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Interrupting crime in East Port-of-Spain: Project Reason

Sunday, May 8, 2016
Violence interrupter Neal “Engine” Noel, left, and outreach supervisor, Dereck “Strongy” Samuel walk through HDC Apartment Buildings in East Port-of-Spain. PHOTO: MICHAEL RAMSINGH

With escalating crime levels in T&T, and the authorities at its wit’s end to bring the situation under control, a group calling itself Project Reason is hoping that its intervention can result in a decline in violent crimes and murders in East Port-of-Spain.

On April 18, in one of many instances of violence in the community, a man was doused with a flammable substance and his body set on fire at Minachy Alley, East Dry River, Port-of-Spain. This gruesome murder followed an argument between two men.  

Less than a week later, on April 23,  officers of the Port-of-Spain Criminal Investigation Department responded to reports of a commotion at Mango Alley in Laventille, and when they arrived at the scene they found a body burning at the side of the road.

Detectives are now working on the theory that setting bodies on fire is a new trend adopted by the gangsters. East Port-of-Spain is a well-known crime hotspot with violent crimes and gang violence on a regular basis, and solutions have seemingly eluded those in authority despite the implementation of several crime fighting initiatives.

The Ministry of National Security is hoping that Project Reason will succeed where other initiatives have failed.

The programme, launched in November 2015, was born out of the Citizens Security Protection programme, also an initiative of the Ministry of National Security. At the heart of the programme are reformed criminals and community activists who walked the road of crime, spent time in prison, and now hope to make a difference.

The local programme is mirrored from a similar programme in the United States called Cure Violence. 

The US-based programme operates under the principle that violence is a health issue which individuals and communities can help change, where strategic partnerships are keys to success, and rigorous scientific and professional ways of working are essential for effectiveness.

Marcus Mc Alister of Cure Violence, who was in T&T to train locals for Project Reason, said he was a former gang member and convict who spent ten years in a US Prison for crimes which he committed. He turned his life around after he saw the increase in crime and homicides in his hometown in Chicago, USA. 

Mc Alister has visited T&T three times in the last six months to assist in setting up Project Reason. He has been at Cure Violence for the last 11 years. He explained that Cure Violence and Project Reason “are similar but cultured differently.” 

Mc Alister said: “I can tell you the violence that I see in various parts across the world where this project is set up, it’s the same.”

How the programme works?
Marcus explained that the Cure Violence Health Model is a new cutting edge method to reduce violence. 

He said: “We train carefully selected members of the community, ‘trusted insiders’ to anticipate where violence may occur and intervene before it erupts. And we engage the entire community to change behaviour and recognise that violence is uncool and there are other solutions to conflict.”

He likened the initiative to dealing with someone with a drug addiction, “Just as we have now discovered that it is more effective and cost saving to treat drug addiction as a health issue than to punish it, it likewise makes more sense to prevent events, provide treatment for people at high risk, and change social norms.

“Like all potentially-harmful behaviours—drug addiction, smoking, eating too much, exercising too little, risky sexual behaviour and other behaviours, violent behaviour can be understood, diagnosed and treated through a health lens.”

Marcus said the role of his team was to evaluate the staff at Project Reason and to teach them skills such as conflict resolution and social work. He said he was pleased with the efforts to curb the violence in East Port-of-Spain, but that they have their work cut out for them.

To validate the work which they do, he said they have had reports done on the Cure Violence model by the Center for Disease Control Control and Johns Hopkins University, and the results point to a reduction of violent crimes between 43 per cent and 83 per cent in communities where the programme is run.

He said two communities in the US, Illinois and Rochester City had seen two years without a murder and in some areas there was no shootings or any criminal activities as a result of the work done by Cure Violence. Marcus said Project Reason has been able to get 20 individuals from various gangs in East Port-of-Spain to join the battle against criminal activity. 

The role of those identified is specifically to bring information to the residents in the community about criminal activity and also the more dangerous role of violence interrupters. They have also been able to create suitable employment and other opportunities for them.

In addition, Project Reason has rehabilitated at least 30 former gang members in the last six months and they now lead a crime-free life. But they admit that they have a long way to go. They are hoping to double the amount of people changing their lives. 

