Ahmed “Akadoo” Burks stood outside Cash Money Mini Market, a group of high school boys surrounding him.
Clad in a gray sweatshirt, black pants, white sneakers and a black backward-facing hat, Burks laughed as the teenagers, some taller than him, dogged on one another. With no gray in his beard and a youthful look about him – and his encouragement of the wisecracks – Burks could almost pass as one of the teens.
But as the man’s long dreadlocks swung across his back, a safety vest quickly became visible. Soon, Burks turned more serious as he shouted to the boys: “Get to where you need to go at.”
This scene could have played out at any corner store in Wilmington with any member of the city’s Downtown Visions crew. But it was happening in New Jersey, where Burks is employed with the Newark Community Street Team – a community-based violence intervention organization that Wilmington is trying to learn from.
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About an hour-and-a-half earlier, just up the street from where Burks and the teens now stood, a man was shot during a fight with another man and a woman. It occurred less than two blocks from the high school the teens attended.
Burks and his colleagues from Safe Passage, a Street Team program that deploys outreach workers around schools in the city’s most dangerous areas, were told soon after the incident that the men were fighting over the woman.
Newark Police said only that the man was shot during “a simple assault involving a woman he knows.” The other man involved sustained a “non-life-threatening laceration,” police said.
Though the shooting wasn’t a botched robbery or a gang fight over turf, Safe Passage workers couldn’t be too careful this May afternoon. They wanted the students out of the area.
“Most days they’d probably be here for a while and we’d let them stay,” Burks said as he continued to usher the teens from the corner of 12th and Littleton avenues.
“But if we know something’s going on in the area, they got to move immediately because a retaliation could happen. They need to get away from what transpired up there and get home.”
Safe Passage is just one of the many programs offered by the Street Team, but arguably the most visible. It’s also an initiative Wilmington could readily use, as the number of kids being shot in the city continues to rise.
Earlier this year, Delaware’s largest city began working with the Community Based Public Safety Collective – the Street Team’s parent organization – in the hopes of tackling Wilmington’s gun violence. In 2021, 39 people were killed by gunfire in the city, making it Wilmington’s deadliest year on record.
For two days in April, representatives from the Collective and key members of the Street Team met with Wilmington violence intervention groups, city and state officials, police, hospitals and community members to assess the city’s issues.
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In a report that’s expected to be made public in coming weeks, the Collective will present its findings while also making suggestions for how Wilmington can implement community-based public safety initiatives.
The goal is to support and expand the already-established violence intervention organizations, form a hospital-based violence intervention program and create a public safety round table.
While it remains to be seen whether the Collective will suggest that Wilmington adopt a Safe Passage program, the initiative – which largely targets Newark’s youth – is needed now more than ever.
“We continue to see a lot of youth violence here so we absolutely need a program like this,” said Wilmington City Councilman Chris Johnson, who traveled to Newark last fall with other Wilmington elected officials to shadow the Street Team.
“I think it’s a good program and honestly, we need anything that can help engage with youth and help cure this violence.”
About an hour-and-a-half after Burks and his team gathered around the West Ward high school, a different group of Safe Passage outreach workers stood about two miles away across from Peshine Avenue Elementary School, where students range from Pre-K to 8th grade.
As the men and women waited for school release to begin – the younger kids are let out first, then the older ones – a member of the Street Team’s High Risk Intervention Team sauntered up, greeting his colleagues.
High Risk interventionists respond both proactively and reactively to violence in the community. Following an incident, the team connects the victims and perpetrators with counseling, crisis intervention assessments and mediation “in order to restore peace and avoid arrest and incarceration.”
A day earlier, a student had approached Sameerah Johnson, a Safe Passage worker assigned to Peshine Avenue, about a “little incident going on” between several 8th graders at the school and non-students.
He had told her the beef was likely going to spill over into school release the next day and to “be careful, one of the young men may have a weapon.” This called for a few extra eyes on the area and an interventionist.
