This blog post is part of a series of CitiesSpeak posts on reimagining public safety.
As cities face a national pandemic and the ongoing epidemic of violence, many look to violence interruption programs to help curb violent activity in their most vulnerable communities. At their core, most violence interruption programs operate under the same basic assumption: people need to trust the sources of information in order to change their behavior. This means hiring members of the same communities, many of whom have similar lived experiences to those that they wish to reach. Cities hope that violence interruption will impact the actions of high-risk individuals through the development of trust that is not currently in place between law enforcement and communities. Violence interrupters are each given small caseloads, frequently about fifteen high-risk individuals with whom they meet multiple times a week, hoping to redirect them from violence and toward opportunities for success, like employment and school.
R . Brent Decker is the Chief Program Officer at Cure Violence Global (CVG), a multinational organization that works with cities to establish violence interruption programs. “Getting the right workers is a pre-requisite for our work in most cities,” Decker said. For violence interruption to work effectively, the interrupters need to be credible messengers, and figuring out who fits the bill requires a lengthy pre-screening process and panel interview. Each hire needs to have strong ties to the community, ideally to high-risk individuals, must complete rigorous training, and be available to work all hours in a stressful environment. Despite the high bar that is set for violence interrupters, Decker finds that many of the eligible candidates have histories of incarceration that might preclude them from other kinds of work. There are many eligible candidates in every city that are uniquely positioned to make an impact. “More people are qualified in each location we visit than we can hire,” he noted.
At first, the proposition of violence interruption programs can sound risky. It is not clear to some how highly trained community members could be more successful at reducing violence than traditional law enforcement. However, even some city leaders within police departments see the possible benefits. Sarah Ritter, Director of Administration for the Criminal Investigation Division for the Baltimore Police Department, is optimistic about an integrated approach. “If you dig into the dynamics behind shootings and homicides,” she said, “a lot of the violence comes from a very small number of people. A previous assessment of a police district in Baltimore found that less than 2% of the people are responsible for 75% of the homicides and shootings.” Ritter sees an opportunity here to do targeted, focused work—the kind of work in which violence interruption programs specialize. As models for violence interruption and intervention continue to grow and evolve, Ritter acknowledges it will be important for community-based organizations and law enforcement agencies to work towards a shared goal of improving safety and reducing violence. In order to find out what strategies work, “there’s going to need to be a multi-agency and cross-sector approach to violence reduction,” she said.
Decker also discussed law enforcement’s role in CVG’s work. “No, we don’t provide information to law enforcement…” he stated, “But it’s not about ‘pro-law enforcement’ or ‘anti-law enforcement.’” Rather, the question is how best to reach people who do not trust law enforcement, and for CVG, that means keeping a clear separation between the work of violence interrupters and the police. Violence interruption programs and law enforcement don’t have to work in tension or against one another–they can exist separately in the same city, with different approaches to violence prevention.
Many violence interruption models have cropped up in the last two decades, and with data on their side, they continue to grow. Independent evaluations of CVG showed at least a 30% reduction in shootings in neighborhoods in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Roca, another violence reduction program, saw 97% of clients avoid incarceration with the continuation of the program for two years. The depth of positive-trending data is a selling point for these programs and should be taken seriously. As Ritter pointed out, when less than 2% of a population commits 75% of the serious violent crime, a few good actors have the potential to make a hugely positive difference.
As the world stands still in the face of COVID-19, violence interrupters expand their roles as trusted community members and remain consistent figures in the lives of those that they serve. In addition to their daily work combatting violence, they relay public health messages, provide PPE, and distribute food to their communities. Because many clients distrust traditional sources of information, such as politicians and law enforcement, violence interrupters have become essential in delivering pandemic-related information and services. Although perfect solutions do not exist, especially during a time of instability and economic crisis, the work of violence interrupters looks increasingly promising.
About the Authors
Kirby Gaherty is the program manager for Justice Reform and Youth Engagement in the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.
Elijah Asdourian is a fellow for the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities.