A New Way to End Gun Violence

By Jeff Deeney 07/27/12

Shooting deaths this summer are epidemic. The drug war and gun control have failed. A radical new program called CeaseFire might stop the killing.

Chicago CeaseFire outreach workers photo via

Last week waves of gun violence crashed on a number of big cities as they sweated through an epic summer heat wave. Philly’s own spike in homicides wasn’t unforeseen: in January, violent crime was already ticking upward, primarily impacting the city’s poorest neighborhoods with the hottest drug corners; by February I’d already attended a client’s funeral while another went into hiding after rumors that he talked to cops about a murder brought retaliatory death threats.

By the spring thaw arrived it already looked look an ugly summer up ahead, and by July 20, when James Holmes strapped on a suit of body armor and a gas mask and shot up an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater with over 1,000 rounds of bullets from four different guns during a midnight showing of the new Batman in an insane gambit to achieve comic-book villain infamy, it had become clear that 2012 would go down as one of the most violent years in recent history on our streets.

Despite all the carnage already this summer, the Obama administration remains mum on changes to enforcement-oriented drug policies that some experts say "increase violence.” President Obama shows "no appetite” for advancing a gun-control agenda.

In the midst of all this madness, the Chicago CeaseFire approach to violence prevention has emerged as a promising fix for the stubborn problem of gun violence in the absence of sweeping changes to prohibition or gun laws. CeaseFire views urban gun violence that goes hand-in-hand with the drug trade as a kind of communicable disease and aims to quarantine it, preventing transmission. This “social contagion” concept of destructive learned behaviors is all the rage among public health experts in their attempts to come to terms with both violence and obesity.

CeaseFire outreach workers get to kids with guns before they pull the trigger and persuades them to talk their beefs out instead.

CeaseFire prevents the transmission of violence by using trained mediators who are former gang members with clout in violent neighborhoods to break cycles of retaliatory shootings and murders. The outreach workers gather street intelligence and use law-enforcement data to prevent future eruptions of violence, getting to kids with guns before they pull the trigger and persuading them to talk their beefs out instead. CeaseFire was credited in 2011 with decreasing murders in Chicago to a 45-year low.  The acclaimed documentary The Interrupters follows the group for a year, capturing how they work South- and West-side drug corners spreading the peace message. 

But then came 2012. This year Chicago’s homicide numbers are back through the roof. I asked Chicago CeaseFire founder Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who studied strategies to control HIV and TB in Africa during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, to explain why Chicago is in the throes of a brutal convulsion of murder. Had CeaseFire stop working?

"Not everyone can do this work," says Slutkin of his Interrupters. "Our staff are quite expert now in selection and training. Remember, these are disease control workers—just like workers who fight SARS, bird flu or flu epidemics. And who in the past fought leprosy, typhoid or cholera."

Slutkin knew exactly what was happening, where it was happening, between which gangs on which corners, and why. Slutkin’s outreach worker, most of whom have done decades in jail and still carry sterling street reps despite having gone legit, are no slouches when it comes to knowing what’s happening on the city’s hottest crime corners. 

He outlined that the first wave of violence hit last year and that Chicago is now gripped by a second wave. He claims that the geography of Chicago’s recent crime waves correlates directly to neighborhoods where CeaseFire has scaled back due to funding cuts. Where CeaseFire remains fully staffed, according to Slutkin, there haven’t been new outbreaks of violence. These conclusions remain to be evaluated, but the spike in violence tends to support CeaseFire’s methods rather then raising doubts about them, because epidemic disease control relies on vigilance. When containment and eradication efforts let up, diseases return. When CeaseFire is forced to lay off street outreach professionals, gun violence flares.

Slutkin stresses that the program's stunning results have been rigorously analyzed. "Both [studies of the Ceasefire model] were independently performed and independently funded—multiyear, multimethod, very extensive."

Chicago city officials seem to agree with Slutkin; they extended $1 million in funding to the program to get it fully staffed again in those neighborhoods worst hit by violence. By contrast, Philadelphia’s fledgling CeaseFire program is on life support, struggling to scrape up enough money to keep the lights on. Mayor Michael Nutter instead focuses almost exclusively on law enforcement, touting a COPS grant—emergency money from the Department of Justice that partially funds 25 more police officers to help cities fight crime waves. Nutter says that this will “improve public safety, lower the crime rate and continue [law enforcement] policies that work. ”Nutter says this will “improve public safety, lower the crime rate and continue [law enforcement] policies that work.”

Nutter’s double-down on enforcement may succeed if he’s able to focus extra manpower on the evidence-based GunStat program. GunStat uses crime data to identify and target for arrest gun-violence hot spots, which are usually closely associated with the city’s hottest drug corners. According to police, the department works closely with the District Attorney to make sure searches are legal (whether Stop and Frisk tactics will be part of GunStat is unclear) and evidence properly handled to maximize conviction rates. Parole and probation are also looped in, allowing for continued monitoring of gun offenders in the community.

"CeaseFire Interrupters are disease control workers—like those who fight SARS or who fought cholera," says founder Slutkin.

Leading experts such as Dr. Daniel Webster of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and Dr. John MacDonald, who heads the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Criminology, told me that they back GunStat for its success at getting guns off the street and reducing violent crime. They also stress a critical but often overlooked fact: GunStat redirects arrest efforts previously aimed at drug users. Arresting drug users actually increases violence by disrupting black markets and fomenting tensions among sellers forced to vie for smaller customer bases. Aiming enforcement at gun carriers on the supply side of the drug market who drive violence, rather than at nonviolent addicts on the demand side, is a significant reform in police policy.

But Philly remains behind the curve as more and more US cities experiment with combining innovative violence prevention with more traditional law enforcement. GunStat reduces gun crimes through mass arrest and incarceration. It avoids prosecuting addicts, but it remains a Drug War tactic, as most gun users targeted are caught up in hustling. Wouldn’t an alternative to incarceration that empowers communities to control their own violence through evidence-based training in street outreach and conflict mediation be a worthy piece of city social programming to complement law enforcement efforts? It’s worth serious consideration, as the gun issue remains impossible to solve through incarceration and impossible to address through the legislative process.  

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.

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