In the late 1980s Keith "K" Guinyard ran a street gang that controlled a slice of the drug trade at a housing project in one of Yonkers' toughest neighborhoods, and ended up serving 10 years in prison after the cops rounded up his crew.
Now the 46-year-old ex-con patrols the same streets where he used to peddle crack cocaine, but as a peacekeeper.
He's one of six members of the Yonkers SNUG program -- "guns" spelled backward -- which police officials say has helped reduce the number of shootings in the city from 34 in 2010 to 8 last year, a jaw-dropping 76 percent decline.
The men are all former criminals who have spent, collectively, 55 years in prison. But they've put their past behind them in pursuit of a common goal. They call themselves "violence interrupters" -- responding to police calls and intervening in incidents that could result in gunplay -- and they're on the front lines of a battle to keep at-risk kids from ending up in an early grave.
"We're trying to reach kids and let them know they don't need to go for a gun," said Hanif Walker, 40, a former member of the Bloods street gang who spent 13 years in state prison for assault, firearms possession and drug trafficking.
'YOU'VE GOT TO BE OUT THERE'
Created by the State Senate in 2009 with $4 million in funding, New York's SNUG program -- modeled on Chicago's Ceasefire organization -- now has operations in Yonkers, Albany, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse.
State and local law enforcement officials say the program has uniformly had a major impact on reducing gun violence.
In Albany, shootings dropped by 29 percent during the first eight months of Operation SNUG. In Rochester, there was a 40 percent decline in shootings over the course of SNUG's first six months, while violent altercations fell to a 10-year low in targeted areas. Buffalo officials say the program led to a marked decline in street violence.
Eugene "Bosco" Jackson says gun violence on the streets of Yonkers is largely a byproduct of the ready availability of guns. Back in the day, when Jackson ran a drug gang that competed with Walker's, he was used to settling minor disputes with his fists. He eventually served 6 months in prison on a felony drug charge. Now he works with Walker as a SNUG outreach worker in Yonkers.
"We had the same problems they did, but they're pulling out guns to solve them," said Jackson. "That's the way they settle up."
SNUG outreach workers are paid $32,0000 a year. They get professional training in conflict resolution. The Yonkers workers traveled to Chicago to meet with the founders of Ceasefire. As part of their daily routine, they gather information about loosely organized gangs and neighborhood disputes. They attend funerals for kids shot and killed, to dissuade friends and relatives from seeking revenge. They patrol the streets at night, sometimes until dawn, looking for signs of a confrontation.
"You've got to be out there on the street, with your face to the pavement, to know what's really going on," says Charles "Flip" Barnette, who supervises the group.
CRIMINAL BACKGROUND SEEN AS 'PLUS'
Shawyn Patterson Howard, CEO of the Yonkers Family YMCA -- which runs the SNUG program in the city -- said putting the group together wasn't an easy task. Because several of the outreach workers were on parole, they needed special permission from the state allowing them to be out after midnight and to associate with known criminals across the city.
"Because of their past histories we had to fight with the state department of parole just to hire them," Howard said.
She suggested that a criminal background was a big plus, in the outreach job.
"They have the relationships on the street and inside prison, and that's what makes them credible," she said.
The group's work often puts them between the cops and the criminals, Howard said.
"It's a constant battle," she said. "They have to walk a tightrope between the police, who wonder if they will slip back into their old ways, and the street people, who have to trust they won't be snitching or giving information to the cops."
'IT'S ABOUT GIVING HOPE'
The efforts of the SNUG workers have earned them praise from Yonkers police, City Council members and even Mayor Mike Spano, who honored the group during his recent State of the City Address, crediting them with helping keep the city's crime rate down. Howard said the group has now started going to schools to talk with young people, further raising their profile.
"This has become about more than just curbing the shooting and killing," Howard said. "It's about giving hope."
Successful as it has been, the program has had little support, at times.
In 2011, when the original SNUG funding had run dry and the program was in danger of shutting down, the State Division of Criminal Justice Services came through with a $150,000 grant to keep the program running for the remainder of the year. Recently, the Yonkers City Council and Mayor Mike Spano pumped $100,000 into the SNUG program to keep the Yonkers operation running until June.
Last month, a delegation of local lawmakers led by Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) called on Cuomo to renew funding for the program. They held a rally at the Yonkers YMCA before the final budget negotiations.
As a result, state lawmakers were able to allocate $3 million for the program in the budget for next fiscal year, to be divided among the state's existing SNUG programs and new programs in Rockland, Queens and Onondaga counties and the Bronx.
ONE TOOL IN A BIG TOOLBOX
Yonkers police have implemented a number of major crimes initiatives, including an undercover operation against illegal guns and a gunfire detection system that uses electronic sensors and software to triangulate the location of a shooting. They've also teamed up with federal authorities on a number of violent-crime-related programs.
"Crime has seen a decrease not only in high-risk areas, but throughout Yonkers," said Charles Gardner, the city's police Commissioner, at a news conference in January, where he touted a 13 percent reduction in violent crimes in 2012. "These decreases are a direct result of the hard work and dedication that our officers give, and also how they risk their lives on a daily basis. We ended the year with only four murders, which I think is remarkable for a city of this size."
Spano often points out that Yonkers is "one of the safest cities of its size" in America.
To be sure, shootings and street violence continue.
Tuesday night, someone fired a shot through the window of a Palisade Avenue pizzeria. Nobody was injured.
The week before, two teenagers stabbed another teen in Getty Square in Yonkers, while bystanders refused to help the victim as he bled on the sidewalk, witnesses told police. The injuries were not life-threatening, police said.
But overall, crime is on a downward trajectory in Yonkers, and many in the city credit SNUG as a key factor. The workers say they have become better men, because of the program. A few who left behind wives and children when they went to prison have been able to reconnect with their families. A few have found a new interest in religious faith.
There's a sense of mission in the work, says Gregory "Humza" Myers, who did 13 years in prison. Myers says the workers feel they need to try to do something to stop the violence in the neighborhoods they once ruled as gangsters.
"When we see these kids lying in coffins," Jackson says, "we know they could be our kids."