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A New Approach: L.A. and Chicago Successfully Lower Homicide Rates

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At the start of 2011 we have great reason to celebrate, as homicides in the nation's two largest epicenters for violence -- Chicago and Los Angeles -- are at their lowest levels since the 1960s. In both cities, new strategies in violence prevention are being employed, including not only less aggressive, smarter policing efforts -- but the addition of strategic public health, disease control, and outreach interventions.

The public health-based, professional outreach approach was first started 10 years ago in Chicago and about five years ago in Los Angeles, producing statistically proven, highly positive results for the most affected communities in both places. Other cities across the country are now following suit on these innovative approaches and seeing positive outcomes as well.

In Chicago, the CeaseFire public health approach was first implemented in West Garfield Park in 2000, yielding a 67% drop in shootings and killings in its first year. Over the next three years, four more replications produced 40 - 45% drops in shootings and killings. In 2004, the extent of CeaseFire coverage tripled in Chicago with the number of killings in Chicago dropping from 600 to 450 -- the largest drop and to the lowest level since the 1960s -- even then.

Since those initial results the CeaseFire strategy has now been employed in 16 communities resulting in more than 1,800 potentially lethal events having been interrupted, and helping over a thousand high-risk young persons (potential shooters) to find a new path. This past year, 50 CeaseFire interrupters and 50 outreach workers have worked together with community groups to interrupt another 498 potentially lethal events and have worked with another 500 of the highest risk potential shooters. In 2010, the Humboldt Park community dropped by another eight killings and three other neighborhoods dropped by five killings each, and Chicago's numbers dropped from 460 to 435 killings.

The CeaseFire public health strategy uses trained and professional violence interrupters to detect and interrupt potential events; outreach workers to select and work with potential shooters to change their thinking; and it works with the whole community to change behavioral norms. It is a disease control strategy designed to work the way that epidemics are reversed. The CeaseFire method has been proven by a Department of Justice (National Institute of Justice) study involving four universities and four different statistical methods.

Los Angeles, one of the cities Chicago works closely with in this work, uses the same strategy with some variations: interrupters (called interveners or outreach workers) and outreach workers (called case managers) have worked to perform similar results. Los Angeles also focuses on communities disproportionately impacted by violence -- in some cases neighborhoods with 400 times the level of violence than other parts of the city. In Los Angeles, the intervention team responded to 1,130 incidents over the time frame of April 2009 - December 2010. The number of killings in Los Angeles also dropped to record lows last year (in this case to 297 killings). Los Angeles also added a Summer Lights Program which demonstrated a 12 percent drop in violence for the target zones in 2010.

Led by Mayors Richard M. Daley and Antonio Villaraigosa, these two major cites are continuing to improve policing, while simultaneously employing brand new innovations outside of usual policing strategies. Superintendent Weis of Chicago has worked hard to improve the Chicago Police Department -- the main job Mayor Daley hired him to do -- as well as improving community relations and the use of data for tracking and responding to events. Chief Charlie Beck of Los Angeles has made history for his efforts in improving relations with the community and increasing the department's professionalism, according to many people I've spoken with, and has worked out many of the ways to work alongside the CeaseFire -- like outreach strategy that Los Angeles has also adopted.

Reducing homicides in the modern era required a breakthrough -- an approach beyond conventional interventions. For way too long we have relied on only one intervention to reduce homicides. Reducing traffic-related deaths also relied on only one intervention -- speed limits -- for many years -- until new strategies that approached the problem from a different angle were developed, such as safer cars and seat belts. Similarly, we can now see in practice how to get synergistic effects by adding a new and evidence-based public health approach to reducing violence.