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Crime Tue Sep 17 2013

Funding Interrupted for Violence Prevention in Chicago

Violence. It plagues our television during the 5 o'clock news. It deters suburbanites from ever adventuring to the Windy City. Headlines have tried to cling to the "shock factor" and compare Chicago to Afghanistan and Iraq, with Chicago ranking worse than both war-stricken countries when it comes to murders. It is no secret that Chicago is facing an epidemic of gun violence, gangs, and homicides.

So often we turn to law enforcement for answers. Rarely do we consider non-governmental agencies partners in fighting crime to the extent it needs to be fought in Chicago neighborhoods confronted with homicide. CeaseFire, more recently known as Cure Violence, has been a partner in ending violence since 1995 (1990 in Chicago) under the foundation of Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who believes that violence should be treated as an epidemic using the same strategies and methods as disease control. The organization's website reads that "detection and interruption, identifying individuals involved in transmission, and changing social norms of the communities where it occurs" are critical in preventing and reducing violent crime. A key component of the strategy involves recruiting members of the community in which violence is occurring and even sometimes individuals who were once gang members. They identify potentially lethal situations, identify conflict, and utilize mediation techniques to prevent violence.

Research [PDF] has show that CeaseFire works to reduce gang involvement and gang-related homicides. But critiques of this research highlights the lack of other factors potentially contributing to a reduction in violence. These can include policing tactics such as new initiatives in communities with heavy gang activity, presence of POD cameras, and Hot Spot policing. Additionally, the increased number of incarcerated individuals and the overall reduction inc crime across the nation have been used to explain reductions in violent crime in Chicago neighborhoods. Since the national trend of decreased violent crime starting in the 1990s, every criminal justice agency in Chicago has attempted to take credit for the why and the how.

These alternative explanations to CeaseFire's effectiveness have also been used to validate city funding running out without signs of renewal to support the program. A direct result of loss of funding includes shutting down two CeaseFire sites in Englewood and Lawndale -- two neighborhoods historically known for gang activity and high rates of homicides.

Though the research may be controversial on the effectiveness of a non-governmental agency deploying interrupters to prevent lethal activity on the streets of Chicago, one should stop to assess what it takes to end the dozens of shootings that our city faces on any given night. Arguably, violent crime and gang activity have root causes deeper than what law enforcement is prepared to or equipped to confront. CeaseFire attempts to bridge that gap by challenging social norms -- indeed, no easy task. In a political environment that continuously debates gun laws in our nation, where does CeaseFire play a role? Just yesterday we saw a Navy shipyard tragically experience a mass shooting carried out by a man who obtained his guns legally (and had ties to Chicago, mind you). Certainly, this begs the question of the value and effectiveness of stricter background checks, mandatory reporting by states of gun-related incidents, and Federal-level registration of firearms.

So often we try to give one entity credit for a success or we attempt to task one group with solving a large social issue. We must step away from pointing just one finger in one direction. Law enforcement, NGOs, and our prison system should not be solely responsible for impacting change nor should they be expected to do so individually. Partnership is key. Communities are plagued with violence and therefore community members must also band together to make a difference. Communities know each other best and they know how laws versus programs would impact themselves and their neighbors. It is their voices, their perseverance, and their camaraderie that will challenge the societal norms which breed violence and homicide every day in Chicago. They must work with police and non-profits to help inform policies, practices, and programs. Otherwise, lives will be taken too soon and too many.

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