Violence, Interrupted: Community-Driven Strategies for Reducing Gun Violence
Arrests and incarceration won’t stop urban gun violence. Instead, a growing number of researchers say community violence prevention is the most promising solution.
Walking along Van Siclen Avenue in East New York on a muggy July afternoon, Eric Cumberbatch can hardly take a step without being stopped for a fist-bump or a hug.
The streets of this Brooklyn neighborhood were not always so inviting. Rounding a corner, Cumberbatch passes an intersection formerly known as “The Four Corners of Death.” A parking lot on the opposite side of the street was once notorious for shootings—the kind of place locals avoided whenever possible. Now a man riding a bicycle dismounts to embrace him.
Cumberbatch is a Bloomberg Fellow, but around here he is better known simply as Eric. He’s also a deputy director in the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, where his portfolio includes the Office of Neighborhood Safety, or ONS. A big part of his job involves working with community-based organizations to drive down rates of gun violence in the hardest-hit parts of the city. Most are communities of color that have suffered from decades of underinvestment and over-policing—communities such as East New York, the South Bronx, and Far Rockaway, Queens, where Cumberbatch himself was born.
“We’re not law enforcement, and we’re not relying on incarceration to meet our goals,” he says. “We’re about empowering the community to be the solution.”
The ONS funds and supports community-based violence prevention programs like the ones run by Man Up! Inc., a nonprofit whose headquarters are sandwiched between a pawnshop and a fish-and-chips joint on a busy strip of Van Siclen.
Founded by local community activist Andre T. Mitchell in 2004 following the fatal shooting of an 8-year-old boy just around the corner, Man Up! participates in the ONS’s Crisis Management System, a network of approximately 60 organizations that rely on credible messengers—members of the community who have overcome its challenges, including incarceration and gun violence—to prevent shootings. Mitchell, for example, grew up in neighboring Brownsville and was incarcerated as a teenager.
Some act as violence interrupters who spend their time on the street, cooling down dangerous situations before they escalate and preventing retaliation when they do.
“If you live in a neighborhood, you know who’s who and what’s up,” says Shneaqua “Coco” Purvis. A former program manager for Man Up! in neighboring Bedford-Stuyvesant, Purvis recently founded her own neighborhood nonprofit, Both Sides of the Violence, to work with victims and perpetrators of gun violence. “It’s easy for me to come and say, ‘Yo, you look like you packing. Why do you feel like you have to do that?’ You buy time, defuse the situation, and explain all the consequences.”
Others function as outreach workers who connect high-risk individuals (gang members, high school dropouts, people who were previously involved in shootings) to city-funded housing, job training, and mental health services that can mitigate the underlying conditions that fuel gun violence. All of them establish close relationships with program participants to shift their perception of guns as a means of solving problems: of getting money, resolving disputes, or earning respect.
“I’ve changed a number of people’s mindsets,” says Purvis, who mentors the man who accidentally shot her own sister to death nearly two decades ago.
The data show she’s not alone in making a difference. In a series of studies conducted between 2013 and 2018, John Jay College of Criminal Justice researchers found that gun injuries fell by 33% across all Crisis Management System locations over the first two years following a site launch, compared with a 12% reduction in shootings in areas that did not have the program. In the East New York CMS site, shootings declined by 50% while declining by only 5% in the comparison area. Researchers also found that CMS programs decreased residents’ propensity to use violence to settle disputes. And while shootings in New York City by late July this year were 18% higher than during the same period in 2020, advocates attribute a historic lull in gun violence across the city from 2015 to 2018 to CMS and its community-based approach.
“That wasn’t no police. That was due to us,” Purvis says.
The gun violence prevention programs have been accompanied by investment and renewal. In East New York, the parking lot that was once a shooting gallery has been replaced by an attractive affordable-housing complex and an $8.5 million community center with athletic facilities, a computer lab, and classrooms where Man Up! offers programs for adults and children. Residents feel safer, and the atmosphere on the street is welcoming rather than fearful.
“For the first time, East New York is being prioritized,” Mitchell says. “The right people are getting the right services.”
Public health experts have long known that a small subset of community members are at greatest risk of perpetrating or falling prey to all forms of violence—and have long explored community-based solutions to the problem.
In the mid-1990s, recognizing that violence spreads through social networks like an infectious disease, epidemiologist Gary Slutkin developed a program in Chicago, originally called CeaseFire, that relied on credible messengers to disrupt transmission among gang members. Now called Cure Violence, the model is the basis of New York City’s CMS and has been widely replicated elsewhere, including in Baltimore, where it is known as Safe Streets.
Over time, other community-based strategies were shown to reduce gun violence rates, from hospital-based programs that engage shooting victims immediately after injury (see sidebar) to group violence interventions that bring community leaders, social service providers, and law enforcement together to deliver anti-violence messages. In New York, the ONS even funds novel programs created by community members to reduce gun violence in their neighborhoods.
“We meet with the unofficial mayors of every block; they have ideas around what types of things people in their neighborhood would actually gravitate to or be more willing to engage in,” Cumberbatch says. “It’s a truly holistic approach to undoing harm, promoting healing, and lifting up community voices to be the problem-solvers.”
