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Community street team’s partnership with police grows

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    NEWARK, New Jersey (WCBS) — CBS2’s new series, Unifying America, highlights people trying to cross racial and cultural divides that separate so many Americans.

On Wednesday, CBS2’s Jessica Layton profiled a special organization in Newark that partners with police, staying at the scene long after officers leave.

The Newark Community Street Team has been around almost seven years, but its work to unify the city has never been so important.

There’s a special pride Daamin Durden takes in keeping the peace, protecting people from going down the path he did.

“Definitely it is my calling. It comes so easy,” Durden said.

The leading member of the Newark Community Street Team says before he was a mentor he was a menace. He spent 22 years in prison for armed robbery and assault. In fact, most of the members of the high-risk intervention group are lifelong Newark residents who’ve had prior run-ins with the law.

“Credible messengers, non-traditional leaders,” Aqeela Sherrills said.

Sherrills said they reflect who they serve, giving his crew a community connection during conflicts that most cops don’t have.

So whether it’s a domestic dispute or a gang shooting, they can squash retaliation before it happens.

“Our folks in the community know both the perpetrator and the victim and so we’re able to go in and have a conversation,” Sherrills said.

Layton asked, “What might they tell you that they won’t tell police?”

“Folks are just not comfortable talking to police because of the historic, you know, relationship,” Sherrills said.

CBS2 highlighted their work back in July during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, their partnership with the Newark Police Department has only grown.

“They come to the scene often while we’re still there and cool things down,” Deputy Chief Brian O’Hara said. “They have folks who have credibility in the community.”

O’Hara also credits the police department’s scenario-based de-escalation training with having an impact on overall crime and trust.

“Using our officers and people from Newark, but based off of stuff that was identified as problematic situations elsewhere in the country,” O’Hara said. “You want to give people a voice.”

Both 2019 and 2020 saw the city’s lowest homicide rates in 60 years.

“Our officers didn’t shoot their guns not once, in the whole 2020,” Sherrills said.

And when a health crisis collided with nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, the city made changes.

“We moved 5% of the city’s police budget into a new Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery. Seventy percent of those dollars are gonna go out to community-based organizations,” Sherrills said.

The mission of the street team, though, is so much more than preventing that next gun from firing. The men and woman are helping to guide people in their neighborhoods through several stages of trauma.

From immediate help for victims and families to long-term healing at their trauma recovery center, which is opening soon.

“It gives them a feeling of security knowing they have someone to go to,” street team member Chaina Street said.

“This is going to be a place where people can come and feel served and protected,” member Seaton Davis added.

Sherrills says this shared approach in unifying a city is a model for the nation.

“This is what law enforcement and community working together looks like,” Sherrills said.

Layton pointed out it is risky work, but added she can tell Sherrills loves it and knows he is making a difference.

“Absolutely, this is my life,” he said.

The Newark Community Street Team has about 50 members, both men, and women. It hopes to open the trauma recovery center to the public by the spring, offering individual counseling, group therapy, yoga and meditation, and transitional housing.

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