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On Patrol With Chicago’s Last Violence Interrupters

Cure Violence has shown promise in reducing violent crime. But with its funding slashed in its home city, a few remaining foot soldiers are struggling to make a difference in neighborhoods gripped by fear.

Chicago outreach worker Francisco Sanchez had been home from work only a few minutes when his cell phone rang again. It was a little after 3 a.m.

You need to head back out, the caller said. Three people just got shot on your block.

Sanchez walked toward the red and blue flashing police lights, looking for familiar faces in the crowd. As a violence interrupter in Chicago, his job is to use his ties in southwest Chicago — and his credibility as a onetime gang leader — to stop shootings before they multiply. In a case like the one he was fielding now, that meant finding out who the victims were, and making sure their friends didn’t hatch a plan to retaliate.

But as Sanchez began chatting with people around the police tape, it became clear that there were some in this group he did not know well. He grabbed his cell phone and called a former colleague — a younger man who grew up on the block. That man had close relationships with the bystanders who seemed most likely to want to strike back, and Sanchez thought he would be able to keep them calm.

The man answered the phone, but he wasn’t available. He had been laid off weeks earlier, at the same time state funding cuts had closed 13 of the 14 Chicago sites where the violence interrupters worked. He was in the middle of a shift at his new job, driving a tow truck.

“You know, he’s got to feed his family,” Sanchez said.

Chicago’s violence interrupters are in a moment of crisis. Nearly 20 years after epidemiologist Gary Slutkin founded their parent organization, Cure Violence, the program’s Illinois state funding — $4.5 million as recently as two years ago — has evaporated. A $1 million grant it got from Chicago Police in 2012 was never renewed. The Chicago chapter, called CeaseFire, now subsists on just a few small grants from private donors.

Meanwhile, violence in Chicago has reached a 20-year high. In the last two calendar years, 1,236 people in Chicago were murdered — mostly by guns. That’s more than in New York and Los Angeles combined. Another 4,684 people were shot and not killed, according to research and police statistics. The bloodshed has caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who recently declared on Twitter that he will “send in the Feds” if the “carnage” in Chicago doesn’t stop.

Violence interrupters Charles Jones (left), Joewaine Washington (center), and Thomas Jefferson (right), plan a patrol at the Target Center in Englewood. (Photo by Joshua Lott for The Trace)

Cure Violence would like to be part of a homegrown solution to its hometown’s violence. But amid the historic surge in bloodshed, it has barely been in the game. Its financial struggles have led to steep staffing cuts from as many as 55 workers in 2014 to just eight today. That leaves huge swaths of the city without any outreach workers on the streets.

And in Chicago, it takes a lot of workers to be effective. Gang territories are very small — some less than a dozen blocks wide — and a violence interrupter respected on one side of  69th Street in Englewood, on the city’s South Side, may well be unknown — or worse, mistrusted — on the other. Cure Violence needs at least one worker with strong connections in each of the warring gang districts, so that when conflicts erupt, there is someone who has earned the trust of each group to bring its members to the table.

“It hurts when we’re down,” said Joewaine Washington, a supervisor in Englewood.  “When there’s some static behind the scenes, there’s no one to call to talk about it.”

On the Saturday before Martin Luther King Day, a band of Cure Violence workers — some paid, some volunteering — met in a sparsely furnished storefront called Target Area along one of the South Side’s deadliest streets. Decades ago, these four men were each leaders in different South Side gangs. About 9 p.m., they set off down 79th Street dressed in orange windbreakers that say CeaseFire. Their shoulders stretched three wide across the sidewalk.

In the Dana Dane Show Barber and Beauty Shop, the Interrupters were greeted with hugs and handshakes by staff and customers.

“People out here are hurting,” said shop owner Dana Kemp, who lost his brother to a shooting on these streets. “I can’t remember the last time they solved a murder out here. But CeaseFire keeps us safe in their own way. If anything’s going on, they be up on it.”

Englewood is just one of Chicago’s 25 police districts, but last year it accounted for 9 percent of the city’s homicides. Two years ago, CeaseFire employed about about 30 outreach workers covering six police beats in Englewood. Just four paid workers, covering two police districts, remain.

Seeing them on the street — in front of the liquor store where someone got shot last night, walking past the gas station where one local gang has been meeting, — residents feel safer. When CeaseFire workers stop by a club, the DJ might stop the music and announce, “Interrupters in the hooouusseee!”

