Bishop Cornelius Bowser remembers the exact day he gave up gang banging and turned his life over to God. It was Dec. 5, 1984. He was 22 and had already been arrested for attempted murder and assault and had served two stints in county jail.
It took an existential crisis – the death of a friend – to send him searching for answers in his Bible. There’s no way he would have sought help earlier, he said, and we should be wary of directing all our resources to those that target at-risk youth.
I spoke with Bowser for my story about his effort to stop gang retaliation by intervening in the hours immediately after someone has been shot. He talked about the difference between at-risk and high-risk youth and what that means for sustaining projects like his.
In other cities, it’s en vogue to focus resources on preventing youth from joining gangs. Your program approaches them much later in the game.
My primary target is high-risk youth because it’s only 3 to 4 percent that is committing the violent acts. If you’re going to reduce violence, you’re going to have to deal with them.
When we talk about preventative work and folks targeting at-risk youth, a lot of times the youth may be at risk because of the community they live in – they may never, ever join a gang. But high-risk youth are people who will 100 percent join a gang if someone doesn’t intervene in their life.
Are there enough people working on the high-risk side of things?
No. Most programs in the community – and most funding – is focused on preventative work, which is great. But I think some of that focus needs to be shifted from gang prevention to gang intervention and violence prevention.
If you can focus in that area, you will reduce gang crimes and you will reduce gang membership recruitment, because some of the guys who are most effective in recruiting gang members are the high rollers and the hardcore gang bangers. If you can affect their life, you can affect the overall community.
How do you make that distinction? What does an at-risk kid look like and what does a high-risk kid look like?
I think they’re all the same in terms of being human beings and living in the same community and so on. But where I distinguish the difference is: the youngsters out there that I would call “high risk” are actually looking at joining a gang. They live in an apartment that gang members are hanging outside of, they’re going and hanging out with them, talking with them and so on. They ain’t in a gang yet but they can be influenced.
The at-risk youth may not be thinking about or even looking at joining a gang. They just happen to live in that community or might have some bad grades, but it doesn’t equate to joining a gang.
I think a lot of times these programs see that – they see that they are at risk and probably will never join a gang, but then they use that at-risk model to say that they’re doing gang prevention. A lot of times they’re not doing gang prevention.
So with the at-risk programs, kids will circle around them and eventually hit one. With the high-risk, you actually have to go into those apartment buildings and find them.
Yeah, absolutely. When we’re dealing with high-risk youth and trying to offer them resources, they’re not just going to come through our doors and say, ‘Hey, I need help.’ Whatever kids you get that walk through the doors, more than likely they’re not going to be someone who’s at high risk of joining a gang. They probably want to do better with their schoolwork and things like that but they’re not at risk of joining a gang. They might be at risk … whatever that means. There’s a great debate around that.
It sounds like there’s frustration in the street outreach community that programs are dipping into gang prevention funds but not really working on the problem.
It would be great if we could get funding. The reason why I say that is because we have some excellent men who have changed their lives around and they have families, they’re working and a lot of times they don’t have time to do this work. Some of them are working two jobs.
To be able to pay these guys and bring these guys on as staff would be an excellent resource for the community. That’s one of the stumbling blocks. I basically have to use them at the bare minimum that I can.
Do you think funders might have some reservations about paying guys who have criminal backgrounds?
The only way you can be effective doing this work, from the street perspective, is if you cut all ties. If an individual claimed to be doing street outreach and was pushing for peace and on the other side is gang banging, even the gang members are not going to respect them. Otherwise when they see you, first thing they’ll say is, ‘He’s out there with me.’
So they have to break all ties – not so much in the sense of you have friends, you have family members that are in gangs, but you can’t be out there living that lifestyle anymore and they have to see that you have changed.
I have street intelligence just like everyone else, so if somebody comes to me that I don’t know and says that they want to work, all I gotta do is check in the streets and they’ll let me know if he’s out there.
In reaching high-risk kids, can you talk about the type of policing that does work and the type of policing that doesn’t work?
When you’re dealing with gangs, you have to be able to go right to the source, and those are the gang members. When I used to gang bang, the police, they knew us. If there was five of us walking down the street, they would know who was a gang member and who was not a gang member.
I’m sure today gang officers do know these guys, especially the ones that are documented. But I think one of the problems that we have is that if there’s a shooting or homicide and police are out there trying to de-escalate things – which is good –what happens sometimes is folks who are not in gangs also get stopped and feel they might be getting harassed.
So one of my things in working with the gang unit is saying ‘Hey, we’ve got to do more policing in terms of building relationships with these guys to know who is who.’ That is being done, but it takes time. It’s not overnight.
Is there an officer from your days in the streets that stands out?
There were actually two police officers. They used to stop us and talk to us. It wasn’t about harassing us – ‘Get up against the wall’ – checking to see if we had weapons and writing up a description and all of that. It was mostly just, ‘Hey, how you doing?’
I remember one day one of the officers said, ‘If I catch you drinking some beer, I’ll give you a break. I’m not going to sweat you over that. But if I catch you smoking that PCP, that sherms — (We dipped Sherman [cigarettes] in PCP chemicals, which is embalming fluid and animal tranquilizers) — I’m going to take you to jail.’
One day they came up and we was drinking some beer. We try to hide our bottles and so on but they saw it. They walked by and he spoke to his partner so we could hear. He said, ‘Do you see anything?’ [His partner] said, ‘I don’t see nothing.’ And so they turned around and walked away and left.
Then I was at a park one day and the same officers pulled up. I was with two of my homeboys and we’re smoking PCP. He said, ‘Now I told you, if I catch you smoking this PCP, I’m going to take you to jail.’ And he took me to jail. When I went to court, they told me that the charges were dropped because of insufficient evidence.
What I found out was he didn’t take me to do a urine test so they could prove what I was high off of. I believe that was a deliberate act that he did because he didn’t want me to do time. He just wanted to teach me a lesson. I saw him a couple of weeks later and he stopped, got out and gave me a lecture about what sherms could do to me and I need to quit smoking it.
It’s those kind of things where you build relationships. The relationship these officers built with us was never about snitching, being a [confidential informant]. They showed a genuine concern. They cared, and I think that’s what has to happen today. Working with the various gang lieutenants, they care and I see that. I’m not saying let them break the law, but find some kind of way to show that you care, some kind of compassionate act.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.