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Most days, the Safe Passage team’s job is to form relationships with kids in the targeted schools and keep an eye out for potential conflicts between students and others. Some days, like this afternoon, their job has a little more direction.
But their role extends far beyond just this.
By engaging with the students – the outreach workers rotate corners every 15 minutes or so to interact with new students and get fresh eyes on the area – Safe Passage members become important staples in the kids’ lives and the community.
This, Street Team Executive Director Daamin Durden said, gives the students someone “to lean on for help and assistance.” Some of the kids, he said, have few or no people in their lives who offer that.
The relationship between Safe Passage workers and the students also yields important information that is likely playing a role in reducing Newark’s violence. Since the Street Team was formed in late 2014, fatal shootings have decreased by nearly 50%, dropping from 104 in 2015 – when the initiative officially launched – to 51 in 2020.
A UCLA Social Justice Research Partnership study that examined the program between 2017 and 2020 found that “while there is still work to do, the Newark Community Street Team has effectively decreased crime while increasing community trust as well as public safety.”
Safe Passage can’t solely take credit for this reduction, given it’s only one of the Street Team’s half-dozen programs. But the outreach workers, through their relationships with students, the kids’ parents and others in the area they interact with, learn about and can intervene in conflicts that could escalate into violence if not addressed.
On this Wednesday afternoon, the Safe Passage team gathered across the street from Peshine Avenue school, watching as the younger students cleared out. Then, Johnson spotted one of the young men she had been warned about a day earlier.
“Rafiqhey right here,” she said to her supervisor, nodding her head toward a teen who loitered near a chain-link fence. He appeared to be waiting for the older students to be let out.
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Quickly, the High Risk interventionist and another Safe Passage outreach worker crossed the street, placing themselves in the path of the teen and the school’s teal double doors. Despite never saying a word to the young man, he soon left – just moments before the 8th graders exited the building.
“When you got that bond with these kids, they will tell you, ‘Be careful y’all’ or that they might be planning a fight,” Johnson said. “Then we can try to stop whatever’s going on or try to talk them out of it – and we’re gonna be here as long as they here.”
Wilmington has struggled with high rates of youth violence for years, and the problem doesn’t appear to be getting better.
On Monday, two teens ages 16 and 17 and an 8-year-old were shot in Wilmington’s Hedgeville neighborhood. Two weeks before that, a 14-year-old was shot in Canby Park. And of the 54 people shot in Wilmington so far this month, 12, or about 22%, have been under 18.
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While not all of Wilmington’s gun violence is driven by youth, prosecutors have long said that much of the violence committed by younger people in the city stems from bands of friends passing insults against rivals online and committing violence offline. This has caused years of feuds that have left dozens dead.
Some of Wilmington’s worst violence began in early 2015, when two gangs – Only My Brothers and Shoot to Kill – began clashing violently.
In January of that year, 16-year-old Jordan Ellerbe was fatally shot while listening to music with friends on a front porch in the city’s Hilltop neighborhood. The same home was targeted again two days later, leaving three injured.
The war escalated for more than a year before reaching another pivotal moment: the May 2016 killing of 15-year-old Brandon Wingo as he walked home from school. That sparked further retaliations.
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A Delaware Online/The News Journal analysis of court records, social media and the newspaper’s internal database found that ⅓ of the shooting victims under age 21 during the first seven months of 2016 had links to the rivalry.
While law enforcement have more or less dismantled these two gangs, those who work to curb Wilmington’s gun violence say the violence is still spilling over from Wingo’s murder. The siblings of the victims and perpetrators who were too young to act in the mid-2010s are now involved, they say.
And though OMB and STK may no longer be in existence, new gangs such as NorthPak – one group prosecutors say is responsible for a number of the city’s killings in the last several years – continue to form.
As evidenced by the September 2020 killings of 17-year-old Olleir Henry and 19-year-old Taquan “Tink” Davis, NorthPak’s members operate similarly to the gangs that came before them by targeting friend groups.
