Amid rising gun violence in cities across the nation, an innovative violence prevention and diversion program in Seattle called Community Passageways is winning praise and attracting the attention of city leaders.
As gun violence spikes, communities mourn and law enforcement officials search for answers, while pundits argue over who is to blame.
Tough-on-crime politicians and status-quo DA’s are criticizing early parole programs and criminal justice reforms. Researchers, however, point to economic inequity, pandemic-induced social stress, easy access to firearms, and suspension of community resources.
Meanwhile, Community Passageways’ founder, Dominique Davis, is busy implementing solutions that work regardless of the reasons underlying crime and violence.
Davis is a former football and track coach who turned away from a potential career in professional sports to focus on helping youth.
Community Passageways’ vision is a future with zero youth incarceration; with more mentors, counselors, and circle keepers instead of more police, prosecutors, and judges.
This vision is important for young Black men given racial disparities in the criminal legal system. Only 10% of King County’s two million residents are Black, notes Community Passageways’ website, but they make up half of its jail population and more than half of the felonies prosecuted.
Community Passageways’ use of peer mentors with street credibility to teach conflict resolution, job and leadership skills, and help heal trauma has been endorsed by law enforcement.
“It’s our best strategy by far. Because they know who is having a beef with who, they can help to defuse and de-escalate situations,” said King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg in an article in The Crime Report.
His office analyzes social media to identify individuals considered likely to become victims or perpetrators of gun violence. These names are given to groups like Community Passageways who then intervene to prevent violence, which is often retaliation for previous acts of violence.
DeShaun Nabors, a peer mentor with Community Passageways, knows about cycles of violence. He lost four friends from his south Seattle neighborhood over the summer to shootings, said the article.
Nabors said the violence hurts, but drives him onward. “The more stuff happens, the more I get motivated, and I’m definitely not stopping anytime soon,” he said.
Nabors and Davis noted the pandemic has been difficult and given people more time for social media, where taunts and insults easily escalate into violence, most often between young men.
Davis said the loss of sports and structured in-person programs during the pandemic also negatively impacted youth. “All the sudden we had hundreds and hundreds of new young people jump — jump off the porch is what we call it — jump off the porch and into the street,” he said.
Despite the pandemic, Davis’ team has continued to provide programming. “We couldn’t shut down because the kids weren’t shutting down. They weren’t stopping what they were doing in the streets. They still needed some direction,” Davis said.
This included a virtual pregame visit with the Seattle Seahawks. According to the Seahawks’ website, participants interacted with the players in the tunnel leading to the field — to learn about performing at the highest level. Many of the youth are aspiring athletes.
The Community Passageways approach includes a court-sanctioned felony diversion program, support for incarcerated people, and reentry services. Their goal is to “replace the school-to-prison pipeline with a school-to-success pipeline.”
According to their website, most of the youth involved in the diversion program have spent no time in detention and received an average 80% sentence reduction. Drug diversion programs are common, but the Community Passageways version is notable because it includes non-drug offenses and violent felony charges.
Community Passageways works to heal past traumas and explore cultural history through its “healing circles.” Circle keepers facilitate these groups, which serve to strengthen supportive peer networks for the youth.
Given the success of the mentoring model, the City of Seattle announced plans to grant $2 million to the Regional Peacekeepers Collective, which includes Community Passageways.
Stephan Thomas, the former director of King County’s community justice initiatives and a supporter of Community Passageways, advocates a shift from diversion programs being the exception, to the rule instead. Incarceration should become the exception, he said, according to a report in the South Seattle Emerald.
Community Passageways embodies this sentiment. Davis emphasized the need to accelerate the wide-scale implementation of community-led solutions that prevent cycles of violence, incarceration, and recidivism.
“We can’t keep putting Band-Aids on bullet wounds,” Davis said