Lake County launches violence interrupter program

State, federal money will support program to target violence “hot spots.”

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Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart announces the launch of the Gun Violence Prevention Initiative.

Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart announces the launch of the Gun Violence Prevention Initiative, which will train “interrupters” to intervene in potentially deadly disputes and connect likely participants in violent acts to job training, substance abuse and mental health counseling.

Lake County State’s Attorney

Teams of “violence interrupters” will patrol crime hotspots in the north suburbs by late summer as part of a $1 million program announced by Lake County officials Friday.

The Gun Violence Prevention Initiative, funded by a state grant and federal COVID-19 relief funds, will train and pay 10 outreach workers who should hit the streets later this summer, Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart said. The launch of the program comes as gun violence has spiked in the north suburbs in recent years — albeit on a smaller scale than nearby Chicago.

So far this year, there have been six fatal shootings in Lake County — out of a total of 11 homicides in 2022 — with more than 80% of all shootings concentrated in the Waukegan, Zion and North Chicago. (At about 87,000 people, Waukegan is the county’s largest city.) The county finished 2021 with 21 fatal shootings, a 33% increase from 2020 and more than five times as many as in 2019.

“I have people telling me, ‘Just throw ‘em all in jail,’” said Rinehart, a former public defender elected in 2020 on a reform platform. “Well, you can’t do that if they haven’t done anything yet. This is an investment in prevention, doing something before the bullets are in the air.” 

By a 21-0 vote, the Lake County Board approved $560,000 for the program in April, and the state awarded another $500,000, though the county has yet to choose a partner organization to administer the funds. Waukegan native Mark McAllister, who for years has worked for the Cure Violence organization, building outreach programs across the U.S., will lead training. Outreach workers will be recruited from the ranks of former gang members or returned felons; both are considered “credible messengers,” who can mediate violent conflict.

Variations on the interrupter model have grown in popularity since the early 2000s, thanks in part to the sometimes mixed success of Cure Violence, a Chicago-based organization that approached violence as a public health problem. The idea is that violence spreads within groups like a disease, with interrupters serving to break the chain of transmission.

As crime spiked during the pandemic, even as protests over police violence swept the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, policy makers have directed more funding to interrupter-style programs. In Chicago, such organizations will approach $190 million in funding from charitable foundations, state and local funding, and the number of outreach workers citywide totals around 200.

Recent research by the University of Chicago has shown significant declines in arrests and acts of violence among men who participated in the READI Chicago program, which sends outreach workers into neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides to find the residents most at-risk either to be shot, or to shoot someone. Workers for READI, and more than a dozen similar organizations, follow up after interrupting conflict by recruiting at-risk individuals into a program where they are paid to attend daily therapy sessions, job training and counseling.

Mayor Billy McKinney said he and his police department are looking forward to the day interrupters hit the streets of Zion. The suburb, with fewer than 50 police officers, recorded 182 “shots fired” incidents in 2021, including 27 times when people were hit by gunfire.

“We can’t wait until something happens to act,” McKinney said. “Our police force, they understand who the players are and the beefs they have. Being able to have someone who can get together with these groups and talk to them is essential.”

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