MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee leaders are joining forces and creating a united front to address new investments and commitments to stop gun violence in the city.
Milwaukee is doubling down on the Office of Violence Prevention’s 414 Life Program, which is made up of trained violence interrupters who are on-call 24/7. They respond to and try to stop potentially violent situations from escalating.
On Friday, we tagged along with a group of them. Every day they are out in neighborhoods disproportionately affected by violence, unemployment, food insecurity and COVID-19.
“We do community engagement, canvassing, go door to door, talk to as many people as we can,” said Stephen Hopkins, a trained violence interrupter. “We could get a call at three in the morning or three in the afternoon. We respond anytime, anywhere.”
“We help connect people and families to resources, and get them more engaged in the community,” said Muke Robinson, another trained violence interrupter. “It’s important to let them know somebody is actually there. A group of individuals who will stand strong with them in any circumstance.”
At a press conference Friday, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett acknowledged that after four years of declining gun violence in Milwaukee, 2020 was the city’s worst year ever, with 184 homicide victims. Unfortunately, 2021 is following the dangerous trend.
“I own the fact that we had a bad year last year, and I want to recommit,” Mayor Barrett said. “We got knocked off the horse, but we’re getting back on it stronger. We are going to do everything we can to make it safe for all residents of Milwaukee.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are struggling and isolated.
“It identified so many holes in our social support systems,” said Milwaukee Assistant Fire Chief Joshua Parish. “We saw a direct result of that lack of access in so many horrible, horrible ways.”
Reggie Moore, the Director of Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention, says it’s led to another pandemic of violence, that can be just as hard to get under control if we don’t do the necessary work.
“This is something we have to respond with the same level of urgency, commitment and focus as we have the COVID-19 pandemic,” Moore said. “It’s not acceptable, and should not be inevitable, that violence occurs in our city. There is no greater sense of accountability than having to look into the eyes of a family who has lost a loved one to gun violence."
While much of the focus over the past year has been on health care workers fighting COVID-19, there are also dozens of doctors and nurses that have been incredibly strained in treating the record number of gunshot victims.
“There has been a palpable burden felt by our trauma providers,” said Dr. David Milia, a trauma surgeon at Froedtert Hospital. “There’s no way to describe what it’s like to spend hours operating on somebody who’s been shot, 8, 10 or 15 times. When your scrubs are soaked in sweat, and you have to leave the operating room covered in your patient’s blood only to tell a group of loved ones that their child, parent or friend is dead or will no longer walk again.”
That’s why they are starting 2021 as a united front. From the streets, to city hall, to emergency rooms, they say the real work starts now.
“I’m hopeful for 2021,” Hopkins said. “We will be out here and are passionate about reaching more people, because we truly care, especially about the younger generations.”
“The smile we see on children’s faces after we connect with them is priceless,” Robinson said. “Knowing someone is watching over them, and that they have a role model, and are safe. But it really will take the whole village to make a change.”
The 414 Life Program is going to start doing some virtual programming with high-risk high schools. The group is also getting more resources to target more of the most affected neighborhoods and to partner with more organizations and churches.