Hard to develop trust in the community
The Project Reason team allowed us to take part in one of their walks within East Port-of-Spain, led by their supervisor Derek “Strongy” Samuel. Samuel is from the Nelson Street community and is known by many as a community activist. He and the other members were dressed in jeans and the light blue Project Reason jersey with ID tags.

He said although he is from the area, “it was hard for us to develop the trust since our jersey was labelled Ministry of National Security. They thought we were informers but that soon changed as they realised that we are in no way affiliated with the police, but here to help and curb the violence.”

He said “our role is to talk to the youths, mentor them, help those who want to walk away from a life of gang activity and crime, we are that outlet, and they show more respect since some of us lived the same lives they are living.”

But it has not been an easy task. Samuel said the struggle was real. “When something happens, say in Picton, I have to make calls to see what happened and to try to stop any planned retaliation. Is all hours we are up. It takes the simplest things for a violent outburst to happen. That’s how we operate as the violence interrupters.”

As Samuel spoke at the Nelson Street Planning, many of the young men in the area shared their concerns. Many of them lamented that they feel ignored and complained about a lack of jobs. They did not want to be identified by name and refused to be photographed, but were quite vocal about their concerns. 

One young man said: “We need the stigmatisation to stop, I am a young man and I am not in crime but because of my address I am a victim, it’s hard to go out there the same way as well since you are killed by warring faction because of where you live.” 

The man in his early 20s, added: “I want to see more opportunities within the communities, this will curb the violence, but if nobody can leave the community then it will lead to the current outcome.”

Project Reason programme coordinator, Marlon Anatol told the GML Enterprise Desk the focus of Project Reason was to change the way the community thinks, it is also aimed at promoting peace with the ultimate goal of ending violence and murders.

Anatol said he has seen results. “When last have you heard a spate of killings in East Port-of-Spain? We are on the ground, we attempt to interrupt the violence. We are working to win the trust of the residents, we assure them we don’t work along with the police.” Anatol said they were doing work from Morvant to Belmont and it’s a task for his staff since it’s a limited amount of them.

He said they have been able to achieve significant success “because our people are from the community,” and they are targeting those who really want to change and make a difference.

Touched by Project Reason—Rasheed Seepaul
One person touched by Project Reason is Rasheed Seepaul, who spent seven years in prison for possession of a firearm with ammunition. Released three months ago, Seepaul admitted that “the violence is out of hand.” 

But he insisted that the situation was not the result of gang warfare. He said: “I am not aware of the Rasta and Muslim City gang rivalry but it makes things hard for anyone in the community.”

Project Reason has been working with Seepaul since his release and is looking for ways to keep him out of a life of crime.

He is happy for the hand which has reached out to him. “I have five children and I want them to live a comfortable life. When I was in prison I learnt music, I won the Prisoner’s Calypso Competition, and now I am out here and I want to take it further and have already start helping out at a panyard in the area,” he said.

Neal “Engine” Noel
Neal “Engine” Noel, 59, was incarcerated for 18 years for several offences ranging from kidnapping to possession of firearms and ammunition. He said “to change from a life of crime you need God, you have to make up your mind. After prison I realised the amount of wrong I did. It bothers me to know the amount of people I distressed and how traumatic it was for them.”

Noel admitted that when he came out of prison “bad people” encouraged him to continue his life of crime. “But the right people came in and helped me to stay away from crime,” he added.

Put on the right path, he said: “I started talking to the youths in the community to leave a life of crime and I am living testimony of that. While I was in jail I lost my mother and when I came out, within months, my father died. I lost most of my life, I was arrested at 32, so put yourself in my shoes.”

Before Project Reason, Noel worked with other community groups and even shared his story in schools. He said “it was hard to get a job, people victimise you. Although I am not paid at Project Reason, I am doing what I change my community and it will happen.”

It’s early days yet for people like Noel and Project Reason. But those in charge of Project Reason believe that the model will in fact make a positive difference in East Port-of-Spain. They monitor the programme and update statistics every six months to see whether it’s bringing the desired result, which is a reduction in crime. 

They hope that Project Reason can be initiated in other parts of the country which are similarly affected by violence and crime.


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