CeaseFire: Stopping Violence and Measuring Impact


February 14, 2012

How Does CeaseFire Work?

CeaseFire, an innovative violence prevention organization based at the University of Illinois’ School of Public Health, applies public health principles in its approach to stopping violence. The organization’s founder, Gary Slutkin, who for 10 years battled the spread of cholera and AIDS in Africa, believes that the spread of violence mimics that of infectious diseases, and so the goal is to go after the most infected, and stop the infection at its source. To put it simply, Ceasefire works to reduce the numbers of shootings and killings in hot spots, or communities with the highest rates of murder and poverty.

In 2004, Tio Hardiman, now the director of CeaseFire Illinois, launched an initiative known as the “violence interrupters” program. Interrupters are often influential former gang leaders who possess the personality, drive and connections within a community to mediate conflicts that could turn violent and talk individuals down from retaliatory violence. Having formerly been a part of “the game,” the interrupters say, gives them credibility and helps them to connect with the people they work with. For example, Eddie Bocanegra, one of the three interrupters featured in the film, has strong ties to Chicago’s Latino gangs, which Hardiman points out are notoriously difficult for outsiders to penetrate.

While violence interrupters mediate high risk conflicts and intervene in crisis situations, the organization’s outreach workers work with individuals over longer periods of time, assisting them in finding jobs, getting therapy or going to school.

But CeaseFire’s violence interrupters and outreach workers are only one component of the organization, which also focuses on community mobilization, collaborations with faith-based organizations, public education initiatives and some collaboration with law enforcement.

Today CeaseFire has partner programs in five states across the country.

How Do They Measure Impact?

Tio Hardiman says he knows CeaseFire’s model works because he was able to interrupt a hit on his own life, but the organization measures its impact by comparing year-over-year data on the number of shootings in the hot spots where the organization works. He says the data shows high-impact results. Last year, the organization spent 25,000 hours working with 1,119 high risk individuals, 30 percent of whom were referred for employment opportunities and 35 percent of whom are still working with outreach workers.

In 2008, the Justice Department hired independent researchers to evaluate CeaseFire’s work. The researchers found a 17 to 24 percent decline (PDF) in actual and attempted shootings at four of the seven sites they surveyed. “I found the statistical results to be as strong as you could hope for,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Wesley G. Sokgan, a political science professor at Northwestern University.

Hardiman is careful to add that statistics don’t just illustrate CeaseFire’s impact; they’re also a reflection of law enforcement efforts. “Our job is to stop someone from crossing the line, to stop someone from killing someone else,” he says. “But law enforcement does more than that.”

CeaseFire’s Relationship with Law Enforcement

CeaseFire collaborates with law enforcement on several levels, including getting data to identify hot spots, and securing routes for CeaseFire rallies. Police officers often sit on CeaseFire hiring panels to make sure those being hired aren’t still involved in criminal activity.

On occasion, the organization has even received tips about its interrupters from law enforcement sources. That’s because one of the programs biggest assets — using former gang leaders and drug enforcers in their work — can also pose a risk for the program.

In the clip below, Hardiman confronts the interrupters after being tipped off by police that some of them are still involved in criminal activity. He delivers a stern warning that they could be ruining the program for others. “I’m not saying this job is everything,” he cautions, “but this job does mean a lot to some people.” (Note: This clip includes graphic language.)

“We’re not perfect,” Hardiman said of the incident. “I have to keep them on their feet.” But he says that only six of CeaseFire’s 300 outreach workers and interrupters have relapsed into criminal activity.

Ongoing Challenges

Beyond the risk of relapse, Hardiman says an uncertain budget — the organization does not have an endowment — is an ongoing challenge he struggles with. The bulk of the organization’s $8 million budget comes from the state of Illinois, about $4.8 million, which goes to pay staff members like outreach workers, while the the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides funding to replicate the CeaseFire model in other parts of the country. The rest comes from different foundations and charitable organizations like the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, the Polk Bros Foundation, the National Recreation Foundation of Chicago and the Charles E. Marks Jr. Charitable Trust.

Some critics say the program doesn’t address the root causes of violence, but Hardiman says there’s a reason why CeaseFire’s focus is very specific. “First, we have to reduce violence so that people can feel safe, and then they can address the roots of that violence: racism, poverty, unemployment, bad schools,” he explains. “Right now the levels of violence are too high. How can kids concentrate, if they think their lives are in danger? How do you think about getting a job when you’re struggling to survive, just to live day to day?”

When asked what makes him proudest, Hardiman doesn’t hesitate. “I’m most proud of when I see kids sitting on their porch on the streets, not worried about nobody,” he said. “It just feels good when you see the kids running up to the ice cream truck, when you see a community coming back to normal.”

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