▶ Watch Video: In Baltimore, changing minds, and saving lives

Each purple ribbon hanging outside the First and Franklin Presbyterian Church, in Baltimore, represents a life lost to gun violence in this city over just seven months. Many of them, too many, were young men. And according to Jamal West, who heads up youth work for a program called Roca, the number of those who were white was probably zero.

Koppel asked, “How did they end up dead?”

“It’s a kill-or-be-killed city,” replied West, who knew many of the people the ribbons represent. “It’s what goes on here. They’d rather shoot than fight. In the old days, it’s easy to take one on the chin, fight back, shake hands, and it’s over. But now these days, with so much access to firearms, it’s easier to shoot than be embarrassed about a fight on Instagram.”

“What does that say about our community here?”

“Broken homes, lack of education, lack of resources,” said West.

Jamal West, of Roca Baltimore, with a memorial to lives lost to gun violence. 

CBS News

What’s missing in the lives of so many of these young men is a foundation, something solid. Take Roca, the program that Jamal works for; its name is Spanish for rock. Roca engages in what they call “relentless outreach,” whether the young men want to be found or not. Roca keeps after them.

“Sunday Morning” rode along with West and Amar Mukunda, the assistant director of programming at Roca Baltimore, as they checked on young men in the program. One young man they encountered on the street hadn’t been in touch with Roca for more than three weeks. Mukunda told him, “I got a message for you: stop ducking me.”

Roca has several branches on the East Coast. Roca Baltimore is run by Kurt Palermo, who told Koppel, “We don’t care if you don’t want to be a part of Roca. [But] we understand that if you’re not with us, the likelihood of you being in jail or killed by gun violence is very, very high. So, we keep coming back.”

Koppel asked, “Why so much gun violence in Baltimore?”

“It’s too easy to get a gun in Baltimore,” Palermo replied. “And I don’t know that the young men that we work with feel that there’s any consequence. A lot of them will tell us they pulled a gun outta of a drawer like we put a belt on. It’s, ‘I feel unsafe and if I see the individual that I’m having an issue with, I’m going to pull out that gun and shoot them before they shoot me.’ And that is directly related to trauma and that really is the root cause of violence.”

It’s a setting where the most profitable business is the sale of drugs. West pointed to one Baltimore block where $20,000 is generated each day through the sale of drugs. “It’s all day, every day,” said Mukunda. “There’s a lotta people on that block. There’s a structure as well. So, the guys at the bottom, they’re not keeping anything close to that.”

Youth workers with Roca Baltimore tour an area notable for drug deals.  

CBS News

Mukunda happens to live on that block. The reasons? “One is, it’s inexpensive and I’m young and single and so I can live in a place that’s a little less comfortable to save money. But the other is, to be perfectly frank, this work is my life. I want to wake up every morning and see the guys that are in the program.”

“Are you protected in any way?” asked Koppel. “When I say protected, I don’t mean do you have an armed guard.”

“I’m protected by my relationships,” Mukunda replied. “You just have to be careful. You have to have a head on a swivel. You have to know when to be outside and when not to be. This is a problem that is so important that it’s worth that.”

Col. Monique Brown, who has been with the Baltimore Police Department for 22 years, said there are a lot of expectations to keep Baltimore at the under-300 mark; that’s 300 homicides a year she’s talking about.

“We have had some times where many will tout that we were at the under-200 mark,” she said. “But we also did some things that were unconstitutional to get us there.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever sat across from a cop telling me, ‘We were doing stuff that was unconstitutional,'” Koppel said. “What were you doing that was unconstitutional?”

“We’re under a consent decree [regarding] patting people down, our stop-and-frisk. Those things were labeled and deemed to be unconstitutional.”

“Unreasonable search and seizure” is unconstitutional. It explains in part why there’s been such a strained and complicated relationship between Baltimore’s police and the city’s Black community. It was also, it should be noted, an effective way of reducing gun deaths.

“We have not slowed down in our arrests,” said Brown. “We most certainly have not slowed down in the number of gun seizures that we recover daily. So, policing constitutionally and making sure that we are building those relationships and strengthening them for our community to trust us more, goes a long way.”

And as one path toward building those relationships, the Baltimore Police have been referring young men to the Roca program. According to Brown, “We don’t necessarily want to only use the one tool in the toolbox, which is putting young people into a criminal justice pathway. We would prefer to pull them out, and see them have more positive outcomes for their lives.”

Sheldon Smith Gray, a.k.a. Snackz.

CBS News

Sheldon Smith Gray, who is 25, was such a chubby kid that he’s still known by his street name: Snackz. Back in the day, Snackz was pulling down as much as $2,000 a week selling drugs. “I lost people to gun violence, lost people to drug overdoses, suicide, jail, prison,” he said.

