An unexpected knock at the door in December caught Zeem off guard. He had not been expecting the visit from a social worker, a representative from the District Attorney’s Office, a mentor — called a credible messenger — two police officers, and a mother who had lost a child to violence.

They were from the city’s program for Group Violence Intervention, and they had come to offer the initiative’s services to Zeem, whose past included dealing drugs and associating with people involved in gun violence.

“I don’t know how my name came about,” said Zeem, 27. “I wasn’t doing too bad, but I wasn’t doing too good. I was, like, stuck in the middle.” 

Zeem said the group sold him on GVI because it offered what he wanted: a GED, a job, and other options to help him avoid the snares and pitfalls of life in North Philadelphia.

“I’m glad that they came ‘cause I needed a job,” said Zeem, who now has temporary work as a groundskeeper at a local cemetery and is making plans to enroll in GED classes.

“They keep you out of trouble. They set you up,” said Zeem, who asked that we use only his nickname for safety reasons. 

GVI launched in August 2020 in response to a staggering uptick in gun violence in the city that claimed 449 lives that year, up from 311 in 2019. GVI takes a  “focused deterrence” approach by identifying groups — defined as people who associate and commit crimes together, often living in the same area — that may be involved in gun violence. GVI then approaches people in those groups with offers of social services — in combination with warnings of consequences from law enforcement for continued involvement in crime. 

Philadelphia city officials recently announced that an independent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that the program significantly reduced gun crime among participants between August 2020 and May 2022, when the GVI program contacted 276 individuals from 66 groups at least once.

The study found that, on average, gun violence associated with a group dropped by 38.6 percent after one interaction with the GVI team. The model showed the highest reduction of shootings — 50.3 percent — after two interactions; six or more interactions reduced shootings by 35.6 percent. The researchers also found that gun violence dropped about 42.8 percent after an enforcement action, which includes both arrests and lesser sanctions like higher police surveillance, bail revocation, and extended probation periods. 

“The big takeaway is that GVI works, and we must continue to invest in this approach, and we will, and I hope that the next administration does the same,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who is term-limited and scheduled to leave office in January.

Of the 10 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor in the May primary, nine told The Trace that they would keep, or expand, the GVI program if elected: pastor Warren Bloom; businessman Jeff Brown; retired judge James DeLeon; former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart; and former City Council members Allan Domb, Derek Green, Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker, and Maria Quinones Sanchez. State Representative Amen Brown did not respond to requests for comment.

The University of Pennsylvania study’s conclusion that GVI is working is welcome news for the Kenney administration, which has spent record amounts of tax dollars to combat the gun-violence crisis with spotty returns on the investment. Kenney’s current budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1 calls for increasing funding for violence-prevention programs including GVI to $233 million, up from $208 million; and increasing funding to the Philadelphia Police Department to $855 million, up from $800 million.

But while homicides are down by about 17 percent from this time last year, they rose in the four previous years and are higher — year-to-date and annually — than at any time between 2008 and 2015, during Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration.

What is GVI?

Kennedy and urban crime experts contend that a small percentage of a city’s population — as little as half of 1 percent — are responsible for more than 60 to 70 percent of gun violence. The focused deterrence model, which has been launched in dozens of cities nationwide and abroad since first being used in Boston in the 1990s, is designed to reach those hard-core offenders.

“These group members are often the hardest to reach,” Kenney said. “They have fallen through the cracks of society.”

Nearly all of the at-risk people that law enforcement referred to the program, city officials said, were Black men between the ages of 18 and 34. 

Initially, the program brought participants to large meetings at City Hall, where they heard about GVI from Kenney, D.A. Larry Krasner, mothers who’ve lost children, reformed offenders called credible messengers, and a handful of law enforcement officials. But the pandemic shutdown forced GVI officials to revise the program by sending teams to group members’ homes instead. Now, the program mixes home visits with group meetings.

David Kennedy, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and co-creator of the focused deterrence model, said Philadelphia is the only city to successfully launch the program during the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. “They figured out how to make GVI work… and the results are here in front of us: independent, scholarly confirmation that what Philadelphia set out to do is in fact working.”

