A driver of a white hatchback rolled down the window and stuck his head out into the hot August air.
“Another shooting?” he asked, nonchalant, as if he had just requested the score of a youth baseball game or inquired about the likelihood of rain.
Yellow tape was strung between a stop sign and a fence, and stretched across the street blocking traffic to the remainder of Versailles Avenue in McKeesport. Behind the tape, a detective peered through the window of a silver slightly-rusted SUV. The upholstery of the front passenger’s seat was stained a deep red.
When the driver pulled away, Keith Murphy turned around. His hat was pulled low over graying dreadlocks, and his eyeglasses tinted to adjust to the bright sun. “That’s perception right there,” he said with a soft, exasperated chuckle. “He said it so casually. And that’s what we’re faced against.
“How do we change the narrative and perception in McKeesport?” Murphy continued. “It can’t be ‘another shooting.’”
The scene was less than half a block away from the Healthy Village Learning Institute. In its basement, among a vast collection of African artwork and cultural artifacts, a fledgling program to prevent violence in the Mon Valley city of 19,000 had recently taken form.
Helmed by Richard Garland, director of the Violence Prevention Initiative at Pitt’s Center for Health Equity, the new initiative seeks to address the violence in McKeesport by treating it as a disease – one that can be transmitted among a community and, with tireless effort and the right individuals involved, perhaps interrupted. Among the freshly minted crew of “interrupters” is Murphy, who operates the Healthy Village as a “place of hope, health and healing,” and supervises the team’s day-to-day operations.
A small crowd gathered on the sidewalk across from the vehicle. Some had been alerted by the gunshots. Shooting in McKeesport occurs “damn near daily,” as one bystander put it. “It’s horrible,” she said.
The man in the car had been shot in the head, supposedly after a pot deal went south. Had he died, it would’ve been the second homicide in McKeesport this year. Police arrested a 20-year-old suspect the next day on charges of attempted murder.
A gaggle of news cameras converged at the very edge of the yellow tape, their lenses trained on the detective poking about in the car. “They only come out here when this stuff happens,” said Murphy. “Our job is to make sure they don’t come out here chasing blood.”
Violence as a disease
“We’re taking a public health approach to it,” Garland said of the violence in McKeesport.
A public health framework maintains that violence, like an infectious disease, touches people regardless of their involvement in criminal activity or association with those committing violent acts.
A 1979 report from the U.S. surgeon general was the first to label violent behavior as a significant risk to health. Four years later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established a branch to apply a public health lens to violence prevention, though it has been hobbled by the gun lobby and its allies in Congress.
The approach revolves around assessing data trends about who’s involved in shootings, where they occur and what motivates them. Prevention programs address the root causes of violence across a variety of sectors — law enforcement, health care, workforce development, social services and more.
Nationwide, street intervention programs have become a hallmark of the public health approach, with notable success in cities like Atlanta and Milwaukee. These programs hire and train community members to build trust with those likely to engage in violence, mediate conflicts before they reach a boiling point and connect individuals to social services and job opportunities.
Allegheny County has seen several violence interruption programs since the early 2000s. Garland created one of the first, the One Vision One Life program, which focused on curbing violence in several neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, including the Hill District, the North Side and the South Side. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Garland’s program incorporated tenets of the public health approach: The group trained individuals with deep personal ties to the community to intervene and prevent violence.
Now, Garland is bringing that approach to McKeesport, where a new generation of interrupters is taking aim at halting the spread of violence in their community.
Nearly three weeks before the shooting on Versailles, Garland leaned forward and looked around a table in the basement of the Healthy Village.
“The biggest thing for me, for each of you, is identity transformation,” he said to the three interrupers gathered. “Of who you used to be to what you are now. You feel me?” Several heads nodded in agreement. “That’s the reason why y’all been picked, right?”
It was mid-July, when the summer heat usually approaches its peak and when rates of violence typically do the same. The interrupters listened to Garland outline an approach that could help keep the people of McKeesport safe.
“Long story short, you’re going to be faced with a whole lot of different issues that’s going to make you feel uncomfortable,” Garland said. He posed a hypothetical: “Somebody came to you [and says], ‘Man, he took a key from me. I’mma kill him.’ What are you going to do?”
It takes a certain type of person to intervene in a situation like that. “The first thing that I’m looking for is who got the juice,” said Garland. “You need people from the community who know the community and have respect in the community.”
Garland was once a young gang member in Philadelphia. He got into drugs at 14 and would later spend 23 1/2 years in a state penitentiary, 32 months of it in solitary confinement. He earned a GED diploma in prison, and he got out in August 1991. He would go on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Pittsburgh, and has since devoted his career to preventing violence in local communities. From 1994 to 1996, he trained all 1,200 Pittsburgh Police officers on understanding youth gangs.
