Gangsters Schooling Grad Students - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Gangsters Schooling Grad Students

Gangsters Schooling Grad Students

By Melissa Pandika

Outreach program at "Cure Violence".
SourceEd Kashi/Used with permission from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


Because bridging the community and the academy might be the key to stopping violence.

By Melissa Pandika

The tension is palpable on the first day of the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (PCITI), a violence prevention certification program in Los Angeles. Students are scanned with a metal detector as they file into the classroom. Many are former rival gang members, still sporting tattoos and baggy pants, gold chains dripping from their muscular necks. Scattered among them, doctorate (PsyD) students from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology look anxious. A student and instructor are shouting at each other in the hall.

Wearing aviators and a black jacket with “PCITI” on the back, PCITI executive director Aquil Basheer steps outside to investigate. Soon afterward, the pop, pop, pop of gunshots fills the halls.

You’ve got to go through something to get something.

The classroom explodes into panic. Some students bolt under their desks, while others bound for the door. One Chicago School student bursts into tears. Basheer returns and shouts over the commotion — explaining that he’d a fired a blank gun, like the ones used in movies.

“Look at how fast things can go bad,” he says. “You know how you’re lackadaisical in the morning? That will get you killed. You better wake up fast. Never be the prey. Know when you’re being preyed on.”

Basheer will tell students in advance the next time he gives them a role-playing scenario — though that won’t make it any less intense. But turning up the heat in this tiny room might be what decreases violence in underprivileged neighborhoods like South L.A., which saw a 9% rise in homicides last year, compared with 12% citywide.

The ”4Ws + H”: what the situation iswhere it is, why they’re getting involved, when it might turn ugly, and how they should respond.

Basheer, a onetime gang member, founded PCITI in 2002 to professionalize violence intervention. The former fire inspector wrote PCITI’s “Manual of Operation,” a series of standard operating procedures for situations ranging from domestic disputes to rival gang retaliations, based on the protocols used by fire departments and law enforcement. 

Psychologists and other academics have launched plenty of their own violence prevention programs. But many end in failure. People often won’t speak to academics, distrustful of their history of conducting research in underserved neighborhoods then hightailing it back to their institutions, offering little benefit to residents. “The community is not going to listen to you because you have a degree,” Basheer says. “They’re going to listen to people who understand how they operate and have been there themselves.”

Rather than descending on underprivileged neighborhoods to address violence as they see fit, the PsyD students get a firsthand education. Former gang members teach them intervention skills ranging from rumor control to safe restraint techniques, which they practice in real-life scenarios, including protests and crime scenes. A rigorous interview process weeds out prospective trainees who aren’t serious about PCITI’s mission, whittling down to a group of about 40. “We screen which individuals we feel are ready,” says PCITI instructor Tommie “T-Top” Rivers. 

Aquil Basheer leads a PCITI training

Aquil Basheer leads a PCITI training

Trainees learn to ask themselves “4Ws + H”: what and where is the situation, why they’re getting involved, when the situation might turn ugly (upon arrival or in the middle of a conversation, for example) and how they should respond. And they intervene only when they can answer three out of five of those questions.

Debra Warner, an associate professor of forensic psychology at the Chicago School, foresees similar community-academy collaborations emerging in the coming years. But she notes that the effectiveness of the four-year-old PCITI-Chicago School partnership remains to be seen. “The data is in progress,” she says. “I expect it to be available in one or two years.”

You need to know if you have a holier-than-thou look in a place where people are hopeless.

Basheer handpicks instructors who have a “license to operate” in their communities. For many of them, gang intervention is a way to atone for their past actions. Some reached a turning point when they had kids of their own, like Rivers, whose son was born while he was serving a 10-year prison sentence. Community members listen to and respect instructors like Rivers. “You need to have people who have a voice in that community,” he says. “You can’t just go in acting like you know what you’re talking about…. You’ve got to go through something to get something.”

PCITI partnered with the Chicago School in 2010, allowing psychology students to enroll in the program for academic credit. Many sign up to become more empathetic therapists, even if they don’t make violence prevention a career. “If you see a different walk of life, you’re going to respond differently,” Warner says. “For example, a client of mine may be stealing candy bars, and you think ’Why would you just steal a candy bar?’ But maybe if he steals a candy bar he gets to go back to jail because he gets three meals a day and a warm bed.”

Trainees learn practical skills like CPR and how to stage a candlelight vigil so as not to expose mourners to gunfire. They learn body-language awareness to avoid becoming targets themselves. “You need to know if you have a holier-than-thou look in a place where people are hopeless,” Deloney says. Face people at an indirect, 45-degree angle, stand at eye level and give them at least three feet of space. Speak slowly and let the other person pose questions, rather than recommending a course of action.

Community members at a

Community members at a Cure Violence program

The PCITI instructors take trainees on “roll-outs” to apply their classroom skills on the streets. Every Friday, instructors take them on tours through violence “hotspots.” They help respond to shootings, developing and implementing an action plan, including calling law enforcement and calming down bystanders.

Programs that integrate academia and community-based violence intervention have grown in popularity. Take Chicago-based Cure Violence, which treats violence as a disease, applying epidemiological methods to prevent its transmission. Community members with street cred predict and prevent violent situations, while outreach workers help “transmitters” adopt peaceful behaviors. Cure Violence also stages public education campaigns, events and community responses to shootings to make violence more widely unacceptable. After Cure Violence implemented its methods in West Garfield, Chicago, the area saw a 67 percent decline in shootings. Other neighborhoods that have used Cure Violence’s strategies have also seen dramatic results.

Epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who founded Cure Violence in 2002, says that PCITI is “extremely similar. … They’re using a health-based model without describing it. They’re interrupting spread and promoting behavior changes. I think it’s wonderful.” 

Deloney says that the key to stopping violence is humility — a skill that many academics have yet to learn. “We call it grandstanding for no one. ‘I have all the answers in my book.’ If you show up without your book and a little communication and integrity … you can actually help somebody.”

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