Opinion: Get behind CeaseFire to reduce Chicago violence

SHARE Opinion: Get behind CeaseFire to reduce Chicago violence

CeaseFire assists Chicago Police investigating the shooting of a 7-year-old in the Morgan Park neighborhood in 2015. | Sun-Times file photo

City officials and the Chicago Police Department seem willing to try anything to stop the violence sweeping the city except something that actually works.

Consider this: On the July 4, 2015 weekend, usually the most violent of the year, no shootings or murders occurred in Englewood, one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

The 2015 Independence Day weekend contrasts sharply with the July 4, 2016 celebration that just passed. Over the three-day weekend this year, gunmen shot 11 people in Englewood, including two teenagers and two kids, one eight and the other five.


Indeed, a University of Chicago study recorded a 48 percent reduction in shootings during the entire month of July, 2015. Homicides plunged by 70 percent.

So what happened in 2015 that’s not happening now? In a word, CeaseFire, the violence reduction program housed at the University of Illinois in Chicago that also is known as Cure Violence.

You might have heard of CeaseFire. It was the subject of an awarding-winning 2011 film, “The Interrupters,” by Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams, and Alex Kotlowitz, the Chicago journalist and author.

They documented how Ceasefire Chicago sends former gangbangers and ex-convicts into dangerous neighborhoods where they capitalize on their connections and street credibility to defuse potentially violent encounters, the kind that often lead to the drive-by shootings that kill so many innocent bystanders.

What you might not have heard about CeaseFire, though, is how the program has been sidelined here for the past year – the same time frame that killings and shootings in Chicago have soared by more than 50 percent.

And why has CeaseFire, which gets most of its funding from the state of Illinois, been sidelined? Because lawmakers in Springfield, who grandstand about the evils of violence in Chicago, failed to pass a budget for a full year and because of apathy for the approach at the Chicago Police Department.

“We have some issues with (CeaseFire),” says Eddie Johnson, the city’s newly-minted police chief. “We stopped using it in Chicago maybe about two years ago. We are not doing that program anymore.” Johnson declined to elaborate.

Even CeaseFire Chicago’s strongest advocates agree that it alone can’t solve the gun violence that tarnishes the city’s global reputation.

Gun violence is deeply embedded in Chicago thanks to decades of racism, weak gun laws, gang fragmentation, an abundance of lethal weapons, political dysfunction and woefully inadequate police accountability. Chicago had a gun violence problem long before CeaseFire started and will doubtlessly still have one if it were to go away tomorrow.

But that’s no excuse for a program that shows promise to be grossly underutilized in a city where six-year-old kids get gunned down when they go out to play or where some 2,443 people have been shot so far this year — through Tuesday of last week — including 407 homicides.

CeaseFire started in Chicago

CeaseFire actually got its start in the city where it’s getting a cold shoulder. Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, created CeaseFire Chicago in 1995. Since then he’s expanded it under the name of Cure Violence to 50 cities and organizations and eight countries, ranging from Canada to South Africa to Syria.

The organization has received positive assessments from independent experts across the board. Yet, ironically, it struggles more here than in any other city it operates.

One reason, no doubt, is that Slutkin’s message is not one that law enforcement officials embrace. “Violence is a health issue, not a moral issue,” says Slutkin, who developed his ideas after serving as a physician watching the spread of disease in Africa working for the World Health Organization.

“It is a contagious process,” he says, behavior people engage in so routinely it unconsciously becomes acceptable.

“People don’t like to hear that violence is a contagious disease,” he says, “but there’s not much doubt about it because people are doing what their friends do. So the way to stop it is not punitive stuff – that these are bad people and need to be punished and taught a lesson. It is by interrupting events, preventing the spread and changing what people think their friends expect of them.”

Slutkin says it’s like promoting condoms to contain the spread of sexually transmitted diseases or changing societal views of smoking. When people see their friends change practices, he says, the change eventually becomes socially acceptable.

