On a crisp late-winter evening, in a meeting room at the South Sacramento Christian Center on Stockton Boulevard, a little over 30 people from different communities and backgrounds met up to review their action strategy for the night. Their plans; to walk the area around Mack Road and Center Parkway, engage with at-risk individuals within their own environment, and offer an alternative choice to those who may never thought twice about the options for their future.

Pastor Les Simmons, who spoke to this group and recounted his personal experiences from previous night’s walks, was surprisingly at-ease and enthusiastic to get out from beyond the buildings walls and onto the street. If you’re not aware of the reputation that Mack Road and Center Parkway has established for itself, take into account that a crime density map released by the Sacramento Police Department in 2010 identified the surrounding vicinity to be one of the most violent-crime prone spots in the entire city.

“In 2010, two groups were responsible for some 18 homicides and around in and around the Mack Road corridor,” Pastor Simmons shared with his attentive audience. “After our call-in’s, as it is today, there have been no homicides between those two groups in the target area.” (Unfortunately, just as this article was about to be published, news broke of a gun-related death in the area just north to where the night’s walk took place. The complete details surrounding the incident have not yet emerged, however the ramifications of the event will be something that Pastor Simmons and his companions will have to address in the near future.)

The “call-in’s” that Pastor Simmons are referring to are an integral part of the “Ceasefire” strategy that has been implemented by the Sacramento Safe Community Partnership. A sharp increase in crimes involving gang members in 2009 gave cause for law enforcement officials and community leaders to rethink their approach to intervening in the cycle of violence, especially in regards to high-risk young people involved in gang and gun violence. The Ceasefire strategy is a proven, effective evidence-based strategy based on a model developed in Boston in the 1990s. Bringing Ceasefire so Sacramento was initiated by Sacramento ACT as part of their campaign to reduce youth violence which began in 2006.

At a typical call-in, identified individuals with prior violent convictions and known gang ties are invited to a “community hosted” meeting. When they arrive, they are greeted by a partnership that includes social service providers, faith-based leaders, street outreach workers, community members, and law enforcement officials. Social service providers are at the call-ins ready to connect participants with intensive case management and tailored support services they will need to step away from violence. Street outreach workers are there to guide them through that often-difficult process. Also in the room are community members who have been negatively affected by violence, a trauma nurse, and a coalition of law enforcement representatives that include police, probation, parole, US Attorney, and the District Attorney. They are told in no uncertain terms that the violence driven by their groups must end. It then becomes their own decision for which path they will continue down; take the opportunities in front of them from the service providers and the community, or prepare to deal with a collaborative focus from law enforcement focusing on them and their group.

“It’s a tremendous thing,” Pastor Simmons admits, “Our core focus is to stop the violence in this community. In doing that, we need to be a part of this community, to engage with the community, and we are accomplishing that together.”

The statistics are showing that Pastor Simmons is correct in his statements. In the first year of the Ceasefire strategy, 12 call-in events were held in the community, and over 140 high-risk violent offenders joined in the on the conversation. 60% of the attendees went on to an initial service orientation to learn more about obtaining pre-employment skills, job placement, educational services, and case management and a large percentage of them took advantage of the services. Furthermore, the call-in participants were re-arrested for non-violent crime at a 20-25% lower rate than the national recidivism average and re-arrested for violent crime at a 50-60% lower rate than the national recidivism average. Bottom line; Ceasefire participants began to commit less crimes. The program is having a positive effect in ways that simple prosecution and  incarceration has not.

Beyond the data side of the project is the human connection that is being fostered, perhaps for the very first time for many of the people who the walker’s encounter during their intervention efforts.

“The focus for us tonight, is to reach their heart,” Pastor Simmons reminds the group. “It is not to stop a person’s negative actions right then and there. We’re planting the small seeds now. They know we’re not going away. We’re out there every week, we’re not giving up on them, and they’re starting to see that.”

From there, the attendees climbed into their vehicles and descended onto a notorious retail center that has served as a hotbed of activity for criminals and gang members. After a few words of instruction and a group prayer, they broke into two teams to canvas the area. One team entered a nearby apartment complex, the other stayed close to the store fronts. In both cases, the night walkers were met by receptive folks who looked like they knew the drill, and welcomed them into their comfort zones.

“Can we talk to you? For just a minute?” was the standard lead question that began most encounters. Responses ranged from, “Nah, I’m good,” to “Sure, okay,” and even “Yes, I need to talk to someone.” On a case-by-case basis, the walkers listened to the people they were engaging with, refrained from passing on-the-spot judgments of their life choices, and instead, collected their contact information and vowed to follow-up with them the next day.

In more than one instance, when asked and requested, the walkers would also take a moment to pray with the encountered party. For that brief second in time, in a place where so many negative events have taken place, a calm tranquility encompassed a circle comprised of only a few human bodies. That momentary calmness for some is the first opportunity to take stock of oneself, and perhaps awaken the next day with a new purpose.

The Ceasefire strategy and night walks are not the silver bullets that will end violent crime in South Sacramento, but with follow-up and participation, they are providing the willing with the opportunity they may have never had before to make a better life for themselves.

Several congregations are leading night walks in South Sacramento and Del Paso Heights four nights a week. Churches or individuals interested in participating in the night walks should contact Shaunda Johnson, Community Organizer, Sacramento ACT at shaunda@sacact.org.