Is Urban Violence a Virus?

Sunday's New York Times Magazine examines a "violence interruption" program in Chicago that is premised on an affirmative answer to this provocative question. ...
by | May 5, 2008 AT 3:00 AM

Sunday's New York Times Magazine examines a "violence interruption" program in Chicago that is premised on an affirmative answer to this provocative question. As author Alex Kotlowitz properly notes, a number of cities have seen gun violence surge in recent years. The result has been an almost desperate interest in models that work. Kotlowitz's cover story strongly suggests that Chicago's program is a breakthrough, one deserving widespread attention and emulation.

I'm not so sure.

I say this not simply because I'm writing a story about a different approach to reducing gun violence for Governing's June issue. The sweeping claims Kotlowitz makes for Chicago's program -- that violence is a virus and that Chicago's "Ceasefire" program is, very possibly, the cure -- both strike me as a stretch. Moreover, it muddies the water about what researchers know about what does work.

The trouble starts with the name. The "Ceasefire" program described by the Times is the creation of epidemiologist named Gary Slutkin. The program employs a cadre of "interrupters" -- street-savvy ex-felons -- who step in after a violent act has occurred and try to prevent the aggrieved party from retaliating.

But there's another "Ceasefire" program -- Boston's Operation Ceasefire, a violence intervention program that in the mid-1990s deployed police, feds, probation, parole, social workers and -- wait for me here -- youthful "streetworkers" to send gangs a message that violence would no longer be tolerated. Operation Ceasefire was, at least for a while, a remarkably effective intervention. Chicago's (new) Ceasefire program takes one part of Boston's (original) Operation Ceasefire -- the streetworkers -- and makes that the entire program.

The idea of using streetworkers -- Slutkin calls them "interrupters" -- is an interesting one (and, incidentally, an old one). Chicago's Ceasefire program certainly seems to be doing interesting things with them. But the Times's article raised some red flags.

The Chicago program seems to rely largely on fifty-year-old ex-cons -- men who are often two generations removed from the young men they're dealing with. In contrast, Boston's Streetworkers tend to be in their twenties and thirties. Is the old guard really that effective?

Maybe. However, contrary to the claims of the story, we don't yet know that with any certainty. Rigorous evaluation simply wasn't built into the design. Given that the program was created by an epidemiologist, that's disappointing. It's always hard to buck the political pressure to spread around the benefits of a program that might be successful, but better evaluation is not impossible. Resources are limited, so focus the intervention in certain areas, while selecting other demographically comparable areas as control groups. See what happens. But Ceasefire didn't do that. Instead, it claims credit for violence reductions while treating increases in violence as an argument for more funding.

Show a hammer a nail, and the hammer wants to hit it. Show an epidemiologist a social problem, and he sees, well, an epidemic. Gary Slutkin and his "interrupters" seem to be doing good work. Any right-minded person would wish them well. But stripped of its epidemiological jargon, it's not so clear that they're doing something fundamentally new.

But let's assume that Slutkin is right. If his program does generate a 20 percent(ish) reduction, that's certainly nothing to sneer at. But it still doesn't seem to be producing the kind of results that original model did -- and still does. At roughly the same time Ceasefire was up and running in Chicago, the city's Project Safe Neighborhoods group, which includes a broad local, state, and federal stakeholders, including both law enforcement agencies and community groups, was trying a variant of Boston's original Operation Ceasefire model. Moreover, they built a quasi-experimental design into the program, which allows for more rigorous evaluation. The result is that after two years, officials were able to point to a 35 percent-plus reduction in homicide, with a fairly high degree of certainty that the program works.

Chicago's Ceasefire program isn't the only way to address urban violence -- or even the best -- at least based on what we know so far.