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New York City's gun violence czar Andre T. Mitchell: "My goal is to bring people back to their senses"

Former gang member trying to make positive difference in community
Former gang member trying to make positive difference in community 06:21

NEW YORK - Many argue the most effective way to cut down crime is to stop it before it even happens

The answers on how to do that might lie with the people who have personally been there before.

CBS2's Marcia Kramer had an eye opening conversation with a former gang member. Just eight months out of prison, he explains the positive difference he's now trying to have on the community, and he's doing it with the help of the man tapped by the city to take back our streets. 

Kramer walked out of the offices of Man Up! Inc., a Brooklyn social services group founded by Andre T. Mitchell nearly two decades ago after an 8-year-old was slain by a stray bullet as he walked home from his East New York school. 

Now "Brother Mitchell," as many in the community call him, is New York City's official gun violence prevention czar, hoping to take the lessons he's learned on the streets of East New York to every community torn apart by gun violence. 

"What you looking to do? Tell me what's your mission?" Kramer asked. 

"My mission, actually, while I'm walking the streets, is to be a beacon of hope," Mitchell said. "I'm a credible messenger. I do a lot of interruption of violence, yes." 

"So what do you say to people when you come up to somebody in the community that you know might have a weapon?" Kramer asked. 

"We try to immediately talk them down, say it's not worth it. Whatever it is they were involved in," Mitchell said. "We really try to get them to calm down their emotions. They're very emotional, and so they may be very angry... my goal is to bring people down and bring them back to their senses, so they can rationalize and think what's going on." 

"No situation is worth them using a gun. That's our training," he added. "In this, we have a number of, you know, a number of different Crips and Bloods, and folks. There's a lot of young gangs... . Nobody tells their kids to go out outside tomorrow and commit a wrongdoing... a lot of times they're forced, though the pressure - the pressure of what's going on in the area, they fell into it. Because they want to feel safe. They may want to be a part of something, want a sense of belonging, and being in a family, so to speak. They may need housing. That's why sometimes people don't realize that these gang members are providing things for these young people we, as a society, have not."

"So what are they providing?" Kramer asked. 

"They provide - sometimes it's a wage. They may provide them with some income. They provide them with food... these are basic need that people are trying to meet," Mitchell said. "They come out here and they try to get these things on their own, and no one's there to provide them. They don't see a way to be able to get it, and someone else is offering it to them... it's in exchange for illegal activity, you know, some wrongdoing. They're going to take it." 

"So they're joining these crews because..." Kramer said. 

"Because there's no other alternative, no other place to go," Mitchell said. 

"if people join a crew because they're going to get food, or work, or respect, what can you offer them?" Kramer asked. 

"We can offer them food, and housing, and jobs. The same thing that others are offering them to do wrong, we should offer them to do good," Mitchell said. 

That's why Mitchell took Kramer to an $11 million community center built in the neighborhood. It provides things like basketball courts, training programs, even counseling for men in how to be good fathers. 

Mitchell says centers like this, and athletic fields and basketball courts in East New York should be built in other violence-torn communities. 

"This is an example of how things can turn around, literally. We're not talking rocket science, and we're not talking about a lot of money either. We're talking about the political will," Mitchell said. 

Watch our full special "Gun Violence: The Search for Solutions"

Gun Violence: The Search for Solutions 28:45

As they walked the streets where Mitchell and his six brothers and sisters were raised by a single mom, he told Kramer that he, too, was once a member of a gang. 

"When you grow up out here, here in these developments, you kind of join groups that come from the area," Mitchell said. 

"Did you have weapons?" Kramer asked. 

"Yeah, we had weapons. I've been shot before, Marcia. I've been shot before. Yes, I've been shot. I've been jailed," Mitchell said. "I was shot in my leg because, well, we had rivals. It was like we had a feud." 

"Ever shoot a gun yourself?" Kramer asked. 

"No, absolutely not," Mitchell said. 

"Knife?" Kramer asked. 

"Never knifed anyone either," Mitchell said. 

"But that gave you an ability to understand what's going on?" Kramer asked. 

"I do. I do understand exactly what's going on. I had guns in my face. I know what it feels like. I know what it looks like to fear for your life," Mitchell said. 

Which is why Mitchell makes it a point to hire others who have been gang members to work for him as violence interruptors like Aunray Stanford, who just came home from prison after serving five years on weapons charges. He had been in a gang. 

"What was the appeal of that life, and what you change your mind and come into this group?" Kramer asked. 

"I think I was pretending to be something I wasn't. Acceptance. For a long time I didn't find the proper resources in my neighborhood. That played a huge role. So not being able to find employment with good wages," Stanford said. "At the time, there was a degree of respect, camaraderie, that sort of thing. Putting together bad ideas for money... selling drugs, gunslinging." 

"Did you ever shoot anyone?" Kramer asked. 

"I have," Stanford said. 

"How did you feel about it?" Kramer asked. 

"When I was doing it? I felt obligated," Stanford said. 

"Obligated to shoot," Kramer said. 

"I felt obligated to uphold the reputation, obligated to uphold the persona I built for them. I was afraid to disassociate myself from them, because then I will lose everything," Stanford said. 

"What changed your mind?" Kramer asked. 

"I realized that a lot of the things I believed were false. So I had to unlearn some things, do some self-inventory. And once I started to instill new beliefs, the behavior sort of followed," Stanford said. 

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