On Sept. 8, Henry was fatally shot on the city’s East Side. Six days later – and five hours after his funeral – Davis was killed in Wilmington’s Hedgeville neighborhood. The two were close friends.
In a June 2021 indictment, prosecutors charged accused members of NorthPak with Henry and Davis’ deaths. They remain in prison awaiting trial.
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There is no one solution to curb Wilmington’s youth violence. But with a team like Safe Passage in Wilmington, students – like the teen shot on his way to school in October – could be better protected.
And perhaps Wingo, a Howard High School of Technology student who was shot in the head as he walked from school along Clifford Brown Walk on a sunny May afternoon, might still be alive.
Back on Newark’s West Side, outreach workers with the Street Team’s Hospital Violence Intervention Program prepared to speak with the man who had been shot earlier in the day. He’d been rushed to University Hospital – just a couple blocks from the high school – after the shooting.
Embedded in the hospital’s trauma center, the outreach workers connect victims and their families to the Street Team’s support services, which include counseling, legal support and health care services, among others. The workers also often bring in the High Risk Intervention Team to try to prevent retaliation.
On this day, members of the hospital team were trying to learn more about what had transpired on South 7th Street. At this point, they only knew what their Safe Passage colleagues had told them – which wasn’t much.
Within moments of the Safe Passage team arriving at 12th and Littleton avenues that morning, “a brother told us somebody got shot down there over a girl,” said D’Renna Johnson, a program supervisor.
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While Safe Passage and other Street Team members do listen to police scanners to learn about incidents, Johnson said community members “will come to us because they see us out in the field.”
This means that not only does the Street Team get information quickly – which allows them to begin their various violence mitigation efforts – they often get details that victims won’t tell police.
Armed with this information, the High Risk interventionists have a better chance of preventing retaliatory violence in the short term. In the long term, by connecting victims and others affected by violence with services, the Street Team helps community members deal with trauma in a healthier way.
Like a well-oiled machine, the Street Team’s half-dozen programs work together seamlessly. And though the organization is still growing and evolving, it’s making a difference in people’s lives.
“I honestly believe if I wasn’t introduced to them for services, I wouldn’t be here,” said Johnson, who has worked with the Street Team since 2019 and was recently promoted to Safe Passage supervisor.
Prior to joining the Street Team as an employee, Johnson was referred to the organization by several acquaintances. She was struggling, and they told her the Street Team had “all these amazing victims services.”
A Newark native, like most of the Street Team’s members, Johnson had been walking back from a corner store with her uncle, blocks from Peshine Avenue Elementary School, when a car “rolled through the block shooting.” It was just before midnight in early August 2018.
The two were “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Johnson said. Her uncle pushed her out of the way of the bullets and “gave his life for mine.”
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At the time, the Street Team didn’t have the Trauma Recovery Center it does now. The center serves victims of violent crime, including survivors of physical and sexual assault, gunshot and stabbing victims, and victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.
Still, Johnson was able to access free counseling, which helped her “work on my own personal traumas.” So impressed with the Street Team’s work and the help she received, she decided to apply for a job.
“You have to be trauma-informed to do this work,” Johnson said. “And these kids think we do it to help them and help the violence, not knowing what they’re also doing for us.”
Though the Street Team is an impressive model for violence reduction, with cities and states across the country now trying to implement its principles, its successes didn’t happen overnight.
Durden, the executive director, said it took open communication between the Street Team’s outreach workers and local police to get both community and law enforcement buy-in. And that wasn’t easy.
The information outreach workers get from victims, their families and other community members – such as what Safe Passage workers were told about the Wednesday morning shooting – isn’t passed along to police. Durden and others said that would detract from the outreach workers’ credibility in the community.
At first, police found this problematic, Durden said. But slowly, through a number of trainings, police and Street Team members began to understand one another better.
“We began to understand their protocols and then we would teach them our protocols,” Durden said, adding outreach workers also attended police role calls to connect with individual officers. “There was mutual respect.”
