In his more than three decades of working to reduce violence in Buffalo, New York, Pastor James Giles has seen it all — the spikes and the reversions to the mean; when it’s “popping off” and when it’s quieter than usual.

Giles is a self-described credible messenger — someone who was part of the problem before turning his story around years ago. He now leads a team of violence interrupters known as the Peacemakers, with stories similar to his own. And, as for many of America’s prevention and intervention workers, his job got a lot more complicated in 2020. Like nearly every city across the country, Buffalo saw a spike in gun violence that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. Between 2019 and 2021, homicides in the city — most of which were committed with firearms — jumped some 43 percent. 

In the last year, many cities have seen the spike subside. But the drop in Buffalo, Giles said, is “unheard of.” 

Buffalo’s decline in homicides was so large in 2023 that it ended the year with a total that hasn’t been seen since 2011. Homicides fell from 70 in 2022 to 38 in 2023 — a 46 percent drop. And it wasn’t just homicides, Giles told me: “We had a decrease in shootings, period.” Violence has fallen so much that it’s surpassed the goal that many cities have of getting “back to pre-pandemic levels.”

The city’s success story is not attributable to a single initiative, but rather a tapestry of collaborative, mostly grassroots efforts weaving through its community, Giles said. A community that came together — with and without government aid — after the racist massacre at a Tops Friendly Market, a deadly blizzard, and the pandemic surge in gun violence.

“What are the contributing factors to those numbers?” he said. “Cooperation.”

Grassroots nonprofits, state- and city-funded social services organizations, police, and prosecutors came together to counter violence in Buffalo, he said. They implemented a truly multipronged strategy that combines state and local resources, empowers credible messengers from the community, and fosters cooperation between law enforcement and community groups.

Dina Thompson is the executive director and a founding member of the Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition, which runs diversion programs to support young people in avoiding a path that could lead to gun violence. It’s almost impossible, she said, to point to a single reason for the decline. But she echoed Giles’s overarching view.

“There’s a shared response to gun violence,” she told me.

The tapestry, as Giles put it, looks something like this.

SNUG, a New York state anti-violence initiative, has seen funding increases in Albany, and that money made its way to Buffalo. In 2023, Governor Kathy Hochul signed a budget allocating $25 million to the effort. In Buffalo, SNUG started in 2014 as a street outreach program focused on gang interdiction overseen by Giles and his Back to Basic Ministries, which also operates the Peacemakers. In 2022, SNUG shifted to a hospital-based violence interruption initiative at Erie County Medical Center, known as BRAVE.

Though BRAVE took over operating Buffalo’s SNUG program, Giles and the Peacemakers are still active, running a Safe Passages program to help students travel to and from school safely, mediating conflicts on the street, and providing mentorship to help young people avoid falling into cycles of community violence. They’re awaiting a grant, which Giles plans to use to expand their violence interdiction work.

The community-based work doesn’t stop there. In 2022, the state Division of Criminal Justice Services provided $2 million in funding for community groups that know the problem best through a program called Project RISE. And groups like Thompson’s Restorative Justice Coalition and the Stop The Violence Coalition work with young people at risk of gun violence and families of victims of gun violence, even when city funding isn’t there to help.

“If you’re taking a gun out of someone’s hand, you have to put something in it,” Thompson said. “They’re building capacity, competency, job training skills, and so DCJS has partnered with positive organizations that provide for the community different choices.” 

Law enforcement, too, has seen a shift, Giles and Thompson said, with an increased focus on efforts to improve relationships between police and community members. “Community engagement, community policing, is really at the heart of what we’re doing,” Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said last year. “It’s not just all enforcement.”

The department has also launched initiatives like behavioral health teams, which pair police officers and mental health clinicians to respond to people with mental health concerns and get them appropriate care.

If you’re taking a gun out of someone’s hand, you have to put something in it.

Dina Thompson, executive director of the Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition

And then there are measures like trimming bushes, removing blight, improving street lighting, and clearing out vacant lots, which the city is working on as part of a broader Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design initiative, led by the city of Buffalo’s special project manager for crime prevention, Ronald Dixon. The program operates under the assumption that crime happens, in large part, based on the built environment. This work is often tedious, but it’s effective: Research has shown that street lighting, on its own, can help reduce violence.

The CPTED gives community members a leadership role. The program has trained more than 200 people and generated at least 19 projects across Buffalo, Dixon said: “We’re looking at some of the root issues in certain neighborhoods or ZIP codes, and why crime is happening. It follows the idea that no one wants to be a criminal. They’re doing these things based on survival.”

At the same time, the CPTED meetings also give community members opportunities to interact with and give feedback to police. 

“The moment you address those elephants in the room, then put them together on the same task, working with one goal in mind, which is lowering the crime in the area and creating these plans — it usually shifts the entire dynamic of the relationship between community and law enforcement,” Dixon told me. 

The challenges Buffalo faces — racism and racial inequity, struggling schools, and economic disadvantage — are larger than any single group or initiative can fix, Giles said. “There are a lot of cultural dynamics contributing, but at the center of it is lack of economic opportunity,” he said. Tackling the root causes will take a bigger, comprehensive effort and a coordinated government response.

And Buffalo’s immediate path toward reducing violence has not been without its roadblocks. The city doesn’t have an Office of Gun Violence Prevention, according to a recent assessment by the nonprofit Community Justice, which also identified other shortcomings. Giles gave me another example: After the city announced plans to fund community-based violence interruption and prevention strategies with American Rescue Plan Act funding, his Back to Basics Ministries was awarded one of the grants. But he’s still waiting for the money.

“ARP funds came out, and the city of Buffalo handled that miserably,” Giles told me.

When I asked Thompson if the funding for community-based efforts to reduce violence has been sufficient, her answer was an unequivocal “no.” While the ecosystem has expanded, much of it has been without government support, and what funding has been made available hasn’t been sufficient for more than supporting day-to-day operations.

“They need more than just maintenance funding; they need capacity-building support,” Thompson said. “Grassroots organizations are crucial.”

Giles agreed. “You cannot solve this massive public safety problem without the community-based groups,” he said. “It’s not programs. It’s not money. It’s people and smart money.”