BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — “Her nickname was Pinky,” Atif Mahr’s voice cracks as he recalls the day he found out his baby girl would never walk through the doors of their family home again.
Standing in a room beautifully decorated in gold and white filled with pictures and memories of 19-year-old Isis Aaliyah Mahr, he fought back tears remembering her strength and resolve to do something to make this world better for teenagers in her community who are losing their lives to violence.
“Before Isis was stolen from my community and my family, we used to do Stop the Violence basketball games at Wohl community center and give the money back to the recreation center,” said Mahr. “She was already involved and not wanting to perpetuate the violence in our community. She wanted to do it, we did it, it was a beautiful thing for years until COVID struck. During COVID, she was killed.”
Stolen by the violence that has claimed an unprecedented number of lives among young people in the U.S. According to a report published by Pew Research Center on April 6, 2023, the United States has experienced a 50% increase in gun deaths among children and teens between 2019 and 2021. Isis was killed in 2020 and now, nearly 3 years later, Atif Mahr still chokes back emotion when he talks about that night,
“I’m going to say it like I always say it, she was executed at 1:06 AM. I found out about 8:30 that morning. The police say they came to the door and no one answered. I actually found through my niece who had found out through social media. Social media.”
I met Mahr in St. Louis on an assignment for CBS 42’s Birmingham Forward Series of reports. I traveled there to interview Wilfred Pinkney, the director of the St. Louis Office of Violence Prevention. The city started the office in July 2022 after allocating $14 million in American Rescue Plan money.
Director Pinkney spent 20 years as a New York City Police Officer before coming to St. Louis and eventually leading this office which coordinates public safety resources and community violence intervention programs to improve safety in St. Louis Neighborhoods.
“There was a study done in 2018 that said 67% of the violence happens in four zip codes and if you look at most cities, that’s going to be the reality,” Pinkney said. “Most of the violence is really concentrated.”
Moneygeek.com listed St. Louis, Birmingham and Mobile, AL in the top 15 most dangerous cities in the U.S. Per Capita for high-cost crimes like homicide. Law enforcement and city leaders disputed the report which was published in Forbes magazine as well.
“[There’s] two things about that that’s interesting,” said Pinkney, “One is there has also been plenty of studies that have shown that St. Louis is one of the best cities for entrepreneurs, up and comers or young professionals. So you have this juxtapose of the people who are focused on violence and crime painting a picture of the city as being out of control, but then you have people looking at economics, looking at professional development, looking at workforce or even the arts or there’s a really big fashion scene here highlighting the city with all these opportunities.”
Opportunities were taken away from Isis Mahr who wanted to become a nurse. The night she was killed her family says she was taking other teens home from work. Her grandmother Brenda Mahr is retired from four decades of public service in St. Louis. The Employment Connection building in the city bears her name. Her family is now one directly affected by the violence that often plagues those she served in her work.
“I had visioned this and had actually started a group, I was supposed to retire and three years later I stayed on because I saw generational incarceration, and we needed to come up with some strategies to stop the cycle of that incarceration which of course starts with violence,” Brenda Mahr said. “One of the key strategies is we have to stop the proliferation of guns and the accessibility to our young people of guns in the community.”
Brenda Mahr said she had hoped when Isis became a nurse she would have been able to care for her in her later years. Instead, she buried her granddaughter. Two teenagers are charged in the death of Isis Mahr.
Youth Diversion falls under the St. Louis Office of Violence Prevention. Director Pinkney’s office convened service providers, parents and youth to hold a series of talks about the juvenile justice system.
“What was right, what was wrong, what are the reasons kids are being exposed to the system at all,” Pinkney said. “I think a lot of time we don’t talk to young people or we don’t think that they understand or have a plan. Those young people talked a lot about mental health [and] trauma. They talked a lot about the behavior of their peers.”
Pinkney touted a program in St. Louis called StoryStitchers, an artists collective located in the St. Louis Arts District with serves 16 to 24-year-olds. The program is free of charge and is located steps away from the Fox Theater in St. Louis.
Malik Jones is a music producer who is interning at St. Louis Story Stitchers and will become a youth advocate. He has seen how the arts and creativity can be an outlet to counter violence firsthand.
“Before I was working this job, I was doing other things working small jobs here and there just to make it by. I wasn’t really satisfied. I wasn’t happy. I kind of went through this phase of my life where I was not happy with my life.” Jones said. “They pretty much just helped me get back into what I want to do, because I love making music.”
Director Pinkney says their office and OVPs in general are the coordinating body through which funding normally runs and who create plans for community safety.
“That plan is what will drive funding and will help you assess what organizations are doing and who is actually doing good work and who is following the plan,” Pinkney said. “Otherwise, you have 10, 20, 30 organizations just sort of doing good work and nobody is really holding their feet to the fire to say what exactly are you doing, what is the impact, and are you really doing what you said you were going to do when you entered into a contract for this funding.”
Birmingham City Councilor LaTonya Tate would like the City of Birmingham to have an operating Office of Violence Prevention. Her background in public safety and her leadership as the City’s Public Safety Committee Chair is respected among her colleagues and Mayor Randall Woodfin.
“It’s nothing that you have to think about, it’s all about replication,” Councilor Tate said. “What you see going on across the nation, cities like Baltimore, you see Omaha Nebraska, as you stated St. Louis, it’s different areas that have started up offices of violence prevention so that is the goal going forward.”
She sees the office as one that works parallel to the police. She says an OVP can do that and help scale and support the community groups that are doing the work on the ground.
“I think it’s important that people have to understand the role of a police officer. Their job is to arrest perpetrators and solve crime,” Councilor Tate said. “When gun violence erupts in a community, nobody is deploying therapists and healers and restorative people back into the community because the whole community is affected by gun violence.”
Pinkney said there is a parallel nature to what an OVP does and what law enforcement in a community is doing. St. Louis has a crisis line that diverts 9-1-1 calls to a service of mental health professionals who have been long established in the city in dealing with mental health.
“So that’s where we have a clinician, a behavioral health professional and an officer riding around, doing what we would call street triage. They are able to respond to the 911 calls directly or as an assist and once again, they de-escalate those situations. they stabilize individuals and they do follow up connecting people to care, and they do follow up making sure people have those connections to follow up with care,” Pinkey said. “So these are strategies that are reimagining policing reimagining public safety in communities. The behavioral health professional basically leads those interactions. They are able to stay as long as they need to, to resolve those situations and that allows law enforcement officers to get back on the radio to go do community policing to go respond to violent incidents. So once again it’s working in parallel, it’s not an either-or.”
St. Louis has been using Cure Violence as a violence interrupter since 2020. The group has three sites in the city where credible messengers intervene to try to stop retaliations and mediate disputes before they turn violent. Despite a dramatic drop in homicides in the targeted areas in their first two years, data from 2022 showed homicides in those areas were up 69 percent.
Breaking that cycle is something Atif Mahr says has to begin in the home. He’s part of a group called Chosen Fathers. He joined when Mike Brown Senior reached out to him.
“Our mission is to create a safe place for fathers to heal, bond and grow and take those lessons and put it back into the community so no other father feels the way we feel or goes through what we go through,” Mahr said. “Cause this is every day, for the rest of my life.”