Barber Dana Dane cuts a clients hair as other customers are seen talking with Target Area supervisor Jowwaine Washington (orange jacket) January 14, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. Ceasefire violence interrupters and Target Area workers try and prevent violent crimes such as shootings before they happen by communicating with residents in the neighborhood, gang members and relatives of gang members. (Photo by Joshua Lott for The Trace)

Barber shop owner Dana Kemp cuts a client’s hair as other customers talk with Target Area supervisor Joewaine Washington (orange jacket) January 14, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Joshua Lott for The Trace)

The fact that so many violence interrupters are former criminals has drawn concern from law enforcement officials over the years. But LeVon Stone Sr., the program director for CeaseFire Illinois, which oversees Chicago’s Interrupters, said that’s one thing that makes them credible messengers to the people doing the shooting now.

“They really can’t give you no excuses because you did it yourself,” said Stone, who began his work as an outreach worker in the same hospital where he was treated after he was shot and paralyzed. “You can say, ‘Hey, I wasn’t the sharpest crayon in the box either, but I went back to school. I had a felony record too, but I found a job.”

Stepping in between armed groups can be dangerous. A 2011 documentary about the Chicago Interrupters showed one CeaseFire worker in the hospital after he was shot in the ankle and back while trying to break up an argument.

Now, with only the four paid workers left in Englewood, the job is tougher than ever.

Recently, the Interrupters there negotiated a truce between two groups. A CeaseFire worker who had been laid off because of the budget crisis knew the players well. Though no longer employed by the program, he stepped in to negotiate a deal.

“There had been a body on both sides,” said Washington —  meaning one person from each gang had already been killed. “We got them to agree to stay out of each other’s way.

But later, men from the opposing gangs ran into each other on the street and exchanged insults. Washington and the other violence interrupters called the former colleague who had negotiated the truce for help. But this time, he was out of town.

“Before he could get back, four people had been shot,” Washington said. Two of the victims died from their wounds.

Leaders at Cure Violence say there’s a direct correlation between their funding cuts and Chicago’s skyrocketing violence. It’s a bold claim, and one most experts say is unprovable, given all the other factors at play. But it is true that homicides began to increase beginning in April, 2015 — the month after CeaseFire’s state funding was cut, slashing the budgets of 13 of 14 sites in the city. In District 4, the one place where the program remained fully staffed, shootings actually decreased over that time, CeaseFire asserts.

The evidence to back up this claim is mixed. Non-fatal shootings declined in District 4 from 2014 to 2016, but they were actually lowest in 2015 — and have inched up since. Homicides have increased from 33 in 2014 to 40 in 2016.

Still, studies show Cure Violence, which is now operational  in 25 cities and six countries, is effective when implemented correctly.

A 2009 study of CeaseFire by Wesley Skogan, a specialist in crime and policing at Northwestern University, found that crime went down in all the neighborhoods he studied where CeaseFire was active, though not all the decreases were statistically significant.

Three years later, a study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that, at three of four sites studied in Baltimore, shootings and homicides fell after Cure Violence workers moved in.

The program has its critics. While CeaseFire workers don’t impede police, they don’t tip them off, either. Some think if taken too far, a distance from law enforcement can actually deepen fissures between cops and the community.

People walk past a makeshift memorial to a shooting victim in the neighborhood of Little Village.  (Photo by Joshua Lott for The Trace)

Thomas Abt, a senior fellow in criminal justice and security at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government, said that sometimes intervention workers cross the line from being independent to being adversarial with the police. If that happens, he said, “they may reinforce community distrust of law enforcement, and that can aggravate the violence they’re trying to prevent.”

Abt favors an arrangement in which outreach workers and police officers can cooperate to prevent violence. For instance, they might notify officers — without naming names — that a violent incident is expected in a certain place, giving police time to get to the scene and potentially stop it.

But Charles Ransford, policy director for Cure Violence, said the group’s credibility with the community depends on its independence from law enforcement.

“If we were to be talking to the police, our workers would no longer have the trust and faith of the people they work with, and it would put their lives in danger,” he said.

There is a constant struggle between street-work models that favor some cooperation with police, and those that favor total detachment, said Jeffrey Butts, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who is studying the effectiveness of Cure Violence. Butts said it’s not necessary to choose one or the other.

“Obviously, if you’re associated with law enforcement, it’s easier to attract funding than if you’re employing a lot of ex-gang members,” he said. “But you have to recognize that there is a place for both.”

Some say that given the crisis unfolding in Chicago neighborhoods, it makes sense to try any idea that has shown promise.

