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Violence Interrupted

With only one day remaining before Operation SNUG is terminated, supporters continue the fight to save the anti-violence program

by Ali Hibbs on October 13, 2011

The statewide anti-violence program known as Operation SNUG (GUNS spelled backward) is scheduled to be shut down tomorrow (Friday, Oct. 14), prompting many who believe in the efficacy of the program to raise a call for the state to keep it alive. Petitions have been circulated, a rally was held in front of the governor’s mansion on Tuesday, and local residents have been writing letters and trying to find funding to keep the program running, at least here in Albany.

The idea for the program began in 2009 with $4 million in stimulus funds and the support of the New York State Senate. Eight cities were chosen to receive $500,000 each to implement the program. Now, less than a year after it began, the stimulus money has run out and no new funds have been set aside to continue the program.

Modeled after the CeaseFire program in Chicago, SNUG provides communities with resources to prevent violence by mediating conflicts, holding anti-violence trainings, empowering community members through street response, and involving previous offenders and religious leaders with at-risk youth and outreach to those who appear to be lost in the cycle of violence.

SNUG advocates argue that the programs effects have already been significant. In 2011, the rate of gun crimes in Albany dropped by 21 percent and the number of shooting victims by 29 percent. Concerns that discontinuing the program will negatively impact communities that are the most affected by gun violence prompted an online petition imploring Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos to find funding to continue the program in Albany through the end of March 2012.

“SNUG is saving lives,” reads the petition. “Albany residents deserve to live in safe communities free from violence. . . . SNUG/CeaseFire’s public health model is working and has brought hope to Albany residents, especially in neighborhoods that are the epicenters of violence. SNUG saves taxpayers’ money that would otherwise be spent on medical costs, public safety, court costs, incarceration, and lost productivity.”

On Tuesday, approximately 100 concerned citizens, schoolchildren and elected officials rallied outside of the Governor’s Mansion, carrying signs and shouting slogans like, “Don’t Shoot! We want to grow up!”

“The turnout was great,” said Albany Councilwoman Cathy Fahey (Ward 7), who said that every member of the Common Council is behind the program. “We feel very positive about the community policing efforts that have happened over the past couple of years, but we’ve recognized that this type of program goes beyond traditional policing to get at the root causes of the violence. We like the public health approach that they use, that gun violence is really a community disease of sorts.”

Council members and local neighborhoods are especially concerned about what is going to happen tomorrow when high-risk participants—many who have been incarcerated previously or are known to carry firearms—are set loose by the program. Violence interrupters who were working with these participants have already begun to shed their caseloads; only two of the original seven core employees remain, and their jobs end tomorrow.

“Albany seems plagued with gun violence,” wrote Howard Stoller, chairman of the Coalition of Albany Neighborhood Associations, in a letter to Gov. Cuomo. “And anything that could be done to reduce it is a worthwhile effort in saving lives.” At the last CANA meeting, early this month, ideas were bounced around about how to raise the money locally to save the program. Vince Rigosu of Eagle Hill suggested that a recently discovered error in the city budget could be a possible solution, but stressed that the city is deeply in debt.

Some rumors have been floated that Mayor Jennings is looking for money to continue the program. “He hasn’t been very vocal about it,” said Fahey. “So we’re kind of waiting to see what he’ll do. It’s just so hard to say what’s going to happen. A big part of what we’re trying to do now is raise awareness.”