It’s that time of year again. With summer’s arrival, people flow into the streets of America’s poorest urban neighborhoods. Temperatures rise and tempers get shorter. Old beefs between corner drug crews start to simmer again as warm weather brings more addicts to the neighborhood, sparking territorial disputes over the swelling black market. Violence can come to the city in many ways, but it comes, like clockwork, when the weather warms up.
In the past month alone, Philadelphia has seen an 86 percent spike in homicides, bringing the year’s tally to 173. Nearly thirty people were shot in the city over Memorial Day weekend alone. In Chicago, a rash of summer gang violence has the city in a state of emergency, as its homicide total soars 50 percent over last year’s. Some in the press have labeled it “worse than Afghanistan.”
Until the sudden eruption of gun violence in Chicago, 2012 had been a good year for Dr. Gary Slutkin. In 1995 he founded CeaseFire, the Chicago-based public health program committed to curbing gun violence in the city’s most afflicted neighborhoods. In the past few years, the infectious disease expert turned urban interventionist had been seeing the fruit of his labors. A 2008 research evaluation of CeaseFire showed that the program reduced shootings in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods by as much as 40 percent and even completely eradicated gang-related retaliation homicides in some parts of town. This February, The Interrupters, an award-winning documentary about CeaseFire, aired to mass acclaim on PBS’ Frontline. Ameena Matthews, CeaseFire outreach worker and the movie’s charismatic star, did a slew of high-profile interviews for an admiring press about her frequently dangerous work. Stephen Colbert called Matthews an “antibody” against urban violence.
But even more important than awards and accolades was the publication of a study out of Johns Hopkins in January, showing that a CeaseFire-based model in Baltimore—Safe Streets Baltimore—had worked, achieving similarly dramatic reductions in gun violence as in Chicago over a three-year period, between 2007 and 2010. Ceasefire’s Baltimore program reduced homicides in Cherry Hill, one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods, by 54 percent; non-fatal shootings dropped by 34 percent. Indeed, mounting evidence suggests that CeaseFire, which has grown from a handful of employees to a nationally recognized brand name, looks to be the real deal: a game changer when it comes to the intractable problem of violent crimes in urban centers. Efforts are now under way to scale the program up, exporting it around the globe.
“We’re in Baltimore, New York City, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Kansas City,” says Slutkin, speaking from his office in Chicago and projecting total confidence in his program’s ability to change not just urban America but the world. “We’re in other countries: Trinidad, South Africa, Kenya, Iraq—and the list is growing.