Two anti-gang-violence innovators with impressive track records but very different approaches are in Seattle to talk about their programs that have sliced homicide rates by at least half in some of the country's toughest neighborhoods. Both the men — an epidemiologist and a criminologist — rely on community members, including ex-felons and former gang members,...
Dr. Gary Slutkin, a Chicago epidemiologist, views gang violence as an infectious disease, one that can’t be cured with police sweeps and prison sentences. His strategy is aimed at changing behavior, much like the public-health campaigns that persuaded people to use condoms or quit smoking.
New York City criminologist David Kennedy believes in issuing ultimatums, not to individuals but to entire groups: Stop the killings or we’ll come down hard, not just on the shooter but everyone in his gang, for things like parole violations, drug dealing and unpaid child support.
Though they work separately, both men have impressive track records, launching programs that have sliced homicide rates by at least half in some of the country’s toughest neighborhoods. On the surface, their approaches seem wildly different. But at their core, both rely on community members — including ex-felons and former gang members — to carry a simple message to the streets:
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The two men are bringing their expertise to Seattle, invited here by City Councilmember Tim Burgess, a former cop who chairs the city’s Public Safety, Human Services and Education Committee.
Slutkin doesn’t think punishment works, while Kennedy believes consequences for violent behavior must be swift and certain. But both seek to interrupt the cycle of violence and retaliation by changing community norms.
“They clearly are different, but at their core, they’re the same,” Burgess said. “Slutkin will use the language of an epidemiologist and Kennedy will use the language of a criminologist, but they’re both going the same place, which is why I find them fascinating and think we can learn from both.”
This morning, Slutkin will address the Seattle-King County Regional Law, Safety and Justice Committee before attending a town-hall forum in West Seattle tonight. Friday, he’ll meet with physicians and local public-health officials.
Kennedy, who arrives Sunday, will spend two days in private meetings with law-enforcement officials, city leaders and pastors and activists from Seattle’s black community.
Burgess began researching innovative gang interventions in early 2008, after 17-year-old Allen Joplin was gunned down at a party in Queen Anne. Before the year was over, four more teenagers were dead, their shooters unpunished because witnesses refused to cooperate with police.
Since then, Mayor Greg Nickels and the City Council have launched an $8 million effort to curb youth-on-youth violence. The Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, with allocated resources to help roughly 800 young people leave the streets, is already incorporating one key component common to both Slutkin and Kennedy’s work: employing credible, trusted community members — many with criminal histories themselves — as outreach workers.
Slutkin, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, helped launch the Chicago Project for Violence Intervention in 2000. During its first year, the project saw a 67 percent decline in homicides in the first neighborhood where “violence interrupters” — people who are considered credible by those on the street — were sent out to quell the thirst for retaliation among rival gang members.
Slutkin explained that the Chicago Project seeks to change the thinking of gang members who think that having a grievance justifies violence as a solution. In communities where gun violence is tied up with the notions of manhood and honor, it’s imperative to change what’s considered “normal,” to make young men understand that they aren’t expected to seek vengeance and will hurt the ones they love if they do, he said.
Slutkin’s model is now being adopted by other cities, including Baltimore and Kansas City, Mo., he said.
“It works, and it’s not just me saying it works. It’s data, it’s science,” he said.
Fighting “street code”
Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, seeks to establish partnerships between police, social-service providers and community members to identify gangs and their members — and to offer those who want out a safe way to leave. An organization he helped launch last year, called the National Network of Safe Communities, now has a membership of 30 U.S. cities.
In many cities, a small population of “extreme offenders” is responsible for a majority of killings, nonfatal shootings and public drug dealing, he said.
To counteract “a very powerful street code,” community members and police officers set up meetings with groups of parolees from different gangs — who then take the messages they hear back to their groups, Kennedy said.
“Fundamentally, it is the moral voice of the community, which can say like nobody else: ‘You’re important, we care about you but what you’re doing is wrong and we can’t have it,’ ” he said.
The role of the police is then to put gangs on notice, Kennedy said: “They hear law enforcement say, ‘We’re as tired of this as you are, but this is not a negotiation. … The price for the next shooting is that the whole group is going to pay.’ “
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org