So when the McKeesport Violence Prevention [MVP] program was still on the drawing board, Garland asked McKeesport’s mayor and police chief to recruit individuals who had been known to city officials at one point in time for being involved in the streets and who had since reversed course. Garland was after “dudes just like me who had the juice,” people who had credibility in the streets because they had experienced many of the situations they’d be tasked with interrupting.
One of those dudes is Shyvaz Huggins, a 32-year-old McKeesport native and one of the five MVP interrupters. “I lost 10 to 15 people. Murdered,” he said, as he tried to recall the friends and relatives he’s lost over the years.
Along with the other interrupters, he’s familiar with the streets of McKeesport. “We know what it can do to you,” he said. “I’ve been there. And a lot of guys respect me.”
The interrupters prepare to enter situations on the edge of violence, “where somebody’s playing with pistols, these young boys might not respect some other folks in the community,” said Garland, but they do respect their own.
From that vantage point, he said, the interrupters — and their juice — become key.
“A lot of guys want to change. They just don’t want to be judged,” said Huggins. “So if they see me, a guy that was on the streets at a point in time, a guy that used to be on a corner at a point in time, change his life — I went back to school. I’m a welder. I drive a nice car. All legit.”
The team is working to spread similar transformations to the rest of their community.
Sometimes people get “relegated to the notion that if you’re Black, poor and live in the projects, you’ve got no hope,” Murphy said. “That’s not true,” he continued, and neither is the perception that the only thing going on in McKeesport is the drugs and alcohol and violence.
“We’re in it to change those community norms,” Garland said. “We talk about identity transformation. They’re changing their identities from being part of the problem in some ways and now becoming a part of this solution. So that’s really important when you look at it from a public health approach.”
“Without a past,” Huggins added, “there is no future.”
Early on in his 10-year tenure, Mayor Michael Cherepko noticed a pattern to the violence in McKeesport. The police used to be able to predict where retaliations would take place, and they knew roughly who was likely to be involved.
“It’s totally different now,” Cherepko said. “These incidents of violence that take place today, nine out of 10 of them are totally isolated, unrelated acts of violence.” It’s been like that the past four to five years, he added.
Four of the five homicides last year in McKeesport involved victims younger than 27.
The city used technology including ShotSpotter acoustic sensors and cameras capable of tracking cars at more than 20 key intersections. Police have increased the number of patrols. Their tools, though, largely address violent crime after it’s too late.
“You’re not going to prevent crime or violence through policing,” said the mayor. “Yeah, you have some deterrents put up with cameras and things like that. But at the end of the day, if someone wants to kill somebody, they’re going to kill somebody. … People think you can just police this crime of violence. And you just need much more than that.”
Cherepko is hoping the MVP program can begin to address the root causes of the violence in McKeesport, and he’s giving Garland and the team his full support and cooperation.
“A lot of people are threatened, they’re scared of the police,” said Angelique Menifee, a 30-year-old McKeesport native and one of two female interrupters on the team. “So if we’re able to step in and defuse the situation before the cops even have to get out their cars, touch a gun, a Taser or anything and de-escalate the situation, that’s what we want to do.”
The team of interrupters is steadfast in their conviction that cooperation with police will not be at the expense of the community’s trust. Murphy addressed them back in the basement of the Healthy Village. “Ain’t nobody on this roundtable sharing any information about names to nobody,” he said.
Garland was more emphatic: “We ain’t tellin‘,” he told them. “We ain’t tellin‘ no-f**kin‘-body!”
Never off the clock
Back on Versailles Avenue that Saturday afternoon, Murphy shouted across the street to a woman he knew lived nearby. “What’s the CNN report?” he asked her. She let out a laugh. When he does investigations after incidents like this, he usually approaches people in the streets with a smile.
When she got closer, the woman said she had seen a woman with the man who had been shot and that she had been carrying a baby who was covered in blood.
“This ain’t a job,” said Murphy, back at the Healthy Village. “This is work. … This ain’t like a 9 to 5, where as soon as the clock stops, you stop.”
“Every time you step out the door, you’re working,” said Menifee. “While you’re in the crib, you’re working. While you’re on social media, you’re working.”
The program receives funding to the tune of $60,000, indirectly via the RK Mellon Foundation. Eventually, Garland hopes to expand the program to other Mon Valley communities, like Clairton and Duquesne.
And he’s always fighting to pay the interrupters a living wage. Currently, they earn $20 an hour, and Garland said he is pursuing funding that would make that $40,000 annually, plus benefits.
“The money’s cool, don’t get it wrong, but the drive is from the heart,” said Huggins. “Being a positive influence and just making a change to where you grew up at — that’s the main thing, just making a change, being a part of something positive.”
Update: One of the photographs included in an earlier version of this story was removed at the request of a person who appeared in it.
Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at PublicSource and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter and Instagram @quinnglabicki.
Amelia Winger is PublicSource’s health reporter with a focus on mental health. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Terryaun Bell.
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