Stopping the Violence Epidemic

crime sceneWith gun control laws becoming more strict in Maryland, it’s obvious that the rate of violent crime in this state and its peaceful capital would have dropped in 2013, right? Wrong! On Sunday, December 29, 2013, the city of Baltimore recorded its 234th homicide, the highest in four years. Nonfatal shootings also increased after six years of steady declines.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stated, “We’re still a much too violent city. When you have a homicide rate that is persistently high, it casts a shadow over progress.” 2014 will be the second full year for Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts who is working to implement changes across the Police Department and has recently presented a new plan for fighting crime. He has said that the Police Department “is not bringing communities the policing that they want and we are going to change that.”

Although gun violence in general remains down compared with earlier years, gun homicide rates have increased 8%, leaving Baltimore with nearly as many gun homicides as New York City which has a population 13 times larger. Meanwhile, cities like Oakland, California, New Orleans, Detroit and Chicago have seen decreases of 25%, 20%, 17%, and 19% in deadly violence respectively. Newark has seen a 19% increase in homicide rates while Washington has seen up to a 26% increase.

So perhaps it’s time to stop guessing as to what is going on in today’s society and blaming inanimate objects, and instead sit down and really analyze the situation. Epidemiologist Gary Slutkin did just that when he returned from Africa in 1995. Upon his return to Chicago he realized that gun violence actually resembled the epidemics he had treated in Africa to the extent that maps charting gun violence showed clustering, just like infectious diseases. Also like infectious diseases, the greatest predictor of violence was a previous violent incident.

Seeing all of this, in 2000 he founded CeaseFire (now Cure Violence) which treated violence as a public health problem instead of a criminal justice one. To the surprise of many skeptics, shootings dropped dramatically. Upon seeing the success of this strategy, this idea has been reproduced in communities around the country.

They have determined that just like epidemics, the key is intervention. The first thing to do is find the disease carriers, so Save Our Streets (S.O.S. in Brooklyn) hired “outreach” staff who had once been exposed to gun violence, to identify people most likely to commit gun violence, develop a rapport and relationship with them, and try to discourage them from using a gun.

A second group of staff, dubbed “violence interrupters” attempt to mediate when something happens that could result in someone in the neighborhood shooting someone else. Staff members also have the task of going to the hospital in the event of a shooting and attempt to convince the person who was shot, as well as their family and friends to not exact revenge with a gun. When asked why gang members would even listen to this form of intervention, the workers replied “we have influence because we have lived that life.”

According to Daniel Webster from Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, that is not the only reason the interventions work. He says “if you are a gang member, your No. 1 fear is getting shot”. He believes that these programs work because gang members are often looking for reasons not to resort to gun violence, “but they feel powerless to stop the behavior by themselves.” In 2010, the first full year S.O.S. was in business, the number of shootings in the area of focus dropped from 28 to 13.

These groups of hard working people have realized that the problem is not the tool with which they carry out violence, but the psychology behind the violence. Maybe the solution is not found in legislations, but in changing the behavioral norms. In the words of Ellenbogen, “Violence is a learned behavior. It can be unlearned”.