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Violence interrupters on patrol at the Stapleton Houses in New York. [AP Photo/Seth Wenig]

Urban Violence

New York City Embraces a Gun Violence Outreach Program Left on Life Support in Chicago

Cure Violence is expanding in the five boroughs.

Two years ago, the Illinois legislature slashed funding for Cure Violence, a neighborhood-level violence-intervention program in Chicago that some researchers and community leaders had credited with easing tensions between rival gangs, and helping slow the spate of deadly shootings.

As The Trace reported this week, just a handful of violence interrupters are still on patrol in the city, even as violent crime has soared.

Eight hundred miles to the east, the program is in a very different moment. The New York City Cure Violence chapter, which is four years old, was recently expanded to cover 17 police precincts, up from just four in 2012. It’s total budget increased to $27 million this year, up from $23.5 million last year. And while Chicago police ended their formal relationship with Cure Violence, citing “issues” in 2012, New York police continue to work closely with the group.

“We use every tool at our disposal,” said Eric Cumberbatch, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence.

This includes what are called “wrap around” strategies to help people move away from violent lifestyles. When needed, Cure Violence workers can steer people to legal and mental health services. They can also communicate with local schools about dangerous situations, and providing job training. 

Violence interrupters also support youthful offenders when they emerge from juvenile detention centers, to help them make good decisions and avoid getting sucked back into a violent situation.

One of the New York program’s recent success stories is the near-total elimination of gun violence at the Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing development, once a hub of criminal activity. On January 16, almost a year to the day that violence interrupters dispatched to the 96-building development, the houses celebrated 365 days without a shooting.

At Queensbridge, the Cure Violence staffers didn’t act on their own. Their efforts were bolstered by an increased presence of NYPD officers, and violence-deterring technologies including 15 light towers and 360-degree surveillance cameras.

Cure Violence leaders say that in order to maintain their street credibility, outreach workers remain independent from law enforcement. As a result, they don’t communicate directly with the police. But the New York program has found ways to keep that pledge, while also allowing for the two entities to compliment one another.

“There’s a clear line that’s there, yet we still have the same community goals and interests,” Cumberbatch said.

For example, after a police operation in which several people in a Cure Violence precinct are arrested, police notify outreach workers, who can move in and help calm residents. Police also distribute fliers and hold community meetings after such events to explain what they did and why, and answer any questions that residents might have.

People working in leadership roles in both Cure Violence and law enforcement do communicate regularly — about where crimes are happening, tensions that may be building in a community, and places where more help is needed.

Charles Ransford, program director at Cure Violence, said communication between outreach workers and police takes place at all the program’s sites, including Chicago. He cites research that shows that relationships between police and the community usually improves after outreach workers move in.

The New York program benefits not just from a bigger budget, but also from a more robust health-care system in the community, including hospitals and social services, Ransford said.

The violent crime rate in New York is also sharply lower than in Chicago, and is on the decline. This makes it easier for both police and outreach programs to focus more aggressively on the violent pockets that remain.

Jeffrey Butts, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who is currently researching Cure Violence, said a different relationship develops in each city between police, outreach workers, and the community.

He said that, in New York, a culture of respect has developed slowly, and now works well.

“Everyone’s ideal is mutual trust and respect,” he said.