Corey Winfield of Baltimore was ten when he saw someone shot for the first time. At thirteen, he saw someone get killed for the first time—a friend, who was fourteen—and that year he started selling drugs. After he was robbed a few times, he bought another gun. At 17, he was buying some drugs to sell when dealers tried to rob him, so he shot one of them, killing him. Winfield went to prison for nearly twenty years.
Two weeks after his release, in 2006, his younger brother, Jujuan, was shot to death outside the family home.
Winfield promised to give up guns. Baltimore was building a “violence interrupter” program, modelled on one ln Chicago, in which people who have criminal records and a history of street violence use their contacts and credibility to defuse tensions before anyone is shot. Winfield became one of the first outreach workers in the new program, Safe Streets, reports the New Yorker and ProPublica.
Many other cities began adopting the interrupter model as a complement to policing: why not deploy people with neighborhood know-how and the motivation to redeem themselves? “There’s so many things that we could do and should be doing, outside of law enforcement, before things get to the point of needing to utilize the criminal-justice system,” said Monique Williams, a public-health researcher who until recently led Louisville’s Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods. Interrupters generally avoided coöperating with the cops, and some officers were wary of men they had arrested not long ago. Some interrupters lapsed into drug dealing or other illegal activity.
In 2020, homicides rose thirty per cent, wiping out two decades of progress. Criminologists attributed the rise to a combination of the social disruption caused by the pandemic and the deterioration of police-community relations after the murder of George Floyd.
In 2021, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which included funding that many cities are spending on “community violence intervention,” the catch-all term for non-police approaches to reducing violent crime. In addition to interrupters, these measures include programs that detach young men from gangs, meeting with shooting victims in hospitals to deter retaliation, and those which offer young men employment and counselling in cognitive-behavioral therapy.
These programs, are being showered with unprecedented resources, creating an opportunity for community violence intervention to become a significant feature of the public-safety landscape.
The programs have only a few years to prove that they deserve lasting support after the federal money runs out. Public-safety agencies that until recently consisted of a handful of people are having to expand rapidly to oversee millions in spending, building a new infrastructure in a matter of months.
The evidence for how well some of the programs work is mixed and sometimes elusive, not least because it’s hard to measure crimes that never happen.
Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist, deployed a team of eight workers in Chicaago's West Garfield Park, one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city. Shootings there declined by sixty-eight per cent. Slutkin added teams in six more areas in the next couple of years, and within a year shootings in those areas decreased an average of thirty per cent.
It was an impressive result, but homicide rates were falling all over the country, and other models of violence reduction were also seeing success. One was the “focussed deterrence” model, pioneered by David Kennedy, in Boston, which included group interventions Teams of prosecutors, police officers, and respected community figures met with young men deemed most likely to commit violent crimes and offered them social services, coupled with the threat of consequences if they engaged in further violence.
Slutkin’s model—eventually called Cure Violence—got enough credit for reduced shootings that other cities began deploying interrupters, often hiring Cure Violence to train and guide them. Many city governments were leery of hiring people with serious criminal records, and the programs were often run by nonprofit groups that had looser restrictions.
Jeff Butts, a sociologist at John Jay College who led a study in New York, said interrupter programs are fundamentally difficult to assess—it’s hard to know whether a decline in shootings in an area is due to the interrupters or to all the other factors at play. The assessments typically tally only the shootings within the narrow boundaries of interrupter zones, even though the interrupters’ work inevitably ranges farther afield.