We tend to think of violence as a matter of personal responsibility, believing that violent people have some sort moral failing. The best way to prevent violence, the common wisdom goes, is to create harsh legal consequences. That’s the driving force behind the tough-on-crime philosophy favored by many politicians.
Gary Slutkin thinks this is all wrong.
He is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. He spent a decade working in places like Uganda and Somalia to control outbreaks of AIDS and cholera. Then, he returned to his hometown of Chicago, hoping for a break from the daily grind of fighting epidemics. But it wasn’t long before Chicago’s growing problems with gang violence grabbed his attention – and he couldn’t help but notice some familiar patterns.
Slutkin believes that violence spreads like a disease, and that we should be approaching it in the same way that we fight outbreaks of illnesses like the flu or tuberculosis.
“I just began to look at graphs and charts and maps like any epidemiologist would, and it just appeared to me the same way,” he says. “It was behaving the same way as other infectious disease problems. So, it was interesting enough to say, ‘What if we look at this in that way and began to treat it in that way?’”
Slutkin found in his research that acts of violence spread through a community in clusters and rise and fall in curves almost exactly like cases of diseases during an epidemic. He also observed that, regardless of environmental conditions, the strongest predictor of a violent incident was a previous case of violence.
“If you have all of these things that people keep talking about — poverty, and the schools are lousy, and fathers aren’t around, all of those things — but there isn’t exposure to violence, then you don’t get violence,” he said. “It’s the same thing, if you have housing projects and there’s bad circumstances and crowding and nutrition’s bad and no one brings in AIDS or no one brings in flu, it doesn’t just spontaneously come.”
So, Slutkin decided to take a public health approach to preventing violence. He founded the organization that would become Cure Violence in 2000. It employs local community members, or “interrupters,” to help mediate disputes and prevent violent acts before they happen, much like public health workers use local ambassadors to spread information to vulnerable populations during outbreaks. These interrupters are often people with a history of violence and gang involvement who are eager to reform and prevent others from repeating their mistakes.
State funding for Slutkin’s violence interrupters was halted in March 2015. Chicago has since seen a spike in shootings. But, before that, the model there was remarkably successful, with reductions in violence in many neighborhoods, according to one report. Over the past sixteen years, the group’s focus has expanded beyond the city limits of Chicago to places like Baltimore and New Orleans and even overseas to countries including Iraq, South Africa, and Brazil.
Slutkin hopes that his approach will continue to grow and help to displace ideas about being “tough on crime,” which often promote long jail sentences and mandatory minimums.
“I don’t know what this ‘tough [on crime]’ is, because it isn’t working,” he said. “But, it is working in politics. And, why is it working? It’s working because people are afraid, so the emotion that helps with that is anger. Anger is not a solution to a problem. Emotions are not a solution to a problems. Solutions to problems come from really understanding them. That’s what we do in health.”