Kennedy said GVI is effective, “because there’s a place in it for everything. There’s a place for community engagement. There’s a place for the most immediate, granular social services. There is a place for the hot stove of criminal justice, which is deterrence. There is a place for enforcement.”

The People Behind Philly’s Approach

Among those Kenney praised for the program’s early success is GVI Director Deion Sumpter. “His personality and charm could actually save your life,” Kenney gushed during a news conference. 

Sumpter, 34, who has run the program since its inception, said he knows the struggles of those GVI is trying to help because he has overcome many of the same obstacles. Raised in the city’s Germantown neighborhood, he graduated from high school in 2007, but a year later, driven by peer pressure and group dynamics, he said, he committed armed robbery, was arrested, and was sent to federal prison for three years. 

After finishing his sentence, Sumpter earned an associate’s degree from Community College of Philadelphia and an undergraduate and master’s degree in social work from Temple University.

“This strategy, for me, just makes sense, because I know what it’s like to be a part of a group and to be around a bunch of people that really don’t care about you, who are really just trying to use you,” he said during an interview.

Of the more than 800 people referred to GVI by the Police Department during its full two-and-a-half years of operation, about 28 percent of participants have requested social services, and 75 percent of those seeking services have been linked with them, Sumpter said. GVI case managers connect group members with job training, employment, education, housing, transportation, and mental health services, he said, and stay in touch with them as they transition from street life. 

Jay, 27, is one of them. It was last year, shortly after he’d returned home to North Philly after serving two years in prison for gun possession, that he got a visit from a GVI outreach team. Jay, like Zeem, asked that his legal name not be published.

He recalls hearing that the group could help him gain temporary and permanent employment, education, better housing, and even food. “The things that they were telling me, I liked the information. So, I just started working with them,” said Jay, who is also working in cemetery landscaping and is applying for a job with the local stagehands union.

The father of two said the GVI program impressed upon him the consequences of carrying an illegal gun. “It’s up to God’s hands now, and basically I pray that everything goes the way it’s supposed to,” he said of his personal safety without a gun.

But he knows others are in a different situation. “It’s a crazy city, man. You need protection,” he said. “You can fall victim to multiple things out here – robberies. You can get into an argument with somebody at a store, and someone will want to kill you over an argument, over a bag of chips or just looking at somebody wrong.” 

Mark Johnson Taylor, a GVI case manager, said the culture of violence that group members live in is daunting, but not insurmountable.

“I tell everybody, we have to get better as men. I’m a Black man, and I don’t want to see another Black man die. I don’t want to keep going to funerals,” he said. “The biggest thing really is the mindset with the guys. Trying to change that mindset, because that mindset is so closed up. But that’s where the repetition comes in with the constant calling and checking in to build a rapport.”

The Mothers

Volunteer mothers who’ve lost children to gun violence are crucial to the GVI teams. “These mothers who have endured this loss are a source of energy like no other,” Krasner said.

“These mothers who have this deep wound, and this deep pain, are able to deliver a level of power and commitment and serenity and persuasion that is almost irresistible,” he said.

Some mothers go to home visits with pictures of their late sons, smiling and alive. Kimberly Burrell brings a city morgue picture of her son, Darryle, 18, who got involved in the drug trade and was gunned down by “friends” in 2009, she said.

“I want young men and their mothers to see that this is our reality,” Burrell said in explaining why she carries the morgue picture. “Our reality is not T-shirts, it’s not balloons. I carry that picture so these young men and mothers, who sometimes give us opposition, see that this is what you’re going to live with.”  

Cherie Ryans tells those she meets about her son Terence, 18, who was gunned down September 2, 1990 in West Philly after leaving a movie theater with a friend. “The thanks that we get is when a young man says, ‘What you said to me helped change my life,’” she said.

“I’ve been a part of many programs, but with GVI we are actually talking to those young men who are going to pick up a gun one day,” she said. “I’ve been on this battlefield since 1991. It’s not easy. But I want to save another mother. I don’t want another mother to go through what I’ve gone through.”