One of those unofficial mayors, Hakiem Yahmadi, is a lifelong resident of the South Bronx, where public housing projects have long been plagued by gun violence. Yahmadi began mentoring youth in the projects in the late ’90s and lost his own son in a shooting in 2001. Yahmadi was eventually hired to serve as the program manager for Save Our Streets (S.O.S.) South Bronx, one of the first Cure Violence sites in the CMS.
“They wanted me to walk the community because of the credibility I had,” he says.
Yahmadi has canvassed the streets with violence interrupters, accompanied shooters to court, and helped bury their victims. And while the Cure Violence model focuses on 16- to 24-year-olds, Yahmadi’s own experience has taught him the importance of reaching even younger community members: In his neighborhood, children as young as 13 have recently been shot by 15-year-olds.
Yahmadi therefore founded his own group, Men You’re Not Alone, to support men of color and recruit them to serve as mentors for neighborhood kids. He’s used the money from several ONS grants to buy books and organize a basketball tournament to commemorate a young man who was shot to death after a high school graduation party last year. This fall, he will launch a program at a local public school to get kids involved in positive activities like boxing, martial arts, and fishing trips—a program he hopes to expand to cover all 24 schools in his area.
“I’m trying to capture these kids before the street gets them,” Yahmadi says.
All of these community-driven efforts represent what Cassandra Crifasi, PhD ’14, MPH, deputy director of the John Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, calls a “necessary complement” to policies that limit the availability of guns by regulating how people buy, store, and carry them. Rather than addressing the supply side of the problem, community-based strategies address the demand for guns as tools for gaining respect or resolving disputes.
“They’re two sides of the same coin,” Crifasi says. “We can’t effectively address gun violence without both.”
The man who accidentally shot and killed Purvis’ sister, for example, was involved in an argument over a fish sandwich. More recently, a formerly incarcerated man she knew shot three men who had robbed his goddaughter, then shot himself to death to avoid going back to jail. In both situations, a violence interrupter or outreach worker might have changed the ending.
Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of public resources go toward arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating people after violence has occurred. An Urban Institute study found that local and state governments spent nearly $250 billion on policing, courts, and corrections in 2018. There are benefits to increased policing: Research shows that more police per capita in a jurisdiction reduces the number homicides. But it can also result in practices that disproportionately harm Blacks, such as more police harassment (stops and searches), more arrests for low-level, victimless crimes, and greater risk of being shot by police.
“We have a historic legacy in our country of thinking of Black individuals as being inherently criminal and inherently violent,” says Shani Buggs, PhD ’18, MPH ’13, an assistant professor in the Violence Prevention Research Center at the University of California, Davis.
That bias, Buggs argues, has long underpinned the reliance on policing and incarceration to reduce violence in communities of color.
“We don’t support strategies that focus on community healing, that focus on community preservation, and that focus on services and supports for individuals,” she says.
At the same time, the communities that have suffered most from gun violence have received the least support. “When you look carefully at gun violence, what’s obvious is the geographic concentration: It’s in communities where there has been great disinvestment,” says Daniel Webster, ScD ’91, MPH, director of the Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy. “And it’s even more concentrated among individuals who have been cut off from resources and opportunities.”
The most forward-looking community-based violence interventions therefore try to improve the social determinants of health—poverty, inequality, lack of opportunity—that both contribute to gun violence and are made worse by it. A typical CMS site, for example, receives approximately $1.2 million from the city each year for street outreach as well as comprehensive “wraparound” services such as helping participants complete their GEDs and finding them jobs and safe places to live.
“Imagine we’re all on a boat: If people are falling into the water, we need to rescue them,” Crifasi says. But we also need to keep people from falling into the water in the first place—“because if all we do is spend our energy pulling people out, that’s all were ever going to do.”
Not every community-based intervention is successful, however. Often, the difference between success and failure boils down to money.
A 2020 study of Safe Streets by Buggs, Webster, and Crifasi showed that the program’s impact on firearm violence across Baltimore was highly uneven: In some areas, rates of gun homicides and nonfatal shootings improved; in others they stayed the same or actually got worse.
The researchers suspect those mixed results had much to do with inconsistent implementation and inadequate funding. “There has to be sufficient investment, and that includes development opportunities for the staff and support for the leadership,” Buggs says.
There are signs that help is on the way. In March, President Biden pledged to pour $5 billion over the next eight years into community-based violence interventions. And in April, the Treasury Department declared that the $350 billion in state and local funding included in the pandemic’s American Rescue Plan could also be used to support them.
Yet as welcome as these potential cash infusions may be, they will not produce a quick community-based fix. Enrolling and supporting high-risk individuals is a long-term process. So, too, is developing and establishing new community-based interventions, and analyzing and improving the ones that already exist.
“The reality is that it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of resources,” Webster says.
And there remains the uncomfortable truth that until American society addresses the root causes of gun violence in our most vulnerable communities—causes such as systemic racism, intergenerational trauma, and historical inequity—intervention can only accomplish so much.
Until then, community-based programs will continue to show us what the future can look like, one neighborhood at a time.
Conferring at Man Up’s East New York headquarters, Cumberbatch and Mitchell are surrounded by visible evidence of that future: A map of fatal shooting incidents in Man Up!’s catchment area that was mercifully blank for a full 27 months. A framed photo of a young girl who was helped by the organization and went on to a successful career in the Navy.
“This is a neighborhood haven,” Cumberbatch says. “Not just for the services they provide, but for the hope they give.”