Trained neighborhood watchdogs called violence interrupters are on the street searching for the infected, providing treatment and taking actions to prevent spread.
“Behavior is contagious,” said Dr. Gary Slutkin, founder and executive director of Cure Violence, the group promulgating this social psychology method. A professor of Epidemiology and International Health at the University of Illinois, Slutkin first conceived the idea after returning to Chicago after treating infectious diseases in Africa. “It is about behavior change, just like other health issues such as sexually transmitted diseases and obesity.”
In eradicating gun violence, suggested Slutkin, “The punishment approach is kind of overrated. I saw an opening for a behavior change strategy.”
For instance on a recent night at a New Orleans emergency room, interrupters visited with shooting victims and family to curtail retaliatory thoughts. In a profound success story, the novel approach reduced shootings in the violence-plagued West Garfield Park area of Chicago by 67% its first year.
Curing violence by counseling requires subtlety, and only those with credibility in their neighborhoods – typically reformed violent offenders – will be successfully persuasive, according to Slutkin, who estimates nearly 40 U.S. cities could be benefiting.
In a vote of confidence, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has provided grants totaling $15 million. Funding was renewed for another three years to help spread the model to new cities, roll out efforts that empower people in the community to influence their peers to reject violence, and support further evaluation.
“Early on, we didn’t know whether the model could truly change norms and behaviors in violent neighborhoods,” admitted Kristin Schubert, senior program officer at the RWJF, who is now convinced. A few years back she stepped out with a late night mission in Chicago. “It was one of the most powerful site visits I’ve attended. They’re demonstrating that violence is a learned behavior that can be unlearned.”