The ‘Miracle’ Program That Actually Reduces Gun Violence

It has nothing to do with gun control.
A memorial sits on the edge of the sidewalk outside the Uptown Baptist Church near where the victims of the shooting fell on Aug. 21, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.
A memorial sits on the edge of the sidewalk outside the Uptown Baptist Church near where the victims of the shooting fell on Aug. 21, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Six more people have been killed by guns in San Bernardino, California, since a horrific massacre nearly a month ago. Most of these deaths, like the vast majority of the nation’s gun homicides, occurred in mundane circumstances -- and disproportionately impacted men of color.

Activists in San Bernardino have long wanted to curb the gun violence that has plagued the city. Earlier this year, the city appeared likely to adopt take up an approach modeled on one of the most successful programs in the country. But the effort has since stalled for what the city calls logistical reasons -- leaving community leaders frustrated.

‘The Boston Miracle’

The programs that have best managed to reduce gun violence target the young men most likely to be involved in shootings with a combination of assistance and policing. Almost all of them are modeled on Operation Ceasefire, an initiative that started in Boston in 1996 and ended four years later. Its many spinoffs have produced results in cities across the country even as attempts to pass national gun legislation have fallen short.

A recent ProPublica story highlights the accomplishments of Operation Ceasefire and its incarnations in other cities, as well as the difficulties community leaders have had in maintaining federal support for the programs.

Operation Ceasefire was a collaborative effort between Boston police, black ministers and social scientists, who came together in 1996 to curb rising youth homicides. Instead of focusing on guns, they looked at the people. Research shows that a small number of young, gang-related men are responsible for the large majority of murders. And so, the coalition of law enforcement and civil society leaders began by identifying them -- the “small groups of young men most likely to shoot or be shot,” writes reporter Lois Beckett.

Ceasefire’s leaders then used a carrot-and-stick approach to confront the at-risk individuals in person. They would “promise an immediate crackdown on every member of the next group that put a body on the ground -- and immediate assistance for everyone who wanted help turning their lives around,” Beckett writes.

The technique yielded such dramatic results, it earned the nickname “the Boston Miracle.” In the following two years, the average number of youth murders per month declined 63 percent, Beckett reports. The Department of Justice gave the program high marks, characterizing it as one of just a few crime prevention programs that has a proven record of effectiveness.

Subsequently, similar programs started in Stockton, California; Indianapolis, Indiana; Lowell, Massachusetts, and other cities, where they also helped reduce gun homicides.

The programs have quietly saved the lives of African Americans, who, even today, are far more likely to be murdered using guns than their white peers. In 2010, black people accounted for 50 percent of all gun homicide victims despite making up 13 percent of the population, according to the Pew Research Center.

What is true of African Americans more broadly is especially true of black men. Fifteen of the 30 Americans murdered by guns every day are black men, according to statistics cited by Beckett.

But the series of high-profile mass shootings in recent years shifted the Obama administration’s attention to national gun regulations, crowding out the political energy needed to revive and replicate Ceasefire-style programs in American cities.

When President Barack Obama launched a push for tighter gun laws in January 2013, the administration met with a large group of clergy members to solicit their support. But ministers representing urban communities were disappointed that the president was unwilling to include any measures tailored to the inner-city gun violence epidemic.

Michael McBride, a pastor from Berkeley, California, came armed with a memo proposing the allocation of $500 million to Operation Ceasefire-style intervention programs. White House officials dismissed his recommendations.

The message McBride received from administration officials, he told ProPublica, was that the White House could not prioritize funding efforts of that kind because there was not enough political support for curbing inner-city violence.

It didn't help matters that Republican opposition to Obama’s agenda brought the budget process to a near-standstill. In the end, Congress approved just $31 million for programs aimed explicitly at preventing urban violence for fiscal 2014, ProPublica notes.

San Bernardino police detective B. Lewis investigates on July 8, 2014 a fatal shooting incident that occurred the previous night.
San Bernardino police detective B. Lewis investigates on July 8, 2014 a fatal shooting incident that occurred the previous night.
Irfan Khan/Getty Images

Ceasefire In San Bernardino?

San Bernardino has struggled to address a gun violence problem that once earned it the moniker “murder capital” (though it has never had either the state's or country's highest murder rate). While the murder rate has subsided since its peak in 1993, it remains high for a city of its size.

In July 2014, a string of shootings in the city left five people dead over just nine days. The murders were among 43 homicides that occurred in San Bernardino -- a city of some 215,000 people -- last year. That means the city had a homicide rate of about 20 per 100,000 people, compared with a rate of 4 per 100,000 for California.

Ninety percent of the city’s murders were tied to gangs or the narcotics trade, a police spokesman told the Los Angeles Times at the time of the murder spree.

When a 4-year-old boy was killed in a drive-by shooting in August in neighboring Highlands, community leaders renewed a push to implement a violence intervention program, the San Bernardino Sun reported.

Leaders of the Inland Congregations United for Change, a nonprofit representing of local religious congregations, has spoken with Cure Violence, a nonprofit based out of the University of Illinois, Chicago, about implementing their violence intervention program..

Separately, a delegation of top city officials, including police chief Jarrod Burguan, visited Chicago in March for a two-day presentation by Cure Violence.

Cure Violence’s program is known as “Ceasefire” in many cities around the world where it has been implemented, but it is not connected to Operation Ceasefire. While Cure Violence uses similar targeting techniques to the program that became known as the “Boston Miracle,” officials affiliated with the nonprofit are quick to clarify that Cure Violence uses a public health strategy, whereas Operation Ceasefire and its iterations remain rooted in a law enforcement approach.

Cure Violence, founded by Dr. Gary Slutkin, a medical doctor and epidemiologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago, views violence as a disease that spreads in clusters where it becomes contagious, much like an ordinary sickness might. To “cure” the disease of violence, Cure Violence attempts to interrupt its transmission. It deploys violence “interrupters” -- ex-offenders who return to their communities to dissuade would-be perpetrators from acts of violence. The in-person interventions take place in heated situations where violence may be on the verge of breaking out -- or after it has occurred, in discussions with victims. Subsequent steps involve deeper outreach efforts to change the community norms that allow violence to become an accepted behavior in a community.

In at least one Baltimore neighborhood where Cure Violence’s methods were implemented in 2009, there was a 56 percent reduction in homicides and a 23 percent decline in non-fatal shootings over the following two years, according to a Johns Hopkins University study.

But since San Bernardino officials' trip to Chicago, Tom Dolan, executive director of ICUC, has come to doubt the police department's willingness to implement Ceasefire techniques.

Richard Lawhead, a spokesman for the San Bernardino Police Department, said the department is still examining how to implement a Ceasefire-style violence reduction program and does not have an estimate of when it will be ready. He would not say whether the city planned to implement the kind of individual targeting that was at the heart of the Ceasefire program in Boston and the Cure Violence program.

The department will soon roll out an effort to improve communication with the community, said Lawhead. “The community explains why they react the way they do toward police,” he explained. The police do the same.

Dolan said those efforts fall short of what the city had promised community leaders would emerge from the training in Chicago.

"Those measures seem to be uninformed by what the Ceasefire program is," he said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story implied that San Bernardino community leaders and city officials were considering adopting a program in the mold of Boston's Operation Ceasefire. In fact, they have been looking at implementing a technique developed by Chicago nonprofit Cure Violence, whose local programs are sometimes known as Ceasefire and use some similar techniques, but are not connected to the program that originated in Boston.

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