America's cities have experienced two years of double-digit increases in violent crimes, with the murder rate jumping by more than 10 percent among dozens of large U.S. cities since 2004, according to a new study by the Police Executive Research Forum.
And some suggest that a spike in gang violence may be behind the end of national lull in violent crime.
But Jahmol Norfleet, a former gang member from Boston's Roxbury neigbhorhood, may be the reason for drop in gang-related violence there. Community leaders think so. And that's what made the 20-year-old's death in a street shooting in late 2006 so painful for the community.
There were 74 homicides in Boston last year, Norfleet was number 69. The news that another young black man had been gunned down on the mean streets of Roxbury caused barely a ripple of interest outside Norfleet's neighborhood. It seemed like just another story about a gang member with a record -- shot dead. But inside Norfleet's community they knew just what had been lost when that bullet ripped through his skull on a cold November night.
Reverend Jeffrey Brown remembers the phone he received from a police detective. "I was home cooking dinner for my kids when I got the call from the detectives. I heard it was a shooting, then I heard the street number and I knew it was Jahmol. It was like one of my own being shot," Brown said.
It is true that Norfleet spent a year in prison on gun charges. It is also true that he was a leading member of a dangerous street gang. But in the months after he was released from prison something changed for the young man. Brown said, "Jahmol was a kid who got a jolt and decided that his life could go one of two ways. He could go to the grave or he could make something out of it."
A Driving Force for Change
Norfleet got not one but two jobs. He started going to church and taking GED classes. And then Norfleet did something totally unexpected -- he became the driving force in establishing a truce between two of Boston's most violent gangs.
Between January 2005 and June 2006, the FBI blamed at least 20 shootings on a rivalry between H-Block, a Roxbury gang, and Bromley-Heath, a Jamaica Plain's gang. Community leaders -- including police and clergy -- began to devise a plan for a truce between the two violent groups. Brown, a co-founder of Boston's TenPoint Coalition and pastor at the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass., was involved in the initiative from the beginning. "We started to go back and forth between the groups, having secret meetings. It took about a month to pull it all together," he said.
Shakeem Allah, a gang mediator with the TenPoint Coalition, was Norfleet's main contact. "He came to one of our first meetings. At first the guys were saying they didn't want to participate. They didn't trust us."
But eventually the youth workers began to make some headway. Brown recalls that Norfleet's participation stunned them all. "Jahmol was the driving force on the H-Block side. He would get on the phone and call his friends. He would drive around the city and pick them up and get them to our meetings. On the H-Block side he was the champion."
Rufus Foulk was also involved in the talks and he is a relative of Norfleet's through marriage. "Jahmol was a natural born leader, smart, funny. He had a type of charisma about him. But he would always look you in the eye, that's unusual. Most of these guys never look at you but Jahmol would. He was just a good dude.
A Fragile Truce
The secret sessions ended in a summit held at the John. F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum last July. A truce was established: the gang members agreed to stay away from each other's neighborhoods and to call a minister before pulling a gun. By most accounts, the truce has been a success. Brown says no shots have been fired between the groups since last summer, and police officials have said violent crime in the gang neighborhoods is down more than 50 percent since the the gangs agreed to the truce.
Still, Norfleet is dead and, while no one wants to point fingers and disrupt the fragile peace, it may not be a coincidence that he was shot on the anniversary of a rival gang member's death.
No one knows who shot Norfleet. What is known is that he and his sister, Teah, were standing outside their grandmother's house when a couple of guys in hooded sweatshirts walked up and opened fire. Minutes later Jahmol Norfleet was dead, a week shy of his 21st birthday.
Rufus Faulk says Norfleet's death has been hard on the kids in his neighborhood. "Kids get kind of cold about it, you know. They say Jahmol wasn't even in the streets anymore and he still gets cut down. It makes them want to give up."
Brown is sad but not surprised at what happened. "It happens a lot. What happened to Jahmol is that the person will change but the streets around him don't change."
And so they keep going. Brown hopes to take the truce strategy "citywide" and involve other gangs. Shakeem Allah and Rufus Faulk will keep reaching out to at-risk kids in the neighborhoods and streets of Boston in the hopes that maybe their future will be different than Jahmol Norfleet's.
Faulk was born and raised in Roxbury. He left to go to Temple University but came back because he wanted to help the people in his neighborhood. "I feel like sometimes it's not the streets that are so bad. I mean, I've walked these streets. But you can let the streets consume you. If you have a sense of direction, you can say to yourself I'm walking these streets but I'm not living in these streets if you know what I mean."