An argument earlier in the day between teens from rival neighborhoods had Jason Broom worried as he stood in a pothole-riddled parking lot pondering his next move. Broom was released from prison last year after serving time in two killings and is now a conflict mediator on Kansas City's gang-infested east side.
He grew anxious as none of the feuding youngsters answered his cell phone calls. Worried the confrontation could escalate to a gunfight and perhaps another killing, Broom took off, peering down blocks and slowing his car to check out teens huddled on porches and stoops. Nothing.
The stocky, 270-pound Broom easily blends into the neighborhood scenery as part of Aim4Peace, a program that sends reformed criminals into some of the city's tensest neighborhoods to calm disputes before they erupt. Police credit the program with reducing violence on the east side, where most of the city's 126 homicides occurred last year.
Leaders in the nation's most violent cities have talked for years about trying to get ahead of their crime problems, but efforts in Kansas City and Chicago take a different approach by sending former convicts into neighborhoods to more quickly identify, and defuse, trouble spots.
"I've done everything they're thinking about doing," Broom said.
'Another conflict resolved'
As the 38-year-old ex-convict combed the streets for the feuding boys, Broom couldn't help but think the worst. Night came and went without a word. But he caught up to them the next day, demanded they "chill out" and detailed what could happen if they let their argument turn violent: jail, or worse.
"That's over with," a relieved Broom said later. "Another conflict resolved."
Broom and the other half-dozen or so Aim4Peace street intervention workers, also known as "violence interrupters," say they resolved 22 conflicts last year in Kansas City and at least 14 this year. And the east side — where poverty, gangs and drugs have conspired against residents for years — no longer leads the city in killings, according to crime data.
"The work they're doing in that area is having an impact," said Maj. Anthony Ell, commander of the Kansas City Police Department's violent crimes division.
Ell said Aim4Peace is unlike any other prevention program he has seen in his 24 years with the department, because its members "go directly to the neighborhoods" to work with young people who run a high risk of committing violence or becoming victims. The group also helps find mentors for at-risk youth and links residents to community services.
Broom tends to reach out to young men whose families have violence or other criminal activity in their backgrounds, such as a teen whose older brother was convicted of killing someone in a drive-by shooting.
"A lot of these dudes that I work with, they've got family histories and I try to break the cycle," Broom said. "That's sort of the situation I was in. My dad was a heroin addict and used to rob people. My brother's in prison for murder."
By the time Broom turned 19, he was selling drugs and had been shot twice.
In 1999, he was sentenced to 10 years on two second-degree murder counts. He had pleaded guilty to the fatal shootings of two men: one stemming from a bar fight in 1998 and the other a confrontation in which the victim was gunned down in his car in 1997.
Broom said he left prison determined to use his street influence to help heal neighborhood problems. Aim4Peace recruited him and offered him a contract position starting at $12.50 an hour.
"These guys out here know my history. They know what I've done," said Broom, who could go unnoticed as an outsider in his black Aim4Peace shirt, jeans and work boots. "Who's more qualified to say, 'That ain't the road you want to take'?"
Violence treated as public health problem
Aim4Peace largely borrows its methods from Chicago's CeaseFire project, which sends former gang members and ex-convicts to the streets to stop violence before it starts. The program is rooted in the theory that violence is a public health concern akin to diseases or viruses.
Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who founded CeaseFire, said training people to control violence is no different from teaching them to control tuberculosis or AIDS.
"Violence behaves like every other epidemic does," said Slutkin, who spent 10 years in Africa battling infectious diseases. "One event leads to another just like every other epidemic."
Aim4Peace organizers are feverishly seeking grants and donations to stay afloat as the recession threatens city funding. Residents say the city can't afford not to have Broom and his team keeping watch.
John Francis, 17, lives in one of the east-side neighborhoods Broom patrols. He said he respects Broom and others because they're not afraid to "roll up on you" and make sure there's no trouble brewing.
"Aim4Peace really be out in the 'hood trying to do something about the violence," Francis said.