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What does a caring community do when one of its members is badly hurt?
A month ago, Albany and Schenectady experienced an epidemic of violence – a series of shootings and stabbings that sent three people (including an 11 year-old boy) to the hospital with serious injuries, and two others to the morgue.
Restorative justice trainer John Cutro stepped up (as he has so many other times) and made contact with victims and their families, asking them just one question: “What do you need?” Needless to say, it was impossible for John to address the multitude of survivors’ needs on his own, so he put out an urgent call for help.
Five members of Family and Friends of Homicide Victims (NYADP’s victim/survivor group) responded spontaneously and reached back to John with offers of assistance. They knew first-hand what it felt like to lose a loved one to mindless violence. They had experience dealing with funeral homes and government bureaucracy in the aftermath of homicide. Some also had useful professional or technical skills to offer.
I was deeply moved by the generosity and empathy behind this heartfelt outreach from victim to victim. It also got me thinking about the broader implications of the victim outreach that John was attempting to orchestrate. It sends at least three powerful messages: 1. The community cares about victims in their time of grief and shock; 2. Such violent acts are an unacceptable violation of community standards; and 3. We will not let violence rip apart our community by destroying our sense of connection to one another.
At the same time, it was clear that John’s heroic ad hoc efforts to provide aid and comfort to victims were somewhat disorganized. Volunteers had no formal training. People did the best they could given the urgency and built-in chaos of circumstances that had spun out of control. People who wanted to help were concerned that they might inadvertantly do harm. Obviously, a more organized approach is needed.
With this thought in mind, I reached out to Albany Assistant Police Chief Brendan Cox, who has been a leader in advancing community policing policies in the City and is also a member of the City’s Gun Violence Task Force Implementation Team, tasked (among other things) with forming a crisis team orgainized and trained to assist the victim, family, friends and the larger community to deal with traumatic stress in the aftermath of violence.
When I asked Chief Cox why the police department had offered to help with community-based victim outreach, he said: “The Criminal Justice Process only goes so far in providing justice. It cannot pick up the pieces left behind by violent actions. The majority of the communty’s needs fall outside the law enforcement function and are currently left void.”
I wondered how victim outreach fits into the model of community policing. According to Chief Cox, training community volunteers to assist victims and other community organizing activities will “help us build a holistic response in which we can all stand together with one voice in a stance against violence. None of us can overcome violence on our own, but if we as an entire communty bring together all of our expertise and resources we increase our chances of creating positive change in our communities to a power that I do not think we even yet understand.”
This is a vision we all can share.