Chicago, the nation’s third largest city, ends 2016 with the more homicides than the two larger cities — New York and Los Angeles — put together. Everyone is shocked but not everyone is surprised.
More than 750 people were killed in Chicago in 2016, the highest total since 1997, and more than 3,500 were wounded by firearms.
Dr. Gary Slutkin, a University of Illinois at Chicago epidemiologist who founded the CeaseFire Illinois violence-reduction program also known as CureViolence, saw this plague coming.
He warned Gov. Bruce Rauner in a March 2015 letter of a probable surge in Chicago shootings if the program’s funding was not restored. The $4.5 million grant represented most of the funding for CeaseFire Illinois, which serves sites across six cities in the state. “Lives depend on this program,” he wrote.
Sure, just about every social service program makes life-or-death pleas when its funding is cut. But this doctor had some startling statistics on his side.
Slutkin had seen similar interruptions in funding precede violent crime surges in Chicago four times since CeaseFire took to the Windy City’s streets in 2001. That’s too often to be brushed off as mere coincidence.
After a 2007 interruption in funding by Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, for example, the program shut down 15 sites and shootings increased by 416 until after funding was restored a year later — and violence returned to its previous level.
Now, a similarly tragic trend has followed the suspension in March 2015 of the program’s funding grant.
Slutkin, as he told me in a telephone interview, hates to see that his prediction was right.
The only one of Chicago’s 23 police districts to experience reduction in shootings over the past year also happened to be the only district in which CeaseFire has been able to maintain its full program of operations.
Ironically, having expanded to 22 other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, CureViolence faces its biggest hurdles in Chicago, largely because after years of overspending, the city and state government are broke.
Republican Rauner campaigned with promises to balance the state’s budget, but as governor he has insisted on including other reforms before he’ll pass a budget. That has drawn fierce opposition from the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature, and Illinois is now heading into its second year without a full budget.
As you should have guessed by now, I like CureViolence. No program is perfect, but Slutkin’s approach of treating violence epidemics in much the same way that we think of conventional epidemics has proved its merits in numerous evaluations by the Justice Department and university studies.
Perhaps you saw it featured in an award-winning PBS Frontline documentary called The Interrupters, which still can be viewed on the Frontline website. It is worth seeing by those who are too willing to write off high-crime communities as a lost cause. Inside every “ghetto,” I argue, there’s a neighborhood trying to break free.
Slutkin, a former World Health Organization official, diagnoses violence like a contagious disease. Most violent crimes result from personal beefs, he found. A minor personal offense quickly escalates into a violent response to save face — and often leads to more retaliatory violence.
CureViolence dispatches “interrupters,” including former gangbangers and other ex-offenders, like germ-fighting antibodies into high-violence neighborhoods. There they use their connections and street credibility to defuse potential violence before it boils over.
Done right, the program encourages family members, friends, hospital workers and others who might not want to call police and have nowhere else to turn to call in the “interruptors” to intervene and try to settle the grievances peacefully.
If you wait until after police have arrived, as one interruptor put it, “it’s too late.”
Yet, since the most effective interrupters include some ex-offenders, cooperation with police tends to be at arms-length. Police sometimes complain that the interrupters aren’t helping them enough, and trust in police is so low in many neighborhoods that the interrupters don’t want to be seen as becoming too cozy with the cops.
Again, no program is perfect. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to violent crime waves. We need to try everything that works. CureViolence appears to have passed that test.
As for the funding challenges, we need to ask — before we become too desensitized to the carnage that too often kills small children and other innocent bystanders — how much are our kids’ lives worth? Priceless.
CLARENCE PAGE writes for the Chicago Tribune. His column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.