But even this took time. And though Newark police leaders and the city’s administration supported the program, Durden said beat officers were more skeptical, in part because they were face-to-face with individuals they may have once arrested.
“Those patrolmen were like, ‘What are you doing out here? I locked you up 10 years ago,’” Durden said. “Now this person has changed their life around.”
While these challenges remain, especially when it comes to newer officers on the force, it’s easy to see the changed relationship the Street Team’s members have with police.
Outside a home near the West Ward high school, Durden casually walked up to a patrol vehicle that was parked on the street with its lights flashing near an ambulance and another police car.
As he leaned into the officer’s passenger side window, Durden inquired about what was going on. Was there an incident at the home that the Street Team needed to know about and get involved in?
No, the officer told Durden, explaining why first responders were there. Satisfied with the cop’s answer, Durden walked away.
This kind of police-citizen interaction isn’t unheard of in Wilmington, but it’s also not a frequent occurrence.
City Councilwoman Zanthia Oliver, who was among the group of officials who visited Newark last fall to see the Street Team in action, said Wilmington police will have “to make some adjustments” if the city adopts a program similar to the Street Team. But she expressed confidence that changes could be made.
“The mayor is committed to putting money into violence prevention and he’s looking forward to a change,” she said. “I do believe it’s going to change, that this is not just lip service.”
What those changes might be, however, remain unclear as neither Wilmington Police Chief Robert Tracy nor anyone else from the police department was made available for comment for this story.
Mayor Mike Purzycki would not speculate on how the city’s police department would handle being more transparent about its operations and procedures with outreach workers if a model similar to Newark’s was created in Delaware’s largest city.
“I think (Newark’s) model is very different from what we do,” Purzycki said. “They have a much larger social services footprint than we have in the city, so their approach is we have to work together with the police department.”
Still, he added that the city is “very impressed with them and like them very much.”
“Is that to say we’re going to do everything that Newark has?” Purzycki said. “I don’t think that’s possible.”
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Wilmington and Delaware, in general, have been reluctant to bring transparency to police officers and law enforcement operations.
Proposals to reform Delaware Law Enforcement’s Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) have been staunchly opposed by police organizations and unions and other law enforcement advocates.
LEOBOR keeps secret police disciplinary actions in Delaware. These records cannot even be accessed by criminal defense attorneys. The only non-law enforcement groups that have access to police misconduct records are attorneys representing people suing officers for causing physical injury or damages.
In Wilmington, a slew of current and former city police officers recently have been accused of excessive force and hateful and discriminatory language or actions, all of which would be unknown without social media attention, lawsuits, or anonymous whistleblowers. Department and city leadership have avoided speaking out against or even publicly discussing these matters, fueling a deeper divide between police officers and the Wilmington community.
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In some instances, city leaders have admonished those who call attention to questionable behavior and practices within law enforcement. Purzycki blasted City Council President Ernest “Trippi” Congo earlier this year after the elected official called attention to a “whitest Black guy” trophy displayed on a desk in the Wilmington Police Department.
In January this year, City Council narrowly approved a vote of “no confidence” in the Wilmington police chief, citing concerns over no defined plan to increase diversity in the department, a hostile work environment, a lack of communication with the public and the continued stalled progress in launching a Citizens Complaint Review Board.
Although the department issues weekly reports on crime and quarterly reports on diversity in the department, it has been less willing to have Tracy address reporters’ questions. Wilmington residents and councilmembers both remarked on his absence following major police incidents in the city.
While Newark is not immune from these same issues, the communication between Street Team outreach workers and police plays a role in violence reduction, Durden said.
Oliver, the Wilmington councilwoman, said she was impressed by this – and that it’s something Wilmington lacks.
“We don’t communicate with the police like that,” she said. “If we want to help cure this violence epidemic, we are going to have to come together. No more about this person or that person, it’s about everybody.”
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Ahmed “Akadoo” Burks stood outside Cash Money Mini Market, a group of high school boys surrounding him.