October 15, 2022

Interrupting the Cycle of Violence: A Role for the Community and the Police


PERF members,

Over the years I have worked in a lot of places, but one city where I have a special long-term relationship is Chicago. Somehow Chicago keeps pulling me back.

In the late 1990s, Chicago PD Superintendent Terry Hilliard and Deputy Superintendent Barbara McDonald asked me to come to Chicago and talk about racial profiling. Well, I didn’t think a Washington guy coming to Chicago and talking about racial profiling would be effective. I had another idea: Why not identify the most outspoken and visible community leaders and have them come to Chicago Police headquarters and sit side by side with the department’s command staff? I would moderate a discussion and give both sides a chance to talk. Terry liked the idea, and these sessions — called “The Forums” — went on for years. 

Terry built up enormous credibility from these forums. In each one we asked, What have we accomplished since the last meeting? We began thinking about how we could reduce violent crime. We selected one of the toughest areas of Chicago and focused on how everyone — police, prosecutors, and community leaders — could make a difference in what came to be called the “Zone.” I remember one heated meeting where someone from the U.S. Attorney's office said, “We don’t want to rush it. We need to take our time building a case.” I was young and impatient and jumped on him for not having a sense of urgency, but I wound up apologizing. I’ve done a lot of apologizing over the years.

In efforts to reduce violence, we all know the police cannot be effective on their own. Other stakeholders can make a big difference.

One person then doing significant work in this area was Gary Slutkin, a Chicago epidemiologist, who believed that violent behavior is a contagious disease that spreads from one person to another. He argued that we need to look at the problem of violence from a medical perspective. Out of this thinking came the idea of a public health response to violence that aims to interrupt its spread by having members of the community mediate conflicts.

The controversial part of this work was that in order to prevent violence, you often needed to form alliances with people you had put in jail but who now had changed their lives. These “violence interrupters” might be former gang members who still had ties to current gang members. For police, this was a tough pill to swallow — how do you deal with gang members whom you had once arrested but were now expected to trust? For their part, violence interrupters have to work in highly stressful and often dangerous conditions, and a number have been killed.

Today, cities across the country are experimenting with programs that reflect this public health approach. As cities have implemented violence interrupter programs, many have asked if we have evidence that they work and what role the cops should take in them. What does successful implementation look like?

I asked PERF Research Director Dr. Meagan Cahill, who has studied this issue, to explain how violence interrupter programs relate to broader community efforts to reduce violence, what the research shows, and where the police fit in. Here is what she told me: 

For years, cities have been using community violence interventions (CVIs) to address violence in their communities. With violence rising in cities across the country during the pandemic, the White House included funding for CVIs in its 2021 Comprehensive Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gun Crime and Ensure Public Safety and committed billions to this type of violence reduction effort.

CVIs don’t have a single definition, but a common thread is that they try to reduce homicides and shooting by establishing relationships with people at the center of gun violence in communities. Three evidence-based approaches are considered core CVIs: violence interruption programs, group violence intervention programs, and hospital-based violence intervention programs.

Violence interruption programs are probably the best-known CVI. They typically employ ex-gang members or other credible messengers to conduct outreach in high-violence areas — mediating conflicts, preventing retaliation, and connecting high-risk individuals with services to help them stop violent behaviors. Interrupters also engage the community to challenge the belief that violence is an acceptable way to deal with conflict or can’t be avoided. When violence is no longer considered normal or acceptable, community members are more likely to join or initiate efforts to reduce violence.

The first violence interruption programs were implemented in Chicago in the early 2000s. Since then, the Chicago model has been used extensively in the U.S., in large cities like Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and smaller ones like Chester, PA, Greensboro, NC, and Toledo, OH. Evaluations have shown that these programs can be highly effective when implemented correctly. But implementation is complex, and evaluations are difficult, so the overall results are mixed.

Hiring and supervising ex-gang members—trusting they are out of the game and sincere about improving community conditions—can be challenging. And the programs are expensive, so securing a consistent funding stream is essential. Cities may lack the political will to commit significant funding to what feels like a risky program.

These challenges are part of why the model was adapted as it spread to other cities. But cities that significantly changed the model or only implemented parts of it have had less success.

Researchers evaluated the first violence interruption programs in Chicago over an eight-year period. Overall findings were mixed across the seven program sites, but the program was associated with significant decreases in shootings (41-73 percent) in four sites. In Baltimore, a program significantly reduced gun violence in three of four program sites. But in Pittsburgh, where a program implemented parts of different CVIs, including violence interrupters, it didn’t reduce homicides and was associated with an increase in gun assaults.

It isn’t entirely clear what role police should play in violence interruption programs. Of the other kinds of CVIs, group violence intervention programs explicitly involve the police, who are a central partner in effective program implementation, and hospital-based violence intervention programs often don’t involve the police at all. Violence interruption programs, in contrast, may involve the police but don’t always.

Early violence interruption programs excluded the police, wanting to enable interrupters to speak honestly with the community without being seen as gathering information for the police or snitching. Working independently from the police gave interrupters more credibility in the streets. Those following the original Cure Violence model of violence interruption still operate independently of the police. But newer versions of the model have involved the police in different ways — as a source of information about who should receive outreach or about incidents that have just occurred and need to be “cooled down.” Others partner more closely with police to coordinate violence reduction approaches.

The Dallas Police Department identified violence interrupters as part of its 2021 strategic plan for reducing violent crime. And as part of Los Angeles’ Gang Reduction and Youth Development program, violence interrupters are explicitly connected with LAPD, receiving information from the department and working with officers to provide coordinated responses to gang violence.

Meagan is leading a group of PERF staff who will begin working this month, with the generous support of the Joyce Foundation, to explore the role of police in violence interruption programs and other community efforts to reduce violence. We will survey police agencies across the country to learn more about how communities implement these programs and how police are participating. And we will speak with police executives to get more in-depth information about their experiences with the programs.

If you receive the survey or an invitation to be interviewed, I hope you’ll participate. PERF will use our findings to prepare recommendations on how police can best contribute to the success of these and other strategies to reduce violence. Police departments need to know where they should fit into these programs. Important discussions need to take place, and good communication between police and program leaders will be essential. Our study will aim to help guide police executives in making these decisions.