Dealing drugs led to two stints in jail. After a violation of probation on a gun charge, Snackz was referred to Roca. Koppel asked, him, “What was it do you think that made you let them in?”

“Just tired, like tired of everything,” he replied. “People are dying over senseless things, like how we staring at each other? People die over that. People die over the stupid things.”

Jaleel Dorsey is a former drug dealer who came very close to proving that point.  He was working construction, driving with his boss who cut another driver off. Nothing to do with drugs; it was road rage. He explained what happened afterwards: “He was trying to aim for the driver, but instead I got hit.”

The bullet shattered his collarbone. Dorsey was in the hospital for six days. That bullet is still lodged in his back, still causing medical problems.

Police referred Dorsey to Roca. He said, “Roca got into my life when they came to my grandmother’s house, knocked on the door. I was just comin’ home from the hospital.”

Koppel asked, “What it is about these people that made you say ‘Yeah’?”

“Once they took me under their arms and they really embraced me, when I got shot and I came home, I didn’t ask them to do nothing; they did it on they own. That’s what really made me, ‘Oh, this is what you call home. This is what you call family. This is what you call people that really care about you, that really want you to succeed and not be another statistic.'”

Roca works with young men for four years until they have built critical job, education, and life skills. Kurt Palermo said, “You have young men who feel scared and anxious, and they think everyone and everything is out to get them. So, when they’re in that situation, their reaction is fight, flight or freeze, and they don’t think.”

A meeting at Roca Balitmore.

CBS News

To change that, Roca uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and with these young men it can literally change, and even save, their lives, by teaching them to change their thought patterns. “What we do is rooted in brain science,” Palermo said. “It takes about 18 to 24 months to see sustained behavior change. So, if I see someone I’m having an issue with across the street, and I immediately think, ‘They’re looking at me and they’re disrespecting me,’ I need to take eight to ten seconds to say, ‘Did they even see me? Or am I about to react because of that trauma?'”

What’s taught at Roca is a version of CBT that has been adapted for young men whose brains are still developing. “Over time, the brain can change the neural pathways,” said Palermo. “Through the reuse of CBT over and over, whether it’s a conversation on a stoop, whether it’s in a classroom, whether it’s before the young people go to work crew, they will replace those old, unhelpful behaviors with new ones that are in line with their values.”

The young men in Roca practice these skills of pausing between feeling and doing almost every day. As one youth worker explained, “If you can act intentionally and actually sit back and think before you react, that’s when you’re very powerful.”

“Basically, it’s think before you do, right? That’s easy for me to say, but sometimes that’s not so easy to do, right?” asked Koppel.

Jaleel Dorsey replied, “I had just lost my mother around that time. And somebody basically sit up here and said, ‘Oh, you gonna end up just like your mother.’ I wanted to react so bad. But I had to really remind myself, ‘Oh, I’m gonna just prove to them that I’m nothing like my mother.’ And that’s all I did. I didn’t react. So, I didn’t wanna go out here and do something stupid and I’d be behind bars for the rest of my life.”

Roca Baltimore’s Amar Mukunda with Jaleel Dorsey, a Roca partcipant. 

CBS News

Dorsey, who is only 26, has five children, and a long way to go before he can take full responsibility for them. But these days he’s making the effort. According to Roca’s Amar Mukunda, “He has made a lot of good choices in the last year to put himself in a better position. But Jaleel is very much in a vulnerable state. We’ve only been working with him a year. He still struggles with homelessness. He still struggles with physical and mental pain that he has from being a gunshot victim. I hate to put it this way, but Jaleel could easily be somebody who’s back in the streets, easily. It’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

As Dorsey said, “I came a long way, from nothing to something now.”

“You’re proud of what you’ve done; you should be,” Koppel said.

“And I know my mother’s looking and my sister is looking over me, so I can’t do that.”

When asked how he measures success, Palermo said, “For young people who have been in Roca for two years or longer, 85% have not had re-arrests, which is significant, because the vast majority, if not all of the young men that we engage with, have been arrested or incarcerated at some point in their life.”

“Snackz” completed his four years and graduated from Roca last September. He is particularly proud of his 11-year-old daughter, who’s an honor roll student. When he and Koppel spoke, he’d recently earned a certificate to become a heating and air conditioning technician. But he had other ambitions…

Koppel asked him, “If I come back to Baltimore and I say, ‘Anybody seen Snackz around?’ What are they gonna tell me?”

“They would probably tell you they seen me and I’m doing good,” he said. “Probably working in Roca five years from now. I’m probably running Roca, actually! Being a good father, a good friend, a good family member, a good man.”

Snackz is well on his way. Last October he was hired by Roca as a youth worker. He’s not running the program … at least, not yet. 

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Story produced by Deirdre Cohen. Editor: Ed Givnish.

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