An ex-cop and a former gang leader team up to prevent murders, one phone call at a time
For over three years, the unlikely duo have manned a 24/7 hotline directed at resolving conflicts
By Hurubie Meko
The Kansas City Star
ST. LOUIS, Mo. —On a summer day in 2020, an unlikely duo — a retired St. Louis City police detective and a former gang leader — found themselves in a shot up home trying to keep people from killing each other.
Jerome Dyson and LaDon "Yoshi" Meriweather were hunkered in a house in The Ville, a North St. Louis neighborhood, with a group of young men they were trying to convince to stand down from a gun battle. As they looked over their shoulders, past the front door — or what was left of it — they could see a lookout pacing.
Barricaded inside, they expected the shooters to return at any moment.
The day before, bullet holes had ripped through the walls and the windows. A couch pushed against the door was the only thing now keeping it closed.
"It looked like it was a war," Meriweather said.
For over three years, Meriweather and Dyson have manned a 24/7 hotline through Serving Our Streets (SOS), a program that helps people in St. Louis resolve conflicts before gun violence breaks out.
To maintain community trust, they do not work with law enforcement. Instead, they use their connections and knowledge of the neighborhoods where they operate.
The pair have dealt with countless situations together — from walking into a gun battle at a gas station and rushing to contact adversaries before they turn to violence to working closely with youth in the community, many of whom have since been killed.
In 2021, the team de-escalated 89 conflicts, according to their internal data. Another 13 disputes were defused when one party was given assistance to leave the city and find a safe place with friends or family elsewhere — another unique aspect of the program.
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St. Louis, which has had a serious gun violence problem for years, saw a decrease in homicides in 2021, dropping from a near record 262 homicides in 2020 to 194. The total killings last year matched the pre-pandemic number in 2019, at that time the second-highest number of homicides in the city's history.
Jerome Dyson and LaDon 'Yoshi' Meriweather - a retired police detective and a former gang leader - run a 24/7 hotline through Serving Our Streets (SOS), a program that helps people in St. Louis resolve conflicts before gun violence breaks out. https://t.co/FE2HV6vYQZ pic.twitter.com/JRjOvON3gs— The Kansas City Star (@KCStar) February 9, 2022
Guns have remained the overwhelming factor in St. Louis murders.
To address gun violence, efforts have to be concentrated on specific areas and specific individuals, said James Clark, founder of the SOS program and executive director of the Neighborhood Alliance at Urban League St. Louis.
However, funding for community violence reduction programs is inconsistent, often reduced or cut by cities before the efforts have had time to make an impact, according to experts in public health and violence reduction.
While Kansas City also has a gun violence problem, it has dedicated fewer resources to solving it. Kansas City does not have a hotline like the one run by SOS, and Aim4Peace, the only viable community-level prevention program, had its funding cut last year. Now none of its staff respond to the streets.
Mayor Quinton Lucas said he expects to add money to the organization's budget this year.
"The first direct way we really address (violence de-escalation) is, I think, adequately funding Aim4Peace and increasing funding for Aim4Peace," Lucas said. "I think another thing we need to do is continue to bolster our social work programs and investment on the police department side."
In St. Louis, Clark said that to see any real impact in gun violence reduction, resources have to go directly "into the neighborhood, onto the front porch and into the living room."
That on-the-ground approach is how Dyson and Meriweather ended up barricaded in the bullet-riddled home.
The young men using the house were selling drugs and had set up shop in the wrong area, Meriweather said, cutting into someone else's business. Talking alone wouldn't solve this situation.
The duo helped the group find somewhere else to live, moving them out of the hostile area.
The shooting stopped.
How violence prevention works
It all started in 2015 with yard signs that read "we must stop killing each other."
As people noticed the message, they started calling Clark directly and talking about disputes they feared would end in violence, he said.
"We recognized that there was an opportunity in the community to solicit third-party individuals who knew about conflicts that were heading towards gun violence — they weren't going to go to the police and there was no credible entity that they would go to," he said.
Clark leads the recently created Division of Public Safety and Community Response at Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. The department encompasses one of the city's new Cure Violence neighborhood sites and, separately, SOS.
Like SOS, Cure Violence employs a targeted approach to change behavior toward gun violence in neighborhoods by interrupting conflicts before they turn violent.
SOS is a return to a grassroots and community-centered approach to violence reduction, Clark said, and the hotline is one arm of a holistic approach.
Public health inadequacies like lacking access to housing and food security, along with the availability of guns, systemic inequality and a lack of trust in police drive gun violence and homicides across the state, investigations by The Star found.
