SNUG tackles gun violence surge in Poughkeepsie

Courtesy of Debra Long

In recent months, headlines reporting skyrocketing gun violence in New York City have dominated major news outlets and drawn public concern. But across the state, other cities, including the City of Poughkeepsie, are reckoning with similar upward trends. 

By the end of last week, Poughkeepsie had already seen three shootings since the beginning of November. On the night of Nov. 1, a 20-year-old Poughkeepsie resident was found with several gunshot wounds inside of a vehicle. Just three days later, a 27-year-old was shot in an attack that police believe was carried out by multiple shooters. Last Monday, Nov. 9, a 17-year-old with multiple gunshot wounds was rushed to Vassar Brothers Medical Center where he underwent surgery. 

As the city battles this uptick in gun violence, Debra Long, Program Coordinator for Family Services SNUG, hopes to be a part of the solution. SNUG is one of many programs operated by Family Services, an organization that served 19,000 people last year within their program areas of Behavioral Health, Victim Services, Family Programs, Youth Services, Community Safety and Prevention. 

Long explained that SNUG (“guns” spelled backwards) is an organisation that focuses on reducing gun violence. “[SNUG] is an evidence based, street outreach program based on the Cure Violence model that was initiated in Chicago. This model treats gun violence like a disease by identifying its causes and interrupting its transmission” she said. The Cure Violence model teaches that individuals can stop the cycle of violence by curbing their own violent practices and using their influence to change how their community views aggression. The model seeks to heal the damage caused by violence, change negative behaviors and empower them to help others leave aggressive patterns behind. The Cure Violence model has a track record of success—in the United States, cities that have implemented the model have seen up to a 73 percent reduction in shootings and killings. In Baltimore, it had a larger effect in reducing non-fatal shootings than any law enforcement activity. 

SNUG focuses primarily on youth between the ages of 14 and 24. “We work together as a team to develop risk-reduction strategies to reduce involvement…with the goal of saving lives and helping individuals turn their lives around,” Long said. The program will work with the Empowerment Center, which develops programming for Poughkeepsie youth, to expand outreach efforts. Organizers with SNUG are training educators to look for the seeds of future gun violence and build positive relationships with high-risk individuals. Eventually, they hope to implement the initiative in Poughkeepsie High School (PHS) to identify those who may engage in violence, especially gun violence, in order to address the systemic issues that lead them to turn to these activities. “We’re going to let that school community know about violence, what it is, how it spreads,” she said, adding that SNUG is hoping to change attitudes about gun violence in everyday life.

Courtesy of Debra Long

Gun violence hits close to home at PHS. Just this past summer, a 16-year-old student, Frederick Wells, was shot and killed in an attack that also injured his friend. 

There are currently 12 similar programs throughout New York State, from Long Island to Buffalo. While these programs operate with relative independence, Poughkeepsie’s SNUG still meets frequently with other leaders to discuss broader trends and issues. Gun violence has increased throughout the state, where the rate of firearm homicides is 11 percent higher than the national average. Just in New York City, there was a 33 percent jump in murders and a 102 percent spike in shooting victims since last year. In the City of Poughkeepsie, Long said that there is now roughly one shooting every week. 

Despite these worrying trends, Long is still hopeful for the future. “I am hopeful because we’ve been able to really work on establishing positive relationships with those at risk,” she remarked. SNUG’s targeted approach emphasizes close contact with small pockets of the community that cause the  majority of violent crime in the City of Poughkeepsie. While Long’s team is still working to better identify these pockets, they are already identifying and building relationships with many of the high-risk youth in the community. Once these relationships are established, they can offer individuals many of the resources that Family Services, as a whole, can provide. 

Long credits her team at SNUG and is confident that, especially given their dedication to interacting closely with the community, they are seeing real results. Just over two weeks ago, SNUG responded to a call from a community member that alerted them to possible violence. They could hear gunshots as they arrived, but thanks to her team’s commitment, Long asserts that “I can honestly say that they interrupted possibly two homicides.” 

Hoping to act as an “interruptor,” SNUG does not work directly with the police and is not a law enforcement agency. Long sees this independence as an integral characteristic of the program. After all, one of the greatest aspects of this work is building positive relationships. She believes that “You’ll never be able to build a positive relationship with someone if you’re really connected with the police.” 

Instead of SNUG itself working with the police or engaging directly in governmental policy matters, members of the community, not program staff, mobilize to advocate for additional funding and resources. 

SNUG is always looking for community partners and individuals to come out and canvas. While COVID-19 concerns and the cold weather have made it more difficult to hold community canvassing days, Long is working to ensure the safety of community volunteers—she reiterated that safety comes first in every single aspect of their programming. Still, she insisted that “We open our doors to individuals to help us for an event, or anything of that nature. Students are always welcome.” 

At the end of the day, Long believes that the support and engagement of the community is going to be the biggest factor in reversing Poughkeepsie’s spike in gun violence. Referencing the African proverb saying “It takes a village to raise a child,” she explains that “It’s going to take a village to interrupt potentially violent conflict.”

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