Sacrifices and Small Wins: The Fight Against Rising Gun Violence

July 22, 2021

Photo via Canva

Last year, U.S. cities saw the largest one-year spike in gun homicides ever recorded. 2021 is on track to be even deadlier. One violence prevention specialist shares his fight to stem the tide of homicides in his hometown. 

Listen to the full episode and read the transcript below, and scroll down for more information.

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Headshot of JT Timpson

James “JT” Timpson, Director for Community Partnerships and Safety, Roca Maryland and Roca Impact Institute

Dan Gorenstein: President Biden framed this July 4th as a big deal, a great day.

President Biden: This year, the 4th of July is a day of special celebration. We are emerging from the darkest of years. The year of pandemic and isolation.

DG: Instead, it marked the latest surge in our country’s gun violence crisis.

233 people were killed and 618 were injured in more than 500 shootings over the holiday weekend.

2021 may end up being the deadliest year of gun violence in the last two decades…

News Clip: Violent crime is way up and claiming victims here in Los Angeles…

DG: …with major cities around the nation reporting spikes in gun-related homicides.

News Clip: DC police data shows homicides are up 22% compared to 2020

DG: Often the neighborhoods hardest hit…low-income, predominantly people of color…are the same neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

Today, we talk with a violence-prevention group in Baltimore about the surge in shooting deaths, weathering COVID and the inherent risks of the job.

From the studio at the Leonard Davis Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, I’m Dan Gorenstein, and this is Tradeoffs.

James Timpson: The landscape of the violence now is just so unpredictable. It’s just so spontaneous on a level that it just hasn’t been before. Hold on a sec.

DG: James Timpson…

JT: I go by JT.

DG: …is Director of Safety and Community Partnerships for Roca, a 30-year old nonprofit organization that uses behavioral health techniques to help young men at the center of urban violence. The organization, based in Massachusetts, recently expanded to Baltimore, where JT is from.

Staff teach the 16-24 year old young men how to cope with their trauma and direct them towards sustainable work and safer lives.

So JT, we know that 2020 was a historically violent year across the country, and now there’s a CBS News report that says in 2021, Baltimore has the second-highest murder rate in the country. Can you give us a sense of what the conditions on the ground are like in Baltimore right now?

JT: I mean, it’s tough. You see the news every day. You know, we up to 179 homicides this year already. You know, we’re up to 300, over 350, shootings or something, non-fatal shootings, 350 or 360 non-fatal shootings like, you know, I mean, the data tells its own story. It doesn’t lie. I mean, it’s rough, it’s rough out there.

DG: So Roca works with young men deemed at high risk, JT, but at high risk of what?

JT: High risk of becoming the next victims of perpetrators of gun violence just based on their criminal behavior, their criminal involvement, their lifestyle.

DG: And how does your organization connect with these young men in the first place?

JT: We’re referred most of these young people by either the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Parole and Probation or the Baltimore City Police Department. They will give us a referral, which just usually includes a name, number and maybe address. And then we go out and find the young people.

DG: And you go out and find them with what purpose in mind?

JT: To offer them something different. We’re a behavioral change model. So our really goal working with any of these young people is to foster some type of sustainable behavior change that will allow them to do a couple of different things. It’ll allow them to stay alive long enough to make better decisions. And hopefully, eventually, we can get them to a place where they’re making wise enough decisions, where they will be able to get sustainable employment.

DG: Most of the people Roca works with have a history of arrests before entering the program. Between July 2020 and this March, Roca enrolled 216 young men. A little more than 80 percent have spent the last nine months in educational, vocational and life skills programming, as well as transitional employment within Roca.

The program dismissed 38 people over that span: 22 for carrying sentences longer than six-months, five were victims of homicide, six moved away, three young men refused to participate and Roca lost touch with two.

One stat that jumped out to me is that over those nine months Roca’s staff made more than 16,000 attempts to connect with these 216 guys…phone calls, texts, going up to people’s porches…and that resulted in more than 8,000 actual contacts.

This shows that getting these young men to start a relationship is one of Roca’s biggest challenges, and it shows Roca’s relentless commitment to the work.

JT: And one of the hardest parts about that relationship building is getting that trust, getting them to trust you. Part of the beauty of the relentless outreach is because it helps start building that trust process, because these young people a lot of times don’t know who the hell we are and why we keep coming and knocking on their door over and over and over and over again.

DG: Total strangers. Why are total strangers knocking on my door all the time?

JT: Total strangers. What are they, law enforcement, the cops or something? The feds? They probation? You know what I mean? Why do you keep coming and knockin on my door?

Young man 1: They was pretty annoying, to be honest with y’all. They was annoying. Knockin’ on the door. Young man 2: I just know. Leo kept comin’ to my house…almost every day…it’s just like, my mom be like, ‘Roca here,’ I’m like, ‘huh, again?’ Alright.

DG: And so really the mission of Roca is to identify young men who are really vulnerable to becoming perpetrators of gun violence or victims of gun violence and to begin to work with them using cognitive behavioral techniques so that when they’re in a moment of crisis, they can self regulate and avoid conflict.

