A Plan to Combat Gun Violence That Doesn't Focus on Guns

New York City is taking an innovative approach that relies on street-level "violence interrupters" to curb crimes involving weapons. Chicago's been doing it for years.
by | August 29, 2017
These "violence interrupters" patrol the streets of Chicago's West Side. (AP/M. Spencer Green)

East New York sits well beyond the cluster of Brooklyn neighborhoods where gentrification has turned once working-class communities into wealthy enclaves.

It was, and still is, a place that is plagued by high levels of poverty: More than one in four residents live at or below the poverty line, and the median household income of $35,099 is well below local and national averages.

As in other communities across the country, rampant poverty in East New York has in the past been the backdrop for violence. In 1993, the 75th precinct of the New York Police Department, which includes East New York and neighboring Cypress Hill, logged 126 homicides, almost one-fifth of all the homicides in Brooklyn. East New York was considered the worst precinct assignment in the city.

“The unfortunate stigma that has been attached to East New York was based on the many years of neglect and despair,” says Andre Mitchell, founder and executive director of Man Up! Inc., a nonprofit community organization that works in the neighborhood. “East New York of the past was not a place where people felt safe to visit and work."

Times have changed. Violent crime is down in Brooklyn and throughout the city (and much of the rest of the country).

Part of that shift, say police leaders and Mayor Bill de Blasio, is thanks to a program the city modeled on the long-standing Cure Violence initiative in Chicago.

“I think the Cure Violence movement, which is the -- they’re often called gang interrupters and the folks who work at the community level of, and by, and for the community to address violence, and stop it before it starts, and get young people away from gangs -- that’s been a big piece of the equation too. And it doesn’t get a lot of attention, but those grassroots efforts had really helped,” de Blasio told a radio interviewer earlier this month.

The Cure Violence program was launched in Chicago nearly two decades ago to curb homicides and violent crime. At its core is the interruption of violence by street-level workers who intervene in disputes. Man Up! Inc. and other organizations in New York City, including the Harlem-based Street Corner Resources, follow the Chicago model with a few modifications.

Man Up has been employing the Cure Violence model for more than a decade. Now the programs and a network of dozens of Cure Violence-styled programs across New York City are receiving $22.5 million of funding, coordination with the mayor's office and support from law enforcement in reducing crime.

The injection of both cash and human capital appears to be paying off.

In the section of East New York where Man Up is active, it's been more than 1,000 days since someone was killed by a firearm, according to NYPD data.

Here's how the Cure Violence approach works: Young men and women who have previously been immersed in street violence and crime are recruited to act as the street-level violence interrupters. Their own backgrounds give them the credibility to smooth tensions between potential combatants.

“We hire community people from the area, we train them and we deploy them back in the neighborhood to talk to those people most likely to pull a trigger,” Mitchell says. “They know the community, they know where the shooters live, know who to talk to.”

But the New York City iteration of Cure Violence is multi-pronged. In addition to the violence interrupters, other hospital-based workers connect with victims of violence who have had to seek medical care. In coordination with the violence interrupters, these hospital-based workers seek to dissuade young men and women from seeking revenge for attacks. Additionally, school-based counselors in 36 schools across the city work with teenagers to help them develop conflict resolution skills. The program also includes a job-training component to move teenagers and young adults away from street crime and into the workforce.

The overarching goal is to change the behavioral norms of teens and young adults in neighborhoods where conflict resolution too often involves violence, whether in the home or on the street.

“All we can do is change the mindset of these people who have access to illegal guns,” Mitchell says.


A Centralized Approach

New York has more than 60 violence reduction programs operating in what it calls its “Crisis Management System,” which targets 18 neighborhoods across five boroughs. Those 18 areas account for half of violent crime committed in the city.

Earlier this year, de Blasio announced the creation of the Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence, which will oversee the programs in the Crisis Management System, as well as the Cure Violence program and other initiatives. The city committed $22.5 million to the new effort in its first year.

It's part of an effort to rethink the way New York tries to reduce violent crime, says Eric Cumberbatch, the executive director of the new office.

“We don’t feel that targeting gun violence is the best to way to cure gun violence,” he says.

Early results suggest the centralized approach has been a success. As of the most recent data, there have been six murders in the 75th precinct, the one that includes East New York, in 2017. For all of 2016, the precinct recorded 23 murders.

The move toward coordinating with groups like Man Up comes after decades of aggressive tough-on-crime policing. The city has begun moving away from those tactics, which were popular under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. And the controversial method of stop-and-frisk under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which targeted black and Latino residents and caused many citizens to distrust police, is a thing of the past, having been deemed unconstitutional in court. (It's worth noting that NYPD still struggles with public mistrust and accusations of improper conduct and use of arrest quotas.)

So as Cure Violence begins to show results, Cumberbatch says officers have become more willing to work with the program. After all, he says, police and the program have the same goals.

“The last thing NYPD wants to do is put cuffs on someone," Cumberbatch says. "If we can get to them before there is an incident, it’s beneficial to everyone -- including NYPD.”

Getting reliable data on the effectiveness of Cure Violence programs, however, can be a challenge. The decrease in violence in East New York has come as crime overall in Brooklyn and the rest of the city has fallen to record lows. Across Brooklyn there were 128 murders in 2016, down from more than 600 in 1993. That trend seems to be continuing this year as well: As of August 13, there have been 67 murders boroughwide.

It's hard to measure just how much of the falling violent crime rate is attributable to programs like Man Up.

In Chicago, the Cure Violence program recorded a 38 percent reduction and a 15 percent reduction in shootings in the areas where violence interrupters were active, according to a report by the McCormick Foundation. However, the 2013 study of the program only included one year of data.

Violence in Chicago still grabs national attention for the sheer volume of homicides. In 2016, Chicago recorded 751 homicides and has recorded 451 as of Aug. 22. In the face of violence and homicide rates that stubbornly remain well above the national average, Cure Violence is reporting reductions in both shooting and retaliations to incidents of violence in the Chicago neighborhoods were the program is active, as compared to the places it does not have an active presence.

John Jay College this fall will release a detailed analysis of New York's Cure Violence program, which should provide a more concrete sense of the impact the program is having there. In the meantime, city officials are hopeful that the program -- in conjunction with other anti-violence efforts under the umbrella of the mayor's new office -- will continue to push crime rates lower.