Early this month, Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney appeared before news cameras and begged local community members to find ways to help slow the rapid spread of shootings in the city.
Confirmed cases of shots being fired in the city had nearly doubled in 2020, she said. Five people were shot since November. Three died. Many of the incidents happened in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
Brackney showed pictures of guns the department confiscated alongside crime scene photos of recent shootings, with bullet casings littered across residential streets.
“What can this community do?” she said. “How do we collectively contribute to solve the problem? Beyond traditional police responses — police presence, reactive responses, patrols, arrests of individuals involved in these instances, investigations or more cameras — little more has occurred.”
Even as she spoke, ideas for how to address the sudden and alarming increase in such violence were already percolating.
“It’s getting out of control now,” said Joshua Adriel Washington. “The more something happens, the more it will continue to happen. I feel like, if you address the issue head-on from the beginning, you can kind of get a grip on it.”
Washington and his friends came upon an idea. Many in the Black community are reluctant to call police, they said. That leaves few options for people when they see altercations turning violent.
What the community needed, they decided, was a third party to call for help. So they launched a hotline with the aim of giving people someone besides police to call if they fear an altercation is getting out of hand.
The friends have created a network of well-known people living in the community that will essentially act as on-call mediators in key Black neighborhoods ready to enter potentially fatal situations and talk people down. The group’s name is Sit Downs Before Shootouts, and the number is (434) 218-2387.
“The way things are going now, you can see why people don’t call the police,” said Nicholas Feggans, one of the founding members of Sit Downs Before Shootouts. “But, if they can call someone they can trust who can relate to them, or who have been what they’ve been through, it will give us a higher chance of getting that call.”
The group’s mission is singular — stop the shootings. They want people to call when it’s clear things are going wrong, but before someone dies.
The deal is the caller will get help. And no one will call the police.
“You might have two guys in an altercation,” Feggans said. “Just pick up the phone. Say, ‘I don’t want to hurt this guy, can you come get him?’ A lot of situations happen spur-of-the-moment. But even if someone on the outskirts sees it, give us a call. Say, ‘Hey, I see something about to get out of hand. You guys might need to get someone over here and get this person out of here.’”
The solution could be as simple as sending an Uber, Feggans said. Or it may call for the group’s mediators to facilitate a peaceful conversation.
And if the altercation is between two people in different Charlottesville neighborhoods — something that happens regularly, Feggans said, especially among younger men — the group has people in those neighborhoods who can team up to resolve the conflict.
The group comprises childhood friends Feggans, Washington, Jamey Rush, Robert Gray, Martez Tolbert and Johnathan Barber along with a few other people on-call around the city. Each grew up in Charlottesville, and each are, in their own ways, role models in the community, they said.
“Between all of us, we probably know 99% of the people in [the Black community in] Charlottesville,” Washington said. “I feel that we’ve got to help in some way.”