When two Mount Hope gang members were shot in January, one of the first things San Diego Police gang Lt. Keith Lucas did was text Cornelius Bowser.

Bowser’s a 51-year-old former West Coast Crip-turned-community activist. From Bowser, the word of the shooting spread through “the streets” – his version of a phone tree that connects OGs, or reformed “original gangsters,” across rival territories. Through their contacts, he might be able to get a name, an address or a phone number that could get him into the victim’s hospital room.

Bowser leads the volunteer-based Community Assistance Support Team, or CAST. In April, the group persuaded the police to share real-time information on gang shootings and stabbings so they could deploy quickly into streets, alleyways and hospital rooms to talk gang members down from retaliating.

“The only way I was finding out about a shooting was reading the paper or hearing something through the news,” said Bowser, who found religion in 1984 and now runs the Charity Apostolic Church in Santee. “You try to work the streets, try to figure out what’s going on, but you’ve lost a lot of time.”

Bowser said diffusing the situation early on is the best way to prevent gang violence.

“When you talk about an individual that gets shot and he’s in the hospital, of course he can be thinking about getting vengeance, but’s he’s also thinking about how he could have lost his life. He’s also thinking about some of the changes that he maybe needs to make in his life,” Bowser said. “So if we’re able to get in there and make a human connection with them and win their trust, we can actually change their mind about what they were thinking about doing.”

Photo by Brian Myers
Photo by Brian Myers

Below: Listen to Bowser read aloud text messages from Lt. Lucas.

Bowser and San Diego Gang Commission Executive Director Lynn Sharpe-Underwood started shaping the effort after working with residents on 44th Street in City Heights. In 2012, neighbors healing from the shooting deaths of Rickquese McCoy and Stephen McClendon pushed for community-based solutions to gang violence.

Bowser and Underwood modeled CAST after a successful strategy in Los Angeles called “rapid response.” San Diego State researcher Dana Nurge said they were right to zero in on immediate retaliation.

“Most gang violence is retaliatory in nature and that creates a cycle of violence,” Nurge said. “So if you can interrupt that cycle, you can reduce violence significantly.”

A 2012 federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found retaliation was more likely to fuel gang violence than drugs, which is commonly perceived to be the main driver. In cities with the highest gang activity, drugs were tied to less than a quarter of gang homicides.

When the effort began last year, the number of annual gang-related homicides in San Diego fell from 16 to three, though it’s not known what actually caused the drop. Since Bowser began working with SDPD, his team has intervened after six shootings. So far, there have been no known retaliatory actions related to those incidents.

“I think what these volunteers accomplish is noteworthy in the least,” said Lucas, the gang unit lieutenant. He attends each of CAST’s monthly meetings.

Bowser wants to build a relationship with the UC San Diego trauma center that would put him bedside even faster. Now, a victim’s family member must invite Bowser to his or her hospital room to comply with privacy laws.

Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego
Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego

Charlotte Johnson was one of those Bowser managed to get a face-to-face with in the hospital. She’s a former gang member – a leader of the pack, she said. She gave it up 30 years ago. But she was shot randomly in Mountain View in September after approaching two strangers she had mistaken for her nephews.

“I don’t know if I interrupted them for something they were about to do or if they were getting initiated into a gang,” Johnson said.

She sells cornbread, cabbage and ribs to help families in her community cover the costs of funerals. She says the need never really lets up. But her ability to stir batter has. The bullet entered her neck and came out of her back, damaging the nerve endings that controlled movement in her arm.

CAST members stepped in early, helping her fill out paperwork and sign up for disability. They also helped her send a message to family and friends: No one should retaliate.

“The same fear and the hurt and pain that it brought my family and friends would be the same thing reduced to someone else’s family and friends,” she said.

Johnson has become one of the OGs on Bowser’s phone tree.

“Somewhere the chain has to break,” she said. “It has to stop. I don’t know if anyone is paying attention or has been listening, but we are losing our children and we are losing our children in big numbers.”

Despite the gang unit’s involvement with CAST, she’s skeptical of police department’s commitment to finding meaningful solutions to gang violence. She said she sees and experiences a lot of traffic and pedestrian stops in her Lincoln Park neighborhood that look and feel like racial profiling.

But Bowser said CAST’s relationship with the gang unit has shown him the police really do care. The proof, he said, is in his text messages.

“So I say here, ‘They say he may lose a toe but thank God he is alive,’” Bowser read aloud from a text he’d sent Lucas. “And then Keith Lucas said, ‘A blessing might be his chance to take a different path.’”

YouTube video

Video by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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