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The Risks of Overselling Violence Interruption

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

President Biden’s trip to New York this week was the highlight of a necessary and carefully orchestrated show of force by state, federal, and local politicians — all Democrats — who are increasingly anxious about being blamed for a national surge in street violence. In their haste to get crime under control, the pols made extravagant efforts to assure skeptical members of their base that a crackdown can take place without crushing or canceling the rights and liberty of low-income New Yorkers.

The key, we heard over and over again, is to have cops work in tandem with community-based “violence interrupters” — credible messengers from troubled communities who have the savvy and connections to quietly intervene at critical moments and persuade gang members, dope dealers, and other weapon-carriers not to resort to violence. But this campaign also runs the risk of investing our hopes (and not enough money) in efforts that will disappoint us all — and worse, leave too many New York neighborhoods exposed to violence.

“I’ve asked the Congress to provide $200 million to invest in community violence intervention programs as well — they work; they work — where community members with credibility work directly with people that are most likely to commit crimes or be victims of gun crimes,” Biden said at police headquarters on Thursday.  “And they work.”

But do they? The evidence in New York and elsewhere suggests a few programs have done impressive work over the short term (a year or two). But the groups are sparse, underfunded, and engaged in a type of effort that can’t easily be measured, managed, or scaled up. Jeffrey Butts, a researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has researched interrupter programs calls the research on their effectiveness “mixed, incomplete, and very difficult to do.”

Community-based violence interruption began in the 1990s when Gary Slutkin, a Chicago-based medical doctor, noticed that street shootings tended to spread and cluster like viruses, and therefore might successfully be tamped down using a public health approach. After nearly two decades of refinement, the core strategy remains the same: recruit and train outreach workers — many of whom are former gang members with street cred — and have them intervene at critical moments to persuade young men to forego the use of beatings, murder, and retaliation to settle disputes. What begins as a case-by-case break in violent feuds eventually creates new norms and behavior.

In many individual cases, the strategy has worked miraculously well — at least in the short term. Targeted hotspots in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities saw steep drops in shootings following the introduction of interrupters. The model has also been replicated in Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, Honduras, and other countries — with mixed results. And in at least one U.S. city, Pittsburgh, violence actually went up.

Biden’s visit to New York alongside Attorney General Merrick Garland, Governor Kathy Hochul, Mayor Eric Adams, and the city’s district attorneys nonetheless cemented the mainstreaming of violence interruption (or crisis management, as many speakers put it) as a national strategy.

“As has been mentioned over and over again, gun violence is a public health crisis,” said Andre Mitchell, the leader of Man Up!, a violence interruption group based in East New York, at a later press conference held at City Hall. “Gun violence, as we know it, as we treat it in the crisis management system, is a disease. It’s the type of disease, just like COVID, it’s contagious, it passes from person to person. And if it’s left untreated, it will ruin everything in its way.”

Mitchell also noted that his group and others like it have never had sufficient funding to meet their ambitious goals.

“We’ve been doing as best as we can with the least amount of funding that we’ve been able to receive thus far,” Mitchell said. “And believe it or not, with that least amount of funding, we have been making significant strides. We’re reducing gun violence in the target area where we have our boots on the ground.”

That’s absolutely accurate — interrupters have done the best they could, in limited areas with too little funding. (Mitchell’s group raised and spent about $3.8 million in 2018, according to public filings). That also serves as a warning. After the politicians have departed — Biden, eager to turn around his sagging poll numbers, Hochul running for re-election, Adams making good on his central campaign promise — the interrupters will have to do difficult, often dangerous work that the politicians have oversold to the public as a miracle cure.

“This is a half a billion dollars of proven strategies, and we know it will reduce crime,” Biden said. But the vast majority of the money he was talking about will go for additional cops, gun-interception task forces, and other traditional measures. State and city governments have whole teams of full-time grant-writers revved up to compete for the money.

New York’s violence-interruption programs, by contrast, still need money, guidance, and training in professional management so they can grow into a network of well-resourced, sustainable institutions capable of truly breaking the addiction to criminal violence that is destroying so many communities. Until and unless that happens, claims by politicians that they’ve discovered the magic cure should be taken with a grain of salt.

This post has been updated.

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The Risks of Overselling Violence Interruption