11/15/2014 11:00 EST | Updated 01/15/2015 05:59 EST

Program modelled in Chicago puts muzzle on gun violence in Halifax

HALIFAX - Lason Johnson smokes a cigarette outside an apartment building in Halifax's north end, a neighbourhood where he spent years selling crack cocaine.

"I helped poison my community when I was younger," said the 30-year-old Johnson, flicking back the hood of his black sweatshirt from his head. "We used to sell a lot of dope.

"Now looking back in the clique that I had, three of the guys are in jail for life, and two of the guys have been murdered."

Johnson has turned his life around. But it wasn't until he served three years behind bars for drug trafficking that he realized he didn't have to live a life filled with crime and violence.

Now, he's helping others with a program called CeaseFire, a first-of-its-kind program in Canada that began in May. It aims to bring down gun violence in several Halifax communities among young black men between the ages of 16 and 24, a group it deems high-risk.

Modelled off a gun violence reduction program in Chicago, the program is based on a health-care model, said Viki Samuels-Stewart, project manager at CeaseFire. She said the group thinks of gun violence as a virus and treats it like an epidemic.

"It's all about establishing relationships and trust," said Samuels-Stewart of the program, which received more than $2 million in funding earlier this year from the federal government.

"One of the first things you do is find the source and then stop the transmission and change the behaviour. ... We work directly with those involved. Our program is not ... your nine to five-type program."

Johnson, who describes himself as a "violence interrupter," is on call 24 hours a day. He said he keeps his "ear to the streets," goes to all community events and stops in at weekend parties. He hangs out at the basketball court and talks to people.

Johnson said if he hears about a potentially violent situation, he goes directly to the scene and attempts to reason with the parties involved and provides alternatives in resolving the issue.

"A few weeks ago a guy was drinking and I heard him talking in the corner about how he was going to shoot somebody," said Johnson, who primarily works in the neighbourhoods of Uniacke Square and Mulgrave Park, areas that consist of public housing.

"I started talking to him. He starts talking about his nephew. He starts smiling. Next thing I know, he wound up chilling."

Johnson said three days later, the same person ended up in jail for possession of a weapon.

"I was talking to him from jail and he said, 'Lason, thank you. ... I'm in jail for possession instead of murder or attempted murder.'"

Marcus James, an outreach worker for the program, said he has noticed a difference as a result of the program.

"There are individuals who have made positive changes," said James. "Whether it's them wanting to go back to school, or wanting to enrol in university, or be re-entered into the workforce."

Johnson agrees. He said he sees a change in behaviour in some young men and he even has ex-convicts who help him mediate violent situations on a daily basis for no compensation.

Halifax police say gun violence has decreased since last year. Const. Pierre Bourdages says there were 24 shootings this year as of Wednesday, compared to 35 during the same period last year.

"The program is working," said Johnson.

"I'm in these areas like a box of Kraft Dinner. If these guys are now sitting down and talking to me, we're doing something right."

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