Camden 'diplomats' seek to curb future crime with past experiences
It's a cold December Saturday on the streets of Camden. The sun's going down. A pack of ex-convicts is roaming the streets.
And that should make bystanders feel a little safer.
This particular group happens to be one of Camden's newest weapons against violent crime. It's a volunteer organization called the Cease Murder Diplomats, or CMD for short.
The initials play off a popular expression for what drives life on the urban streets: "Crime, money, drugs."
Camden saw too much of all three in 2012. This year, the city has surpassed its all-time homicide record. The FBI declared it the most violent city in America per capita.
The Cease Murder Diplomats pledge to show up at the scenes of violent crimes, at any time of day or night, to try to quash retaliatory crimes.
Some members are community organizers. Some are concerned parents. And yes, some are ex-cons.
"We try to recruit brothers who've lived the life, you know, so we can relate to them more," Alim Taylor said. "You know, because it's difficult for a brother to come out here or for a sister to come out here who never lived this life. You can't really relate."
Taylor is a former drug addict and dealer who spent seven years in prison for trafficking. Now, he's been sober for 4 years, has a job driving a forklift and is the group's "drug court ambassador."
Righting wrongs, promoting peace
On that recent December day, Taylor and another dozen or so diplomats took a two-hour walk around Lanning Square — a neighborhood in the shadow of Cooper Hospital. It's known for rampant drug dealing. Taylor and the Cease Murder Diplomats are out to make their presence known and recruit new members. They look like a gritty urban version of the Justice League.
Micah Kahn is the face of the organization. Walking around, he tells the people he meets: "We need to get some applications, we gotta get your information. Ya'll promote peace? ... We need your information so that we can walk together next time."
Kahn, who served 20 months for drug dealing, says the diplomats have a simple message.
"'You know what, young man? I know that path that you're on, and you can end up in one of the yards: the prison yard or the grave yard. Which one do you choose?'"
Niger Ali used to be a street enforcer. "I used to hurt people for money," he said. "And now I'm saving people for no money."
Keith, a volunteer who didn't want his last name used, peddled drugs for two decades on the very corners we walked.
"I used to be a hood in the 'hood with the hoods," Keith said. "So I know what's going on, not what I heard. I've actually done the things that you read about."
Now, with a pledge to right past wrongs, he and other Diplomats don uniforms with the CMD emblem emblazoned across their chests.
Kahn says the Diplomats' have "cred" with Camden's law-abiding residents, too.
"Sometimes they call us before they call the police when a shooting occurs," he said. "You know, say, 'Hey listen, they're shooting outside.' I'm like, 'Did you call the police?' And they're like, 'No, not yet.' 'All right, well, go call the police. We're on our way.'"
The group formed this year after a particularly deadly Camden July. The city of 77,000 had 13 murders in 31 days.
"When that happened," Kahn said, "we started seeing a lot of community leaders at funerals. And we said, 'You know what, let's all come together.' And we sat down; we had a conversation ..."
They modeled their effort on a a similar initiative that started in Chicago in the year 2000, and was featured in the documentary The Interruptors. A three-year study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice found the Chicago group was able to reduce violent crime by 16 to 34 percent in areas it patrolled. A similar model is being tried in North Philadelphia.
Some early success
No one has studied the Diplomats' impact yet, but Kahn says they've already had some successes. He recounts what one of his ex-gang leader ambassadors said to broker a peace after a gang shooting:
"A war's not going to help anything right now, you know? But what we can do is come to an agreement and say, 'Hey listen, you'll stay on this side of town; you'll stay on this side of town.' We'll squash whatever beef we've had, and come to an agreement that we're not going to go to guns."
At this point, the movement has about 40 active volunteer members spread out in neighborhoods across Camden.
Kahn says the Diplomats hope to raise $150,000 to hire five full-time workers.
In the meantime, he's always on the look out to make good neighborhood connections:
"Anybody who promotes peace and keeps love present is a diplomat, you know. And that's what we're all about. We're a love movement. We are a solution to a problem. You keep love present, darkness has to flee."
Later on the same day as this walk around Lanning Square, Camden recorded its record 66th homicide of the year. The next day came its 67th. Cease Murder Diplomats were on the scene after both, trying to prevent number 68.