JT: Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of it in a nutshell. I mean, the brain science tells us that most of our young people live in fight, flight or freeze, which is that middle part of your brain. Well you’re thinking and your decisions are made in the front part. But because of the trauma that they’ve suffered, those pathways are shut down between the middle part, the fight, flight, or freeze, into the executive function. So we try to rebuild those neural pathways and get those neurons firing again so that they can have the ability physiologically to make better decisions.

DG: When you think about the typical Roca participant, JT, is there one person who comes to mind, whose story sort of epitomizes the program?

JT: Yeah. I mean, you know, I tell the story all the time about the young man we had who was sitting in the park with his girlfriend and he saw one of his rivals walking across the street. He made a phone call to his homeboy to bring him the bag. Well, the bag has the gun, the mask and the gloves in it, because he was going to, you know, shoot the guy.

By the time his friend got there, though, he had used our CBT, which is our cognitive behavioral theory. The cognitive behavioral theory is the seven skills in which we teach young people how to emotionally regulate. And so this young man was able to put those skills into practice. When his homeboy got there with the bag, what he said to him was, ‘Yo, you know what, when you was on your way, I was thinking about it. Uh, yo, my girl, here, I really don’t want her to see that. And then he said, ‘And then the other thing I was thinking about is, yo never even looked over here, so he probably didn’t even see me sitting over here, so he probably wasn’t worried about me, so I just figured, you know, I just leave the situation alone because he wasn’t worried about me. I wasn’t worried about him,’ and he kept it moving.

DG: When we come back…JT on how COVID has impacted Roca’s program, the shifting landscape of gun violence and what success really looks like.


DG: Welcome back. We’re talking with James Timpson with the anti-violence organization Roca…JT is based in Baltimore, a city with one of the highest murder rates in the country.

So, look, JT, the pandemic has helped expose how threadbare these safety nets are, especially for low-income communities, neighborhoods of color, the kinds of places where you are working in Baltimore. And obviously many of these same communities have been impacted by gun violence. How has the pandemic impacted the work that you all have been trying to do?

JT: It has caused some people to be still enough for us to be able to catch ‘em. I mean really be able to offer them some more intense services. It has given us access to a lot of young people who probably, if it wasn’t for the pandemic, would still be incarcerated, um, because, you know, there was a lot of young people who were sent home on monitoring because of the COVID situation inside detention. And those young people, for us, have a second chance. They have an opportunity to get a few things right before they may have to face a court date.

But then also when it comes to helping young people secure certain benefits that they may be eligible for during this time, helping them get birth certificates or Social Security cards has been a real barrier because when the government shuts down, or when the government slows down, it slows everything else down. So state government and city government have slowed down for so long that it’s taking forever for these things to be processed.

DG: Ultimately, Roca aims to help young men land meaningful, well-paid work. But JT says the fact that some of the participants have made more on unemployment during the pandemic than they did in their day jobs puts their low-wages in sharp relief.

JT: You offer people a whole bunch of assistance and aid that equals out to more money than they were making when they had their regular job. So if the government can figure out what aid is sustainable for people to live off of, why can’t they figure that out in the employment world? What is sustainable for people to be able to live off of? Right? Because we had some people who were making more money just off of the aid that they were receiving than they were working their regular job.

DG: Do you think some part of the additional violence we’re seeing in 2021 is a result of the pandemic?

JT: Um, naturally I think, of course, it contributes to it in some way. How much or how significantly? You know, we saw the spike coming and we saw the trends going in the wrong direction back then when the opioid epidemic really started kicking off among young people. When young people started really popping pills, you know, we saw, we saw the dynamics of the street starting to change. So the pandemic, yes, definitely does play a role in it. But it’s not the only thing.

DG: In recent years, the opioid epidemic has grown rapidly in Black and Latino communities with some research showing the largest increase in overdose deaths was among Black Americans ⁠— a 50 percent jump from 2019.

Beyond that, says JT, poverty, problems with mental health, lack of jobs, continued friction with police and systemic racism are all driving the violence.

JT, we talked to you earlier about what things feel like on the ground right now, in mid-July. But pan out a little bit. Tensions have been surging for over a year now for a number of reasons, but what’s that been like for you and your team?

JT: Again, the landscape has changed so this work is becoming just as volatile, or this work has become more volatile than I ever thought it would be. I just always thought that we would just have, you know, it would be the way that it was. But it’s not changing. So we have to be able to adapt and change along with it.

DG: Always thought the way that it was. What do you mean?

JT: You know, there was a sense of sanctity doing his work. You know, you felt like you had a special cover, which I still feel like, you know, I do. But, you know, the losses that we suffered this year have been pretty devastating of people who’ve actually been doing this work. And those are hard to come back from because it shakes people on the ground level at the core. It shakes us, it shakes me at the core.

DG: The week before our interview, someone shot and killed one of JT’s colleagues on the street. By far the most personal happened at the beginning of this year…

JT: January 17th, Dante Barksdale was murdered.

News tape: Barksdale was the outreach coordinator for Baltimore City’s Safe Streets program Sunday. Someone shot and killed him near the Douglass Homes public housing complex.

