More than 50 people gathered recently to learn about a new Durham initiative to reduce violence by treating it like a disease.
“It frames this issue totally different when you look at it as a public health issue and preventing premature death and disabilities, using the same format that we use for the other infectious diseases that we deal with,” ” said Gayle Harris, Durham County’s public health director.
Durham County is investing nearly $440,000, plus another $50,000 grant, to implement the Cure Violence model, which is being used in some of the most dangerous cities in the country and world. The model seeks to address violence by using data-driven practices that independent reviews indicate reduced shootings and homicides in some communities by 41 percent to 71 percent. More than 50 cities have turned to the model to address violent crime, according to the Cure Violence website.
“We are talking about neighborhoods that were seeing a shooting incident daily, weekly, bi-weekly (before the model), going weeks and months without incident,” Lori Toscano, executive director for the Cure Violence National Training Team, told the people in the conference room in the Durham County Human Services Building Tuesday. Attendees included the police chief, city and county managers, elected officials and nonprofit and community leaders.
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Harris said the model was recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice after Mayor Bill Bell asked in early 2014 to assess violent crime, gun violence and community-police relations in Durham. Since, Durham, along with other cities across the country, have faced a rising violent crime rate.
Last year, there were 42 homicides in Durham, nearly twice the 22 recorded in 2014. In addition, 198 people in Durham were shot or suffered shooting related injuries last year, more than double the 95 shooting victims in 2014.
The model shifts the perception of looking at shooters as bad people, to looking at violence as an infection that spreads from one person to another in clusters and epidemic waves, Toscano said. People learn from what they see, and what they are exposed to.
“The good news is we know how to stop epidemics, the same way that the World Health Organization works to stop the spread of cholera or HIV,” she said. “That is what we are doing to interrupt violence, so we are working to interrupt the transmission to prevent the future spread and then to change group and community norms. “
Just like health officials would try to track the person who is spreading a disease, the Cure Violence model looks for people in violent crime hotspots in a city who are actively engaged in violence.
“We are looking for the people that have access to a weapon, are working as the leader of a crew, is the person who makes a decision,” she said. “The shot caller.”
The program starts by identifying violent crime hot spots within a community and establishes a Cure Violence site. Some cities have multiple sites.
Trained violence “interrupters” and “outreach workers,” known leaders or individuals in the community, help identify and work with those shot callers to establish a relationship, change the way they handle conflict and ultimately make long-tern behavior changes that will influence others to change their behavior.
“They have to be the voice of this work,” Toscano said.
Interrupters and social workers visit shooting victims in the hospital to take advantage of the “golden moment” when they might be thinking about doing something different, Toscano said. The Cure Violence workers also seek out in the hospital waiting room those who might be planning a retaliation.
“We have been able to prevent about 90 to 95 percent of retaliations having this component involved,” she said. “Because you really can get to anyone.”
Meanwhile, the model also seeks to change norms within the larger community surrounding targeted sites.
“We want to make it so that the entire community sees the change,” she said. “Violence is no longer acceptable.”
That display includes community members gathering within 72 hours after a shooting for a march, vigil or other event and messaging, such as signs with a little girl saying “Don’t’ shoot, I want to grow up.”
The model looks different from city to city, Toscano said, and it’s not easy. Mistakes will be made, but workers need to follow data indicators and adjust their strategy when necessary. Workers are on call 24-7, and sometimes put in dangerous situations. Four Cure Violence workers were shot. Three of those individuals were off duty.
The county funding will cover training, support and five positions in the Department of Public Health: a manager, two outreach workers and two interrupters.
Michelle Young, director of gang intervention program Project Build, successfully sought a $50,000 Governor’s Crime Commission grant, which will pay for two more interrupters. Health Department officials have been reaching out to various community groups seeking support, Harris said.
Meanwhile, some leaders of local organizations were skeptical of yet another Durham program seeking to address violent crime. They asked why the program highlighted violence perpetrated by the black and brown community without addressing concerns about police officers’ excessive use or force; how does the program “cure violence” if it doesn’t address the underlying issues of poverty and systematic discrimination; and why do county officials want to invest in efforts that mirror what other organizations are doing, in some cases for years with little results.
Harris asked skeptics to give the program a chance, and community organizations to become one of the support services in the effort.
“We can’t do this by ourselves,” Harris said. “Put what you have on the table and let’s figure out how to spread this justice far and wide for the county, that includes the city, so that we have better place for the people who live here and the people who want to live here.”
Cure Violence History
Cure Violence initially launched in 2000 as CeaseFire Chicago in one of that city’s most violent communities, reducing shootings by 67 percent in the first year, according to the organization’s website. The model expanded to national communities in Baltimore, New York and New Orleans, and then to cities in Iraq, Canada, Columbia and Syria.