store, Harvell and West took Tyron to a Peruvian restaurant located in the Latinx community on Eastern Avenue. Tyron appeared more relaxed and interacted with the restaurant’s cooks, displaying his curiosity about a dish he had never encountered before – tripe, which is beef stomach. Tyron expressed his willingness to try it. The trio sat down for lunch and engaged in a debate about their top five favorite rappers, including whether or not to include Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac. When someone excluded Biggie, Tyron jokingly remarked, "And I was just about to say I like you."
During lunch, Tyron shared his plan for the future, something he had not always had. Harvell was actively working on getting him enrolled in a Job Corps program, which would help him complete it, expunge his record, and potentially join the Marines. Tyron expressed his desire to leave Baltimore behind but also mentioned the possibility of returning to volunteer with Roca during his breaks from military service. After lunch, Harvell drove Tyron back to his house across town.
Miayan’s earnings from selling drugs were not as substantial as some of the other individuals involved in the drug trade, according to West and Harvell, who interact with Roca participants. West pointed out a busy drug corner in West Baltimore where these men were making $7,500 a day. When West approached the corner, one young man concealed his handgun under his hoodie. Sometimes, they would warn West to stay away due to the prevalence of firearms. Although deeply entrenched in the drug economy, these young men were invested in protecting their ally.
Tyron and Miayan are a part of Baltimore’s street economy, but they do not represent the heart of it. In order to reduce violence in Baltimore, it is crucial for Roca to engage with those who are most deeply entrenched in the drug trade so that they can influence others to reject violence. If a corner captain, for instance, can be convinced that violence on their block undermines their own interests, they can pass on this message to their crew.
A drug corner that is profitable becomes a target for individuals who want to rob the dealers. As a result, many of the men on these corners are armed. They constantly face the risk of receiving lengthy prison sentences for their involvement in the drug trade or for carrying weapons to protect themselves from violence. Moreover, they are typically in their late teens or early 20s, the age group that experiences the highest rates of violence in Baltimore.
During the course of investigating this story, federal agents executed a search warrant on a participant in the Roca program. This was not the first time such an incident occurred.
Heartbreak and hope intertwine in the lives of individuals like Emmanuel Holly. Holly joined Roca in early February while on home monitoring for a previous criminal conviction. Anthony Scroggins, his youth intervention specialist, visited him and they started building a relationship by playing chess together. Due to his ankle monitor, Holly was confined to a limited area. However, shortly after turning 18 in late February, he successfully petitioned to have his monitor removed. His interactions with Scroggins became increasingly infrequent until April 18, when Holly was shot twice in the leg near the intersection of Mount and Fayette streets.
On May 17, Holly tragically passed away as a result of his gunshot wounds. He became the 119th homicide victim in the city in 2021.
For every individual like Emmanuel Holly, there is often someone like Miayan. On a sunny Friday afternoon in May, the Roca office was buzzing with activity, marking a return to normalcy after a year of pandemic-related restrictions. The staff, dressed in Roca T-shirts and hats, gathered around a table filled with food as Miayan, now 20 years old, received an award from a national organization for his efforts towards peacemaking.
Miayan has come a long way since his days of evading the police. He has been drug-free for a year and has been employed in housekeeping at Johns Hopkins Hospital for seven months. He even opened his first bank account and is saving up for a car. Miayan now thinks about his future in terms of years rather than days. He intends to complete his high school diploma and potentially obtain a commercial driver’s license. Some of his former crew members are currently facing federal indictments for drug charges, and this news reached him while he was in a coma.
During the award presentation, a video was shown that documented Miayan’s recovery journey. It captured moments of him taking his first steps after the incident and doing squats to regain strength in his leg. West could be seen in the video, watching over Miayan like a father figure. When Miayan stopped by the Roca office on his way to work a few weeks ago, he exchanged jokes with West and made sure he wouldn’t be late for his 3 p.m. shift.
This article was originally published on The Trace and is being shared in collaboration with the Solutions Journalism Exchange.