ORLANDO, Fla. — There were 27% fewer gun homicides and 31% fewer injury shootings between November 2022 and mid-August 2023, according to a year-over-year analysis of Orlando Police Department data by Spectrum News 13's Watchdog team.
The declining gun homicide and injury shooting rates coincide with the November launch of the city’s Community Violence Intervention program (CVI). Funded by $3 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, the CVI program aims to reduce gun violence, by mentoring and supporting the people most likely to either commit or fall victim to it.
It’s a model developed by Advance Peace, a California-based nonprofit that’s partnered with several other U.S. cities to successfully reduce gun violence, according to data analyzed by the nonprofit’s partner at the University of California - Berkeley.
Advance Peace cites research showing generally, a city's gun violence tends to be extremely concentrated, conducted by a very small group of specific people: often, only .1% of that city's population.
Several other U.S. cities, including Fresno and Stockton, Ca., saw reduced gun violence rates after implementing the Advance Peace model, according to the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform. Locally, CVI program leaders are optimistic about its progress so far in Orlando.
But Spectrum News 13’s new Watchdog investigation reveals several reasons why, so far, Orlando’s publicly-funded CVI program may be falling short of its true potential.
Building a trust that isn’t there
CVI Program Manager Raysean Brown says he was born and raised in Parramore, one of several neighborhoods identified by program leaders as a high-risk area for gun violence.
Today, the Jones High School graduate works with Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), the Nobel-nominated nonprofit running the city program’s street outreach component. The city signed a $650,000 contract with FRRC earlier this year.
Brown manages a team of six street outreach workers called Neighborhood Change Associates, or NCAs. NCAs select, mentor and advocate for program fellows: the people in a neighborhood most likely to either shoot a gun, or be shot by one.
“I always thought there was greatness inside of my community. I just always felt like we lacked resources,” Brown said. “With the provided resources, I always felt that people from the community could soar.”
People involved in urban gun violence often live in communities defined by decades of disinvestment and isolation from state institutions, social services and education that could help them succeed. They're also often struggling with trauma, says Live Free USA’s Antonio Cediel, who helps communities like Orlando launch gun violence reduction programs.
"In most cases, these are guys currently untouched by any government or community-based organizations: not going to school, not holding a job. You must engage them very directly," Cediel said.
NCAs are uniquely poised to help bridge the gap, Cediel and Brown say, because they’re highly respected people hailing from the same high-risk neighborhoods where fellows live.
“This population that we’re going after … they’ve been lost in the system, and they're at a point where they feel like nobody cares: ‘the only person that’s got my back is me,’” Brown said, describing the typical CVI program fellow.
The NCA’s challenge, then, is to help the fellow understand that isn’t the case: that they aren’t alone, no matter how abandoned they might feel, or what past mistakes they might have made.
“I’m in the community with you, I heard about you, and I'm trying to save your life before it’s too late. That’s literally it,” Brown said, describing the NCA-fellow dynamic. “We have to build a trust that is not there.”
Delays and discrepancies
Trust, Brown says, is absolutely fundamental to the CVI program — and it’s why Spectrum News could not meet with either a program fellow or an NCA.
“For the sake of the integrity of the program, we try to keep their personal information out of the spotlight as much as we can,” Brown said. “That trust is only built if it’s authentic work."
Orlando police also don’t know the NCAs’ identities, Brown says, despite the CVI program technically being a collaboration with the law enforcement agency. The Orlando Police Department shares gun violence data with the program on an ongoing basis to help track progress, but program leaders say that’s the extent of the partnership.
“Remember, we’re going after the guys most likely to shoot or to be shot,” Brown said. “The worst thing we could do to ruin the credibility of this program is to say we’re in alliance, or doing work with the police.”
Orlando's Children, Youth and Families Division Manager Abraham Morris says CVI staff and police work "separately, with each other."
"I think the best analogy is, we work parallel," Morris said. "I think the goal is the same, right: to keep our community safe."
Although NCAs often have criminal backgrounds, Brown says they must be fully reformed to qualify for the job: “You have to be rehabilitated … You can’t have an open case and be working with fellows."
Since the CVI program’s November launch through July of this year, city records show NCAs mediated 172 conflicts: situations that could have potentially resulted in gun violence, but did not.
But per its own benchmarks, Orlando’s CVI program was supposed to launch several months earlier than it actually did, according to a review of quarterly progress reports provided by the city.
Brown wasn't hired as program manager until mid-September, nearly five months after the April 30 timeline outlined in progress reports. And since part of his job is selecting the NCAs — an extensive process — Brown's late start also stalled their recruitment and hiring by several months.
