St. Louis de-escalation program draws praise across US

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A St. Louis nonprofit is drawing praise from across the country for its de-escalation program, which has prevented gun violence by confronting feuds using trained mediators, involving loved ones and even moving individuals out of the state to avoid conflict.

Better Family Life has intervened in 60 conflicts involving or potentially escalating to gun violence since December 2016, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. James Clark, who spearheads the nonprofit, said the group has successfully calmed 56 of those conflicts.

Paula Neely, 42, is among those cases. She contacted Better Family Life in 2017 over a dispute between her then-23-year-old son and another man who shot at him.

Clark met with Neely and helped pay to move her son out of Missouri while the team tried to de-escalate the conflict. Clark was able to help the other man find a stable job, and Neely's son returned to St. Louis months later.

Neely said there haven't been any issues since.

The nonprofit started in 2016 and has since established "de-escalation centers" at four churches. Clark works with trained conflict mediators and outreach workers from the community - many of whom have criminal histories.

"Both of them understand the code of the street, they understand the environment, they understand the verbal and nonverbal communication," he said. "That's a skill set."

The nonprofit's approach has been recognized by top U.S. law enforcement officials. The U.S. Department of Justice gave Clark a Project Safe Neighborhoods award to recognize the nonprofit's role reducing violent crime.

Jeff Jensen, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, invited Clark to present his program to other federal prosecutors in March. Federal officials from Delaware, Kentucky and Alabama have since visited the city to study how to replicate the model.

"Their handprint in the community allows them to learn about ongoing disputes likely to lead to gun violence," Jensen said. "They don't wait for people to come to them. They go out and meet the people in their living rooms."