College of LAS « Illinois

In the Line of Fire

Alumnus fights gang violence by being in a bad place at a bad time.

2012 LAS Humanitarian Award winner Gary Slutkin.
2012 LAS Humanitarian Award winner Gary Slutkin.

Ameena Matthews, a petite African American woman, is surrounded by over a dozen men who tower over her. She holds up the picture of a young boy, slain by Chicago’s gang violence, and declares, “This is unacceptable for me to be holding this young man’s obituary!” All remain silent as she spins around and adds, “Schools, churches, your mama’s home.... These are safe zones!”

Then she suddenly pauses, gazes around, and says softly, “Stop.”

This scene is from the acclaimed 2011 documentary, The Interrupters, and Matthews is an “interrupter”—a person who puts herself on the front lines to stop violence in its tracks. She and others like her are a key part of CureViolence, an organization founded by LAS alum Gary Slutkin, MD—the 2012 winner of the LAS Humanitarian Award.

CureViolence, formerly known as CeaseFire, has garnered worldwide attention, in part because of the documentary, but also because of data showing dramatic reductions in violence. As Slutkin explains, interrupters are often former gang members who are well trusted in a neighborhood, “so they have a lot of credibility and access. They find out what’s going on—who’s upset from last night’s party, or who is planning to retaliate about something that happened.” They are also trained on how to step in and convince people not to resort to violence.

Surprisingly, the inspiration for this approach came from an unexpected source—Slutkins’ experience battling infectious diseases abroad. As a medical doctor, he found that you could control violence with methods similar to those used for controlling epidemics.

Slutkin grew up on the North Side of Chicago and received his bachelor’s degree in physiology from Illinois in 1971. He went to the University of Chicago Pritzer School of Medicine for his medical degree, but before he started his chief residency in San Francisco, he traveled across 20 countries in Africa, opening his eyes to the devastation of epidemics.

When he returned to San Francisco, he found the city in the midst of a serious tuberculosis problem, with the highest rate of TB in the country. Slutkin was asked to lead the TB-control program when the former director abruptly left, so he says, “It was a trial-by-fire lesson in public health.”

Under his leadership, the public health department changed strategies and effectively controlled the spread of TB in San Francisco. Then, in 1985, Slutkin moved to Somalia to work on controlling the spread of TB in refugee camps, but he wound up spending more time battling cholera, a much faster-spreading infectious disease.

Slutkin also helped establish AIDS programs for the World Health Organization in 13 African countries before ultimately returning in 1995 to his hometown—Chicago. When people started telling him about rampant violence in the city, he began to see the parallels between disease and violence.

Slutkin examined the data and realized that violence had “clustering,” or hot spots, just as with other epidemic processes. He noticed that violence spread in waves like disease, with one act of violence leading to another, and he also saw that violence could be “interrupted,” much the way an epidemic can be interrupted by changing people’s behavior.

The result was CureViolence. The program was an immediate success when it was first tested in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood, one of the most dangerous in the country with 43 shootings and killings each year. In fact, the U.S. Justice Department studied the impact of the program in seven Chicago neighborhoods and found that it reduced violence in every neighborhood by up to 34 percent, and it completely eliminated retaliation homicides in five neighborhoods during the years studied.

In 2012, the Global Journal ranked CureViolence number 30 on the list of the top 100 non-governmental organizations in the world—and number one among organizations devoted to reducing violence.

But CureViolence is much more than interrupting violence, Slutkin stresses. Its two other goals are to alter an individual’s behavior in the long run and change the norms in violence-ridden neighborhoods.

As an example, he cites a case on the West Side of Chicago a few years ago, in which a man pulled out a gun in a club at two in the morning. “Everyone expected that a bunch of other guns would come out and there would be shooting, and it would spill out on the streets,” Slutkin says. “But what happened is that a large number of people looked at this guy like he was a big jerk.”

The man put away his gun, for the community’s norm had changed.

With so many successes, the CureViolence program is now being used in 15 U.S. cities and throughout the world, particularly Latin America and the Middle East.

Although CureViolence has been successful in Chicago neighborhoods, the city recently drew attention for its intractable gang violence. Slutkin says that’s because CureViolence exists in only one-third of the 110 “beats” where violence is greatest. However, that will soon change because the city recently awarded them a million-dollar grant to expand the program into additional neighborhoods.

Slutkin is committed to bringing peace to more neighborhoods because, as he puts it, “Chicago is where we started. This is where the first data were generated. And this is home.”

Doug Peterson
11/1/2012

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