To address many of the reasons gun violence can be high in neighborhoods, Dyson and Meriweather work on a team with mental health experts, social workers and community outreach staff. In their formula for violence reduction, making sure families in a neighborhood can access food, housing and therapy is as important as convincing people to put down their guns.
SOS is made up of over a dozen staff members and divided into teams: About eight urban engagement specialists canvass three neighborhoods, knocking on doors and taking initial assessments of needs like help with accessing food. Social workers help community members navigate services and access resources, and a licensed professional counselor offers free therapy and two violence interrupters.
Almost all the staff members are St. Louis natives, having spent their lives in some of the same neighborhoods they now serve. Many employees started as volunteers with the program before being hand-picked by Clark and hired.
Social service organizations need to be measured by three things, Clark said: Do they have a neighborhood presence? Are staff making direct and repetitive contact with residents in high-risk areas? And is the community's culture around violence changing?
The team is able to gain trust by being active in the neighborhoods daily and by being a resource people can turn to for a variety of needs.
Although many of the referrals for the de-escalation team come through the hotline, tips also come from colleagues who confide in them about situations that need intervention.
"You've got to be active in the midst of the element," Clark said. "If you want to address gun violence, you have to touch the people holding the pistols."
An unlikely partnership
Dyson and Meriweather have seen St. Louis' violence from very different perspectives.
Meriweather spent his youth in a gang in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood in the early 2000s. When he was 21, he went to prison for five years for a drug charge he caught when he was 18.
Meanwhile, Dyson spent 35 years in law enforcement in St. Louis City, working as a detective before retiring about five years ago.
"I learned the streets, but he lived the streets," Dyson said. "So when you put us two together, it's a nice combat team."
"We see it from both sides," Meriweather said.
When they get a call about a volatile situation, they immediately spring into action, figuring out who they need to talk to in order to cool tempers within 72 hours.
When fighting factions refuse to commit to a ceasefire, they help move at least one of the groups to another city. Creating distance between the adversaries reduces the conflict, they said. Relocating as a means of conflict resolution is rare for most violence interruption organizations.
"People are doing de-escalation, but it's not to that magnitude where you can send somebody out of town," Meriweather said.
But one of their biggest challenges in recent years has been the easy access to guns, Dyson said.
Missouri in the bottom five for the weakest gun laws in the country, tied with Kentucky for the fifth loosest state firearm laws according to Giffords Law Center. The availability of guns has led to an increase in firearm homicides and suicides in recent decades, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins.
"You could walk into a gas station right here somewhere and somebody is in the gas station (with a firearm) with the whole clip hanging out the back pocket," Meriweather said. "That's where we're at."
Looking to the future
One thing that has encouraged the SOS staff the most is the youth engagement they've seen in protests against gun violence in the city, they said.
On Dec. 1, over 700 students in high schools across St. Louis marched in a demonstration called "Movement Not a Moment," to end gun violence but also in remembrance of a recent high school graduate who was killed in a shooting.
The ages of those they've seen with guns and those being hurt by gunfire in the city have gotten younger and younger, Dyson and Meriweather said.
Last year, 69 children under age 17 were injured by gunfire in the city, according to data kept by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Nineteen were killed.
"You see nowadays in St. Louis, a kid will kill you — a 10-year-old kid. This is real," Meriweather said. "We've never in the history of the streets saw anything like this. And I'm saying that because I've been out here since 1985."
In 2021, there were seven suspects in St. Louis homicides that were minors, according to police data. And nine were under 18 years old in 2020.
But they hope the tide is turning.
"You hear kids get up in front of an audience and say 'I know people who have guns. I know people who would shoot people.' That was a big moment...I think this is first time these kids as a group have talked about 'we know,'" Dyson said.
SOS helped the students coordinate the march. And they're planning on organizing more demonstrations.
"In this movement, you're going to need the youth. You're going to need them to stop (gun violence), to slow it down," Meriweather said. "People my age and older, we had the opportunity. So we've got to empower the kids now."
SOS staff also coordinate citywide programs aimed at larger community engagement.
They're hoping to expand Grill to Glory — an effort where over 100 religious leaders simultaneously barbecue every Saturday across the St. Louis metro.
The group also helped over 40,000 people access COVID-19 vaccines last year, earning them a Certificate of Appreciation from the Missouri National Guard. With the spread of the omicron variant throughout the state, they've started a testing clinic.
"We are reconstructing social service," Meriweather said. "The days of sitting in office and doing nothing is over. That's over with. Our people need you to come outside."
(c)2022 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)