Community violence switches: does the concept work?

By Samuel Williams, Jr.,
Special at AFRO

Last week, AFRO introduced the concept of Violence Interrupters in Washington, D.C. Peacekeepers, serving as frontline workers in DC neighborhoods with the highest rates of violence using a public health approach to reduce shootings and homicides.

A pilot program launched in 2019 under the name “Cure the Streets” (CTS) served six high-risk areas in DC. The program documented progress in reducing violent crime between 2020 and 2021.

Firearm homicides decreased by 47% in the six target areas served by the CTS from 2020 to 2021, according to CTS data. Similarly, CTS focus areas saw a 3% decrease in assaults with a deadly weapon, compared to a 16% increase in this category of violent crimes citywide.

Still, top city officials remain skeptical that the Cure the Streets violence switches have actually made a dent in the violence that assaults DC’s high-crime communities.

“I totally support the efforts of the violence interrupters here in DC. But you have to take the CTS stats with a grain of doubt,” the city official said. “Remember that between 2020 and 2021, our city was facing a true COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the mayor issued a decree that citizens must be home at a certain time. That could have been a factor in those low numbers.

Yet in Chicago, where the violence switch concept was conceived, there were similar promising results. Originally developed as “CeaseFire” in 2000, American epidemiologist Gary Slutkin pioneered the model in West Garfield, Chicago’s most violent community at the time.

In CeaseFire’s first year, shootings dropped 67%. CeaseFire received additional funding from the State of Illinois in 2004 to expand the program from five to 15 communities and from 20 to 80 outreach workers.

A three-year evaluation of the Chicago program by the US Department of Justice in 2009 found that the rate of violent gun use and homicides had declined. Shooting “hotspots,” the geographic and historical areas where gun violence is most likely to occur, have shrunk in size and intensity. Reprisal killings have been eliminated.

“A striking finding was the importance the ceasefire held in their lives,” said the authors of the US Justice’s assessment of the ceasefire plan.

“Clients highlighted the importance of being able to reach their social worker at critical times – when they were tempted to return to drug use, were involved in illegal activities, or when they felt violence was imminent,” says The report.

The Department of Justice lead evaluator for the CeaseFire report commented: “I found the statistical results to be as strong as you could hope for.

Lashonia Thompson-El, who is acting director of the DC Peace Academy, said the main goal is to reduce violent outbreaks in the city. However, their organization would also focus on promoting healing for all parties affected by gun violence.

“Gun violence causes lasting traumatic stress in those who experience violence, families who have lost loved ones to gun violence, and those who hear gunshots near their homes, schools, or jobs. “Thompson-El said.

“We also train to provide relief in this area,” she added.

In July 2021, senior White House officials established The White House Community Violence Intervention Collaborative (CVI), a 16-jurisdiction cohort made up of mayors, law enforcement officers, CVI experts and philanthropic leaders, has pledged to use funding from the plan US bailout or other public funding to increase investment in its community violence response infrastructure. Washington, DC and Baltimore are two of the 16 jurisdictions represented on the White House CVI Collaborative. AFRO will continue to bring you updates throughout the summer on the work of this group of cities in using community violence interruption strategies to combat violence.

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About Michael C. Lovelace

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