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Addressing Violence In Louisville, One Community Member At A Time

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A 17-year-old has been charged as an adult for attempted murder after police say he fired shots at Clarksville Police Chief Mark Palmer's home in September.

Tyshawn Pettway says he thinks "deep" because there's no reason not to.

"This is my life, you only get one, think deep or don't think at all," he said.

Lately, the 21-year-old has been thinking about the past and what he wants from the future. He hasn't always been a model citizen—his past transgressions have left him with broken relationships, regrets and a criminal record.

"I took things to the extreme," Pettway said.

These days, though, he's focused on success, independence, prosperity and pursuing his passions. His change in demeanor is the product of reflection and reconciliation, of patience and opportunity.

Pettway is one of 250 young people taking part in the city-led REimage program. The two-year-old initiative pairs people between 18 and 24 years old that have committed misdemeanor crimes with caseworkers to help them stay out of trouble and chase their dreams.

Programs like REimage are being touted by city officials as an important piece to the puzzle when it comes to addressing violent crime.

In recent months violent crime has surged in Louisville. This year's homicide tally is on paceto surpass last year's record high. Drug overdoses are becoming more common, too. And shootings continue to plague neighborhoods west of downtown.

The issue is top of mind for many city officials, police officers and residents.

In a speech Thursday, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer addressed some 400 city employees and community leaders and detailed his plan to combat violent crime. He stressed the importance of law enforcement and community engagement. Fischer also repeated his plea for people to get involved in mentoring programs with young people to help them avoid a life of crime and find positive role models.

'Deep In The Streets'

That's what Kim Moore does.

She's a caseworker with the REimage program. She spends days meeting with people like Tyshawn Pettway—young people on the brink of trouble—and helps guide them away from from negative temptations and towards a path of employment, education and success.

Moore has also struggled with addiction and doesn't hesitate to discuss her triumph with the young people she works with.

"I was, like, really deep in the streets," she said.

Those experiences also lend her a unique and authentic ability to reason with the young people she works with. She can size them up and push back against any attempts to intimidate or be apathetic.

Most importantly, she can be compassionate toward people who are in the same place she once was.

And that's what she does to Pettway.

His days of robbing and stealing cars are done, he said. The change came, in part, because of Moore's ability to see beyond his troubles and recognize his potential.

Pettway said more young people could benefit from such compassion.

"We've go so many talented people who can do talented things, but they're in the streets," he said.

Yet many programs and attempts to intervene fail because those leading the push often fail to understand how to relate to young people.

"And that's the problem," he said.

'Not What We Want'

Rene Douglas-Smith sits amid the organized chaos of her office in the Baxter Community Center. Above her desk hang photos and news clippings of young people holding trophies, playing football and graduating high school and college.

She likes to show off the success stories of kids that have been involved with the community center over the years. The photos serve as inspiration, of sorts, to the other young people to get their own photo on the wall.

Douglas-Smith is the program director at the community center, which is nestled in the heart of the Beecher Terrace housing complex. The complex is home to some of the city's poorest residents and is known as a hot-bed of crime and violence.

The issues that permeate the housing complex show in the kids that frequent the center for tutoring or other activities, Douglas-Smith said.

They come in hungry, sleepy. And, for some, the violence is numbing.

"They just don't have a reaction, it becomes normal, and that's not good, that's not what we want," she said.

So each morning, Douglas-Smith pulls up to the center and spends days and nights playing, laughing and talking with the young people inside.

Most importantly, she listens.

"Sometimes they just need to talk," she said. "And sometimes that talk can make the difference between them doing something reckless and them stopping to think."

Douglas-Smith is a realist and knows community centers, alone, aren't the answer to violent crime or poverty or any of the other societal ills plaguing cities across the country.

But it's a piece of the puzzle.

"I try to do my part," she said. "That's all I know how to do."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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