Former gang members could be bridge between current members, law enforcement

Former gang leader offers insights on fatal shootings
Jesse Payton

One of the 15 proposals suggested by the Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, to end violence in Madison involves hiring former gang members to reach out to current gang members to resolve problems.

The former gang members would be a bridge between the current gang members and law enforcement agencies.

“I absolutely think it has potential because a lot of the guys that I’m mentoring are former gang members who are very intelligent and just want to turn around and give something back,” former gang leader Jesse Payton said.

Payton joined a gang in Madison when he was 13 years old. He went on to become one of the gang leaders before his arrest and conviction for burglary. He served 12 1/2 years in prison.

“What was I listening to? I was listening to how to be a better hustler. I was listening to how to be a more vicious gang member,” Payton said.

While he had people in his life who tried to help him and were delivering a positive message, the voices he related to were on the street.

Since his release from prison Payton has been working with the Madison Police Department in a program called “The Notification.” 

The program focuses on changing the lives of violent criminals who are being released from prison. Many of the individuals in the program will listen to Payton because he has been where they have been in life.

The concept of having former gang member work with current gang members follows the same philosophy of one group that can relate to another.

But Payton said the issue is more complex than that. Gang members would be more open to developing a relationship with a former member of their gang. Pairing a former gang member with an opposing gang could create more problems than it solves.

“I can relate to a lot of gang members, but I can pinpoint and definitely relate to the gang that I was in,” Payton said.

While he believes the proposal to involve former gang members to help deal with current gang problems has merit, it also comes with considerable risk. He thinks the former gang members should be compensated for that risk.

“If you’re going to hire them for that job, compensate them. Don’t play with them. Don’t treat them any less than who they are as a person. And know this for sure: They are doing a job that you are not willing to do,” Payton said.

Payton also supports elements of Johnson’s proposals to empower communities to deal with problems. He believes that if neighbors take ownership for what happens in their community they will address the problems.

“In order for you to feel like you have a vested interest in the outcome of this community you have to feel like you own some of it,” Payton said.