JT: And Douglas Homes Projects if anybody knows Dante, knows that that’s where he was all the time. He was there a lot, you know, I had a lot of friends there mediating conflicts constantly. They called him every time there was a problem there. But he also had identified a serious need there….and for him to be murdered there, you know, it’s breathtaking. You know, it’s heartbreaking. It’s a lot of different things. But he was one of the leading voices of violence prevention across the city. And so for him to be murdered like, that’s about as untouchable as you could get.

DG: JT, you said you used to think there was sanctity to this work, somehow noble enough that you were protected. You also said Dante’s death shook you to the core. How, I gotta ask, how have you kept showing up given the risks you’re taking every day?

JT: I start thinking about the family that he left behind and I don’t want to be in that situation leaving my family behind. I think about all the work that I felt like was undone. I never want to leave the work undone. But then I start looking at it like instead of figuring out the work that’s undone, damn, bro, look at how much we did. Look at how much we got accomplished. You know what I mean? That just means that there’s so much more to do. And I can’t let your legacy die in defeat. You know, we can’t, we can’t lay down in defeat. We have to lay down in honor, you know. We have to lay down fighting until the end.

And that’s my level of commitment, because he was able to sacrifice his life for this work. That’s the commitment that we make. Now, I’m not saying I’m looking to go out here and die, but if it happens, death is not going to prevent me from doing his work. The fear of death, I should say, is not going to prevent me from doing this work or carrying this work forward. Because the young people are that important. The community’s that important. And people need to understand that.

DG: I ask JT what he thinks it will take to make these neighborhoods safer places to live.

JT: One of the things I understand about this work moving forward is that if we’re not having difficult conversations, then we’re not making progress in this work because it’s not pretty and it’s not easy. And people need to hear things that they don’t want to hear. They need to hear things that make ‘em uncomfortable. They need to hear things that flat out piss ‘em off.

DG: And of course, JT is talking about having those hard conversations with the teenagers and young adults he’s working with. Confronting the sorrows and rage of violence, the fear of unknown futures. But he’s also talking about the rest of us.

JT: People don’t always know how they fit into this violence reduction thing, but you fit in somehow. From the suburbs to the city, we all got a part in this. And it doesn’t have to be you physically going out and doing any work. It could just be simply you advocating or you, you know, telling somebody about a program or putting together a group of your friends to listen about the programs so that they may consider donating…and we gotta figure it out.

DG: To do this work successfully it must become a priority…to focus on the people most at-risk, just like some people in health policy circles have paid extra attention to the sickest patients. JT wants to keep expectations honest. This work, he says inherently, is slow and progress can be subtle.

46 young men have recently reached their two-year anniversary in Roca. More than half have landed jobs outside the program. Monumental progress, no matter how modest it may sound.

JT: And that is what is so important is, you know, the kid who wakes up today and is on time who didn’t wake up yesterday on time. Those are wins. Those are success stories. Yes, it may not be as grand as people want to hear but those are success stories because guess what? He woke up today and didn’t reach for that gun. He woke up today and did something different.

DG: It is those moments, those changes that JT lives for…that he sacrifices for.

JT, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us on Tradeoffs.

JT: Absolutely, it was my pleasure.

DG: The Biden administration has doubled down on their support for community violence intervention programs like Roca.

They’ve made billions in American Rescue Plan funding available, and requested another 5 billion in the American Jobs Plan.

Last month, the Administration created a national collaborative of 15 cities committed to investing in these programs and helping build evidence for what works.

Among the cities selected…Memphis, Chicago, St. Louis…and, JT’s own Baltimore.

I’m Dan Gorenstein and this is Tradeoffs.

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Episode Resources

Select Reporting and Research on the Rise in Community Gun Violence:

As more youth come into the crosshairs of Baltimore’s street shootings, city leaders and activists seek solutions (Phillip Jackson, Baltimore Sun, 7/21/2021)

Biden’s strategy to combat violent crime focuses on guns, community support (Christina Wilkie, CNBC, 6/23/2021)

As homicides soar nationwide, mayors see few options for regaining control (Griff Witte and Mark Berman, Washington Post, 6/22/2021)

Inside One Baltimore Group’s Effort to Stop Youth Violence Before It Starts (J. Brian Charles, The Trace, 6/10/2021)

A New Era of Gun Violence Research (Tradeoffs, 4/1/2021)

Dante Barksdale, ‘heart and soul’ of Safe Streets, is shot to death Sunday in Baltimore, officials say (Justin Fenton and Hallie Miller, Baltimore Sun, 1/17/2021)

Reducing Violence Without Police: A Review of Research Evidence (John Jay College Research Advisory Group on Preventing and Reducing Community Violence, 11/2020)

Episode Credits


James “JT” Timpson, Director for Community Partnerships and Safety, Roca Maryland and Roca Impact Institute

The Tradeoffs theme song was composed by Ty Citerman, with additional music this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.

This episode was produced by Mary Franklin Harvin and mixed by Andrew Parrella. Web by Leslie Walker.

Additional thanks to:

Eddie Bocanegra, Jane Bodmer, Lili Elkin and our stellar staff!