07/05/2012 12:00 pm ET Updated Sep 04, 2012

CeaseFire Creates 'Interrupters' at Street Level

How to Treat Violence as a Disease

CeaseFire of Chicago has plenty of violence to deal with right in its own backyard and just announced plans in Washington to go global -- particularly in the Middle East and Africa.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel lambasted Chicago gangs over the death of a seven-year-old girl this week. "Who raised you, anyway," said the Mayor and former Chief of Staff. With murders now standing at 254 through the first six months, a 37 percent increase in Chicagoland, the mayor needed to stop the bleeding occurring due to violent crime.

So it was not entirely surprising to learn Chicago is turning to street gang ex-cons and neighborhood insiders or "interrupters" to help treat the virus.

The Chicago Tribune called it: "A controversial partnership with CeaseFire, an anti-violence organization that is largely staffed by ex-felons. The city of Chicago has granted the group $1 million for a pilot program in the Grand Crossing and Ogden districts in hopes of helping drive down the gang conflicts and reduce violent crime."

Dr. Gary Slutkin, founder and executive director, believes his group has prevented up to 500 conflicts that could have escalated to murder. I met him this week in Washington, hosting CeaseFire along with the American Islamic Council as moderator at the National Press Club's Newsmakers program. If you haven't heard of the Epidemiologist cum Interventionist, Dr. Slutkin, and his disease-state approach to preventing outbreaks of violence, you soon will.

Northwestern University statistics covering seven years of gangland violence prove the CeaseFire health model works. In five out of eight neighborhoods in Chicago, CeaseFire's disease concept of stopping the spread of violence has resulted in a 100 percent reduction of gang retaliations. The violence mitigation group was front and center this week on ABC World News, showing interrupters on the scene when two rival gang members met. CeaseFire has its own documentary called The Interrupters and scores of endorsements from both public health concerns and government including the National Governor's Association and Department of Justice.

"Violence spreads through learning and modeling that is reinforced through unconscious expectations," according to CeaseFire's high-production value brochure, underwritten by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. "The way to stop it is to identify and interrupt high-risk events while simultaneously using social pressure to change negative behaviors." The program is housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), through its School of Public Health.

Going Global -- Adaptation Partners

This week at the National Press Club, CeaseFire teamed-up with AIC to suggest Chicago Street Gang anti-violence methods and its health model can be extended globally. Zainab Al-Suwaji, executive director of AIC, said: "We are trying to do on the ground in Islamic countries what CeaseFire's work in Chicago has done. How can we implement the project in other places around the world?"

In fact, CeaseFire already has international partners in the UK who worked on the scene at the London Riots and in Tottenham. It has further partnerships with Iraq, Kenya and South Africa where murder and assault breed and results are slow. Dr. Slutkin agreed it can take 20 years to change culture of violence.

I was there during the London riots that precipitated fires, a two-day assault on the city, and mob actions across London creating emotional contagion. Largely, the conflagration ended peaceably enough as police pushed demonstrators across London bridges and away from Parliament. I made the point at the Press Club that people may co-opt a demonstration, leverage it, or take allied grievances to the streets and initiate new violence.

Can CeaseFire Backfire?

You bet. Dr. Slutkin only hires professionals, not volunteers. He knows, as do his global partners, that confronting violence at the street level may work but is high risk, high reward. CeaseFire has had 485 conflict mediations through workshops, TV outreach, public education and 8,790 aggressions may have been averted not escalated. However, there are only 60 people on the ground facing down gangs and folks with guns.

The DOJ suffered a severe setback recently with Attorney General Eric Holder held in contempt of Congress for an ill-fated effort of infiltration of Mexican drug dealers and drug lords. The idea of using reformed gang members to bond and break gang allegiances has been effective but often at a huge cost.

"Pressure from within a group is how you get to the 'tipping point,'" of changing the social norm noted Dr. Slutkin, "this approach offers neutrality, trust, credibility and access."

Mike Smith is a 20-year member of the National Press Club and serves on its Newsmaker's Committee.