“Everyone is trying everything, and nothing is working,” said John Donovan, special assistant counsel to the Cook County Sheriff. “If they have something that’s showing an impact, I think that’s pretty compelling.”

Eight miles away from Englewood, in the mostly Mexican-American neighborhood of Little Village on Chicago’s West Side, Francisco Sanchez drives his blue minivan slowly through an intersection marked at each corner with clusters of flowers, candles and teddy bears.

“Look at this corner,” said Sanchez, gesturing toward the memorials to young people killed in recent months. “There’s one or two on this corner. There’s one or two on that corner. There’s one behind this rock. It’s like a shooting gallery.”

Francisco Sanchez served 25 years in prison before becoming a violence interrupter in Chicago.  (Photo by Joshua Lott for The Trace) [Joshua Lott for The Trace]

Last year, 49  people were killed in District 10, the Little Village police district. Another 240 were shot but survived, according to research and police data.

Despite those numbers, only two full-time violence interrupters remain there. Sanchez, a supervisor at Cure Violence, tries to fill in. He walks the streets himself, mediating conflict where he can.

Sanchez grew up on the streets of Little Village and was a gang chief by the time he was a teenager. At 18 he was convicted of murder, and sent to prison for 25 years.

Even during the years Sanchez was locked up, young kids in the neighborhood knew his name, he said. In Little Village, carloads of young people stopped to speak with him, affectionately calling him “Ol’ G.” One man Sanchez didn’t  know slowed down, smiled and made a gang sign with his hands as he passed in his car.

At one point, Sanchez spotted a car driving the wrong way up a one way street.

“When I was a kid, I would have shot that car up, and I wouldn’t have asked who was in it,” Sanchez said. “There’s no good reason to be driving up the one-way in this neighborhood.”

Minutes later, the same black car appeared in his rear view mirror. The car passed him from behind, then turned and came back toward him a third time.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said.

A mural in the Little Village neighborhood, one of Chicago’s most violent. (Photo by Joshua Lott for The Trace)

Like other violence interrupters, Sanchez doesn’t concern himself with whether people commit petty crimes or are in gangs. His job is to stop violence. (Sanchez and other violence interrupters don’t use gang names in conversation or even say the word “gang.” As he puts it, “I’m not looking to give them exposure, and they’re not looking for it.”)

Sanchez says it can be hard to walk away from the violence of the streets.

“There are these two young men right now who are trying to get out of the group,” he said. “They are 16 and 17. They’re in pretty deep. They’ve been shooters, they’ve been shot. That’s the life they’ve been living, but they really wanted to get out.”

But when a friend of theirs got shot, Sanchez said he knew he had to start from scratch convincing them to lay down their guns.

“I went to the funeral,” he said. “I saw them standing next to the casket. All I had to do was look at them to know they might get pulled back in. The guy who got killed, he had a baby born a week ago. He’s never going to meet her.”

Sanchez helped a young couple, Luis and Anna, when they moved out of a neighborhood where they were deeply entrenched in gang life. Their old place is just a five-minute drive away, but between them is the territory of a rival gang. That means it’s hard for their old friends to come visit — which is good.

“There was always fighting and shooting,” said Anna, who has a four-year-old son and an infant daughter. “The only thing that made me slow down was my kids.”

Luis and Anna moved to a new neighborhood to try to get away from a life filled with violence. Anna has a 4-year-old son, and the couple has an infant daughter.  (Photo by Joshua Lott for The Trace)

Anna and Luis said they still look both ways for danger when they leave the house. They snap to attention when they hear a dog barking in a gangway, which can mean that someone is approaching unseen.

Everyone, they say, has a gun. How easy is it to get one? “This easy,” Luis said, holding up his cell phone.

Sanchez checks in with the couple several times a week.

“When we get in trouble and we have to do community service, we usually work with them,” Anna said. “If we’re all hanging out on a street corner, they’ll drive by and say, ‘Hey, get out of here.’

“Most of us don’t have parents, so they are like our parents.”

Back in Englewood, violence interrupters — some of whom haven’t been paid in months — walked the beat on a Saturday night. They field calls when conflicts heat up in the community. They keep tabs on turf wars. Some of them still spend days on end trying to help people get a state ID or find a job.

“Maybe there’s a kid, and you help him register for school,” said Charles Jones, an outreach worker. “He comes to trust you. Then all of a sudden, maybe he needs a ride to court, maybe his mother can’t go to an event at his school. He calls you, and you’re going to say, sorry, our funding was shut down?”

“You worked so hard for that relationship,” Jones said. “Now he’s saying, ‘Man, you’re just like everybody else.’”