When asked about the hiring delays, FRRC Executive Director Desmond Meade said the “timelines” outlined in progress reports were only suggested timelines, not firm deadlines.
“If you rush a program, and it’s not successful, then that program may not get a second chance, or a second bite of the apple,” Meade said. “My approach is, I’m going to take as long as it needs to take to make sure that we get the best-qualified person, period.”
Additionally, nearly a year after launching, the CVI program doesn’t have a physical operating location in any of the neighborhoods it currently serves: something FRRC staff have repeatedly identified as a project need, in five quarterly progress reports submitted to the city. The city offered FRRC a building in need of "extensive repairs," according to those reports.
"We are waiting on the city to make the location ready for 'move in,'" FRRC staff wrote in the five reports.
But when questioned about the status of that building, Public Information Officer Ashley Papagni wrote in an email that “there is no requirement in our contract with FRRC that we provide space for them to operate.”
Although city staff surveyed other potential locations for FRRC to use, including a building adjacent to the Grand Avenue Neighborhood Center, “at this time, the city does not have current plans for renovations for this building,” Papagni wrote.
Although a building won’t make or break the CVI program, Meade says, having one would certainly be helpful.
“It’s a base of operations and a safe place, where we can meet with some of the candidates and folks that we’re mentoring," Meade said.
Another major challenge is attempting to mitigate gun violence across multiple jurisdictions, program leaders say, when the CVI program currently only operates within the city limits — not within unincorporated Orange County.
“When it comes to these shootings, gun violence is not exclusively confined to a block or to a zip code,” Meade said. “How do we get the county to understand the urgency of implementing a program like this, the same way the city has?”
Although the Prevention Subcommittee of Orange County’s Citizens Safety Task Force recommended implementing a CVI program similar to Orlando’s earlier this year, an Orange County spokesperson confirmed there’s been no action on that yet.
“It is too early to announce the implementation of any prevention or intervention programs including CVI,” Senior Public Information Officer Kelly Finkelstein wrote in an email, adding that county staff are currently reviewing and developing plans based on the task force’s report, which commissioners approved Aug. 22.
'A race against time'
One critical criteria for a potential NCA is their ability to gauge neighborhood temperatures. They stay aware of when tensions might rise and try to talk down potential perpetrators of gun violence, especially in rival situations.
“What we’ve seen across the board when it comes to gun violence, particularly in certain neighborhoods, is that it’s reciprocal,” Morris said. “If you’re able to intervene, and stop retaliatory gun violence, you can drastically reduce gun violence across the board.”
Although the Advance Peace model boasts largely positive results in other U.S. cities, not all fellows in every program make it out alive, according to evaluation reports published on the group’s website.
Two written progress reports prepared by Advance Peace staff state several fellows in Orlando’s CVI program were killed this year — but the city and FRRC denied that claim, with Meade attributing it to a “glitch.” Brown said it was a technical error, caused by NCAs accidentally deleting fellows from the mobile application used to document program activity.
The author of those Advance Peace reports declined to comment on the record.
Meanwhile, between November and July, NCAs made 62 referrals for fellows to receive supportive services, including life coaching, vocational training, and mental health counseling. Some of those resources come directly from other CVI program partners contracted by the city: including the Stono Institute for Freedom, Justice and Security, hired for $200,000 to help fellows learn about and navigate the legal system.
To identify which resources would be most beneficial, NCAs work to create an individualized LifeMAP (Management Action Plan) for each fellow, built from information provided on their intake forms.
Brown showed Spectrum News 13 a sample intake form, which asks questions like whether fellows have ever been injured by a gun, or experienced homelessness.
“I think one of the most important questions is: ‘do you have at least one caring adult in your life, who you can talk to about difficult situations, who also seems to have your best interest in mind?’” Brown shared, reading from the sample intake form. “You’d be surprised how much that’s ‘no.’”
Program leaders say it’s because NCAs tend to intimately understand fellows’ struggles with things like poverty, gun violence and incarceration that they can build authentic connections with fellows — and hopefully, encourage them down a safer, healthier path forward.
“We don’t want people to fall through the cracks,” Morris said. “So we’re creating barriers within each crack, to catch them as they fall through, to hopefully prevent them from hitting rock bottom.”
It’s a mission to make Orlando safer, program leaders say, benefiting not just the fellows and their immediate neighbors, but the city as a whole.
"The police want safety and we want safety,” Brown said. “What I like to say is: it’s a race against time. Before these fellows get picked up by the police, can we turn them into contributing members of society?”