Street outreach workers are our first responders to gun violence

The first responders to scenes of gun violence often aren’t police, emergency medical technicians or paramedics but community violence intervention workers. A new survey sheds light on the conditions they face.

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Street outreach workers walk around the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Dec. 23, 2020.

Street outreach workers walk around the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Dec. 23, 2020. The workers monitor hotspots, de-escalate potentially violent situations and provide services to people affected by gun violence.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The nation is mourning the latest mass shooting in Tulsa, and the complicated response to the killings in Uvalde, Texas, of 19 children and two adults continues to unravel. Meanwhile, news of street and community violence — a different kind of gun violence — is increasing nationwide.

In Chicago, 51 people were shot, including nine who were killed, over the recent Memorial Day weekend. Four were killed in shootings in Baltimore. Ten shootings in 24 hours in Portland, Oregon, resulted in one death. There was a deadly triple shooting in Dallas. Three were killed in two separate shootings in St. Paul, Minnesota. Four shootings over a few hours in Memphis resulted in one death.

The first responders to these scenes often aren’t police officers, emergency medical technicians or paramedics but community violence intervention workers known as “street outreach workers.”

Every day, an estimated thousands of paid and unpaid men and women walk America’s streets — unarmed — actively trying to reach those involved in gun violence, to calm disputes and make connections to life-saving services. These workers insert themselves in conflicts, stand between battling street crews, or convince people not to carry guns or seek retribution.

Amidst an unprecedented national increase in gun violence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that in 2020, more than 45,000 Americans, or 124 people each day, died from gun-related injuries.

In response, cities across the country have called for additional funding and support for community violence interventions as a way to address gun violence without expanding the reach or impact of the criminal justice system.

The Chicago Department of Public Health and the Community Safety Coordination Center, in partnership with The Center for Healing and Justice through Sport, recently announced a series of 10 training cohorts for community outreach workers in 15 high-priority communities across the city through mid-August.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently announced the “Ripple Effect” campaign during Gun Violence Awareness month. The city tripled its commitment in 2021 to community violence interventions, to nearly $50 million.

President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act includes $5 billion to support community violence intervention programs. Baltimore has distributed more than $17 million to community-based organizations targeting gun violence, with plans to increase this amount to nearly $50 million over the next three years. Philadelphia recently expanded its violence prevention budget to $155 million — a $68 million increase from previous years.

First-hand witnesses to violence — and sometimes, victims

Despite the growing need and support for these programs, until now little data was available about this workforce or how to support them.

A new survey of violence prevention workers in Chicago shows that more than 80% of outreach workers reported arriving on the scene of a shooting before other first responders, often witnessing firsthand an injured or deceased neighborhood resident. The survey was done through research centers at Northwestern University and The University at Albany with the assistance of Chicago CRED and the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago.

More than half, or 52%, of workers report experiencing the death of a client due to violence. Unlike other first responders who attend to calls for help after gun violence, community violence interventionists work proactively, in advance, with those in situations where violence is likely to occur.

This survey found that 60% of outreach workers in Chicago reported witnessing a shooting attempt and 32% witnessed someone shot directly in front of them while doing their job.

Outreach workers can also become the victims of violence while working, as 20% of outreach workers in Chicago reported being “shot at” while carrying out their duties; and 2% reported being shot and hit.

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This is a high rate even for first responders. In 2020, a record-high 76 Chicago police officers were “shot or shot at” — that’s less than 1% of the police department. But in one year, roughly 12% of outreach workers in the survey reported they were shot at while doing their job, a rate more than 10 times higher than police in the same city.

Building a violence prevention infrastructure in communities is crucial. This means expanding quality programs through community centers, churches, and city and state agencies, and also investing in the health and safety of these workers. Exposure to violence can lead to heightened stress and anxiety, loss of sleep, worse cardiovascular health and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

As experts predict this will be a summer of high levels of gun violence, it is urgent to invest in community-based violence interventions by supporting these workers who put their lives on the line every day to stop the violence.

Andrew V. Papachristos is a professor of sociology at Northwestern University. David M. Hureau is an assistant professor of criminal justice at The University at Albany, SUNY. 

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