Another reason CeaseFire faces roadblocks here is the inevitably tense relationship between interrupters and the people who once arrested them. Cobe Williams, who was featured in “The Interrupters” film and now works for Cure Violence’s national program, says CeaseFire works because violence interrupters scrupulously avoid association with the police.

“We want to be the first phone call,” says Williams, a 43-year-old ex-felon who grew up on Chicago’s South Side. “Our people work in neighborhoods where they come from. We focus on stopping the shooting on the front end, stopping someone you know from doing something stupid because you have a relationship with him or someone who knows him.

“People in the neighborhoods won’t reach out to the police first. People just don’t trust the police, even more so now,” he says, a reference to the Laquan McDonald video in which Chicago policeman Jason VanDyke shot the 17-year-old African-American youth armed with a three-inch knife 16 times in 13 seconds.

“I got nothing against the police,” says Williams. “The police do what they do and we do what we do. But we want to get there first. By the time the police come, it’s too late. Somebody’s done been shot.”

Friction between cops and ex-felons

Obviously, that’s not a sentiment to win hearts and minds of a police department that complains about a code of silence on the streets, one that inhibits police efforts to gather information needed to solve crime.

But some former police officers and experts on crime in Chicago say the animosity goes deeper. Wesley Skogan, a Northwestern University political scientist and policing expert who led an extensive study of CeaseFire Chicago operations for the U.S. Justice Department, says the police and CeaseFire workers simply don’t like each other.

“They (the police) do not like ex-felons and ex-felons don’t like them,” he says, “Violence interrupters are mostly ex-felons. Not complicated. Once a scumbag, always a scumbag.”

Anthony Guglielmi, the police department spokesman, declined to identify the “issues” that Johnson cited regarding CeaseFire. He says the department simply prefers to work with another violence reduction program developed by David Kennedy of the John Jay College in New York.

Under the Kennedy approach, police fan out across the city and combine threats, warnings and offers of help to individuals with extensive criminal records that make them likely targets of violence or arrest, particularly the 1,400 or so career criminals on the department’s “strategic subject list.”

But one prominent former police officer says CeaseFire’s approach works better in Chicago.

“Kennedy’s program is great,” says Bruce Lipman, a retired police lieutenant who ran the Police Academy under former superintendent Garry McCarthy. Lipman says the factionalizing of Chicago street gangs in recent years gives CeaseFire’s approach a leg up here.

“Yes, cops hate Ceasefire. I thought it was a bunch of bull too until I worked with them. The CeaseFire guys are fantastic,” he says. “We worked closely when I was in the 6th District. We had an area with a lot of shootings and homicides. They put me on their board and I helped select their guys. They came in and there was just one shooting in six months. It was dramatic.”

Lipman’s views carry weight. A 29-year police department veteran, he is architect of a Chicago police training program that became a model for the nation and a part of President Obama’s Task Force Report on 21st Century Policing. He is now director of graduate programs at Saint Xavier University.

One former Bureau of Organized Crime top officer says CeaseFire’s problem is that it can’t document its impact. “They almost cherry-pick an area and say, ‘look we are interrupting and shootings went down,’” he says, “But how do you prove you did it? They can never offer any empirical proof for what they do.”

He’s partially right. CeaseFire’s model doesn’t always work. On the July 4th weekend in 2015, the Target Area Development Corp., a local non-profit, flooded the 7th and 11th police districts in Chicago each with more than 100 interrupters trained by CeaseFire thanks to a grant from a private funder.

According to a University of Chicago assessment, violence plunged in the 7th District anchored by Englewood, but the analysts saw no appreciable effect in the 11th, which includes Garfield Park, another high crime area.

Jalon Arthur, director of innovation and development at Cure Violence, says CeaseFire simply had more experience and better connections in Englewood.

