Guns Down 

Mayor-appointed team launches plan to combat youth gun violence.

Since 2006, overall violent crime in Memphis has decreased by 30 percent. But despite that drop, gun violence among youth remains high, especially in pockets of Frayser and South Memphis.

Those neighborhoods will be the target of a new plan to reduce gun crime involving people between the ages of 13 and 24.

Funded by a grant from the New York-based Bloomberg Philanthropies, the nine-member Memphis Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team spent the past five months developing strategies to reduce youth gun violence and boost the city's economic recovery.

The economic plan hasn't been released yet, but the first three initiatives in the youth violence strategy were announced last week. The goal of the plan is to reduce youth gun violence by 10 percent citywide and 20 percent in selected areas of Frayser and South Memphis by December 2014. The target areas were chosen because they tend to have the highest incidence of gun violence year after year.

With more than half of the city's homicides since 2006 committed by people ages 13 to 24, the mayor's team has their work cut out for them.

"We're going to have to first stop the numbers from climbing and then reduce the numbers overall," said Doug McGowan, director of the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team.

The first initiative, called the Mayor's Summer Challenge, will ask youth to sign an online pledge vowing to not carry a gun, to not use a gun to settle an argument, and to try to prevent their friends from carrying or using guns. Those messages will be incorporated into the city of Memphis Summer Camp's weekly curriculum.

"The Mayor's Summer Challenge will start the conversation, but programming over the next three years will reinforce the anti-gun message," said Peggie Russell, project manager for the Gun Violence Prevention project.

One of those programs and the second initiative to launch is the Retaliatory Violence Project, which will only target South Memphis. Memphis Police Community-Oriented Policing (COP) officers, who replaced the former CoACT unit officers, will be given additional training to spot conflicts and respond proactively before gun violence occurs.

"It's about understanding the right questions to ask, how to observe body language, and trying to prevent the conflict on the scene," Russell said.

The Retaliatory Violence Project, sponsored by Virginia's George Mason University, is also being tested in Lowell, Massachusetts. If the pilot is successful in South Memphis, Russell said, it may eventually be implemented across the city of Memphis.

Finally, the mayor will appoint a Youth Intervention Team to work with at-risk young people and their families. The team of five, including two outreach workers who will likely be former gang members, will help youth complete their education, find jobs and job training, and get substance abuse and mental health treatment.

"We want to get them at the turning point where they have to decide if they want to get away from this lifestyle or retaliate with gun violence," Russell said.

The pilot program, which is modeled on similar programs in Boston, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, will be tested in Frayser and South Memphis. If successful, it may be instituted citywide.

Work on the initiatives has already begun, but the Youth Intervention Team won't be fully staffed until August.

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