This month, as Chicago's mayoral candidates throw their hat in the ring, there is one issue that will most likely get a lot of attention: violence.
It is no surprise. Crime is always a hot button issue in politics and with just under 400 homicides so far this year, violent crime will be on the agenda. Our city leaders will be expected to have answers that produce results. I want to share with them one solution that is gaining international momentum -- a model that was initially tried, tested, replicated, and proven right here in Chicago: CeaseFire.
Why Crackdowns Alone Won't Stop the Violence
Debate on public safety often comes down to who can take the hardest stance on the issue of crime. "Putting prisoners behind bars," "increasing arrests and crackdowns"-- these statements make for great sound bites-- but they don't resolve the issue. What comes out of this tough-on-crime talk is a lot of heavy handed suppression that contributes to the problem. I want to be clear that this is not a slight on law enforcement, only a comment on the kind of aggressive tactics that come out of this rhetoric. Research from the Justice Policy Institute has shown that the most consistent result of stiffer sentencing and gang crackdowns is an outraged community.
This kind of talk creates fear.
This kind of talk raises tensions.
This kind of talk creates divisions between the police and community residents.
What We've Learned About Stopping Shootings and Killings
See, I grew up in the Henry Horner Housing Project knowing violence firsthand. I had a front row seat to how it affects an individual, their family, and their community. As a result, I have devoted much of my professional life to violence prevention. I am a community organizer by trade, and in 1999, I joined CeaseFire, a public health approach to violence prevention based at the University of Illinois at Chicago. By then, I had already been demonstrating around the issue for years. There were two things that stood out about the program and changed the course of my life.
First, everything that I had been doing up until that point happened after someone had been killed. We gathered, we marched, we called attention to the need for change, but always in response to tragedy. In fact, I was recruited to CeaseFire--bullhorn in hand--at the front of a 500-strong community demonstration against violence. Gathering, marching and calling attention to the issue is vital to bringing about change (and it is still something CeaseFire does), but it is only one part of the strategy.
CeaseFire provided an opportunity to get out on the front end of violence, literally stopping it before it starts. This model actively intervenes in conflicts before they escalate. To date, our Violence Interrupters have mediated over 1,400 conflicts that would have resulted in a shooting or a death.
Second, the year I joined CeaseFire, West Garfield (beat 1115), where I was working at the time and where CeaseFire piloted its first program, had been one of the hardest hit communities in the city. It was the results that moved me. By the end of 2000, CeaseFire had a 67% reduction in shootings. While credit is due to everyone who played a part in this reduction -- law enforcement, social service groups, community organizations, faith leaders and residents -- CeaseFire continues to play a very targeted and unique role. Today, CeaseFire's results have been validated by a three year Department of Justice study published in 2008, demonstrating the Model's effectiveness in reducing shootings and killings. Replications of the CeaseFire program in Chicago, Kansas City, and Baltimore have all documented significant results.
What Chicago Needs: Hope and Leadership
At the end of the day, this kind of talk leads to more destruction -- families torn apart, brothers behind bars, communities fractured and broken. Incarceration is at an all time high in the United States. It is nearly eight times the level it was at in the 1970s, when the prison industry first began its growth. Among African-American males, more young men have done time in prison than have earned college degrees.
CeaseFire represents a break in this pattern of destruction. We keep young men from committing violent acts in the first place and crossing that line. Since the program's inception, our outreach workers have placed over 2000 high risk people into jobs, and more than 1500 high risk youth have been enrolled back in school. This represents over 3500 young men and women who have changed their thinking and behavior with respect to violence.
I urge every candidate in this election season to approach this issue with hope, possibility, promise and a reasoned response to reducing shootings and killings. Let's focus on prevention, because we know from CeaseFire that it can work.
On November 17, CeaseFire is hosting a Pre-Thanksgiving Peace Dinner, sponsored by Ariel Investments and Chicago State University, for more than 100 of the highest risk young men and women from rival groups. It is our way of expressing gratitude for their role in keeping the peace in their community.