“We started in Englewood earlier. There were certain areas of the 11th where we couldn’t get buy-in soon enough. We had worked in Englewood and had more people come in for training than we could handle. That wasn’t our experience in the 11th. We learned to examine our relationships more closely before we start.”

Studies show real results

But the criticism that CeaseFire lacks empirical evidence of its impact is not true.

Northwestern’s Skogan did the deepest evaluation of CeaseFire for the U.S. Justice Department. His team analyzed seven Ceasefire sites in Chicago and concluded that the program led to “distinct and statistically significant declines” in actual and attempted shootings in four of the seven sites, ranging from 16 to 28 percent declines in the neighborhoods of Auburn Gresham and Englewood on the South Side and West Garfield Park and West Humboldt Park.

Skogan’s study, published in 2009, noted that each site had a different CeaseFire team and a different host organization, meaning the analysis focused on several CeaseFire operations and not just one. Nevertheless, since he published his study, crime in all four neighborhoods has consistently increased once the CeaseFire teams left because of recurring budget problems.

All now rank in the top eight most violent neighborhoods in Chicago, accounting for 112 homicides and 590 shootings so far in 2016, according to Chicago Police Department data and local news organization reports.

Significantly, in the neighborhoods where CeaseFire worked, Skogan reported declines in retaliatory shootings among gang members, the kind that factors in much of Chicago’s current spike in shootings.

Another empirical measure surfaced after City Hall awarded CeaseFire a $1 million grant to see if it could cut crime by 10 percent in four police beats in Lawndale and Woodlawn, also South Side neighborhoods with crime problems. The contract proved controversial and was not renewed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel after McCarthy criticized the organization for failing to cooperate with police.

Nevertheless, a 2014 evaluation funded by the McCormick Foundation in Chicago concluded that CeaseFire’s presence produced crime reductions significantly greater than the targeted 10 percent, even after adjusting for an increased police presence.

The beats witnessed a 31 percent reduction in homicides and shootings fell 19 percent. Since the study ended in 2013, crime in the four beats has again increased, with shootings up by 9.3 percent to 47 by the end of 2015. In the first six months of 2016, the four beats already have logged 45 shootings, according to Chicago Police Department data.

CeaseFire did get $4.5 million in funding restored under the recent stop-gap spending bill passed in Springfield, says Mark Payne, CeaseFire Chicago’s executive director.

But Marcus McAllister, Cure Violence’s director of national training, says being included in the budget is the first step. “We’ve been in the budget before only to get cut or to wait months until the money comes,” he says. Moreover, the bill temporarily funds government while Illinois politicians struggle to overcome huge differences. Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed a 60 percent cut in Cure Violence’s budget.

Cure Violence’s Arthur says it could cut violence significantly in Chicago by enacting programs similar to the ones in the 7th and 11th districts, which cost only about $200,000 each. “If we were able to launch this just in the five most violent districts only in the spring and summer months, we could potentially cut the shootings and killings in Chicago. That’s what we’d like to be able to do.”

Police skepticism about CeaseFire is understandable. Endorsing its approach amounts to tacit admission that ex-felons can have more street credibility than a cop, something that’s probably hard to swallow for the huge majority of police officers who do their jobs professionally.

It doesn’t help that some interrupters slipped back into a life of crime. McAlister says that the organization’s bad apples represent a tiny fraction of its workforce, which is the same thing the police say about rogue cops.

Neighborhoods like Englewood are populated mostly by hard-working, law-abiding citizens whose hatred of gangs exceeds that of the police. These Chicagoans deserve better. City officials and the police should help CeaseFire get permanent funding and support it as one of several programs that just might make it safer for kids on the south and west sides to play in their yards without being shot.

James O’Shea is an author and journalist in Chicago. He is a former executive editor of the Los Angeles Times and managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, and the author of three books, including “The Deal From Hell,” a non-fiction narrative about the tragedy that sent the Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, into the hands of real estate mogul Sam Zell and bankruptcy court.

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