Can neighborhood outreach reduce inner-city gun violence in the U.S.?

Researchers are looking into how intervention programs cut homicide rates

Crosses for Chicago gun violence victims

Crosses made by a retired carpenter to represent those killed by gun violence in Chicago in the first three months of 2018 crowd a city vacant lot. Gun violence prevention programs may help reduce that carnage, researchers say.

Jim West/Alamy Stock Photo

The gunshots ripped through a house party before dawn on Chicago’s South Side. By the time the 27-year-old victim arrived by ambulance at a hospital, he was dead from multiple bullet wounds.

Unlike the violence seen in classic turf wars among gangs fighting over, say, control of an illegal drug market, no gang leader had ordered the Sept. 1 killing of Yarmel Williams. Instead, he had apparently been targeted following a war of words over social media. Known on the street and online as 051 Melly, Williams belonged to one of Chicago’s many informal, neighborhood groups, or cliques, of young, African-American men who follow a deadly code: perceived slights and past slayings of friends by rivals must be avenged through the barrel of a gun.

Neighborhood clique members “live in their own, isolated culture that glorifies gun violence and warps how they see themselves as black men,” says Lance Williams, a professor of urban studies at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago who is not related to Yarmel Williams.

Lance Williams
Lance Williams, who has worked with gang members and other violent youth in Chicago for 30 years, has called for collaboration between the largely white community of researchers who study gun violence prevention and African-Americans in poor neighborhoods to develop strategies that actually work to help reduce gun injuries and homicides.Northeastern Illinois University

Cliques have names and members who formerly belonged to different, even rival, Chicago gangs that have since dissolved. But unlike gangs, cliques have no top dogs. Instead, each person decides on his own, often spontaneously, whether to shoot someone. Personal beefs can quickly turn deadly.

Well-intentioned laws won’t stop shootings by young men competing over whose clique has scored the most fatalities, Williams says, who has studied youth violence and worked 30 years among Chicago gang and clique members. So currently proposed gun control legislation is unlikely to deter this inner-city violence.

Instead, some researchers are looking into the effectiveness of outreach programs that deal directly with violence-prone individuals to dissuade them, and perhaps peers they later encounter, from gun crime. Williams calls for innovative education, job opportunities and gun violence prevention programs. “Policy makers need to understand that we have to rebuild healthy identities and world views,” he says.

Preventive outreach

Mass public shootings in U.S. workplaces, malls and schools have raised alarms about gun safety (SN: 3/23/18). Such shootings, involving four or more victims, killed 399 people in the United States this year as of October 31, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive.

But these rampages, committed primarily by young, white men, have also received far more media attention than inner-city shootings between young, black men in the poorest neighborhoods. The Chicago Tribune newspaper counted 436 homicides — mostly young, black men shot and killed by other young, black men — in Chicago alone through October 26. That homicide rate is consistent with annual rates in Chicago since 2014. That same story is playing out in other Rust Belt cities, including Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Memphis, Tenn.

Inner-city gun violence mostly occurs within small networks of people who know each other, as allies or enemies, and are at high risk for becoming violent. Those groups typically account for 0.5 percent or less of a city’s population.

But gun regulations proposed in the wake of mass shootings, such as expanded background checks and limits on sales of certain firearms (SN: 5/21/18), would probably do little to stop shootings within those volatile social webs, Williams says.

Partly that’s because gun violence has burrowed deep into the daily lives of Chicago’s neighborhood cliques. A popular line of rap videos, known in Chicago as drill rap, celebrates shootings with rapid-fire rhymes. In addition, guns are easy to acquire on the streets, whatever gun control laws may be on the books. In this explosive atmosphere, gun violence prevention programs are working to encourage young men deemed at risk of violence — because they have extensive arrest records or affiliations with violent groups — to spread a “don’t shoot” message to their friends and comrades.

RondoNumbaNine screenshot
A Chicago drill rapper known as RondoNumbaNine makes a gun gesture with his hands while rapping in a video about shooting a rival. RondoNumbaNine is now in prison for Tha Camera God

It’s not a new idea. The first such program, called Operation Ceasefire, was launched in Boston in 1994 to quell gang violence that had been fueled by a crack cocaine epidemic. Many other cities plagued by gun violence soon followed suit. Fatal and nonfatal shootings declined in high-crime neighborhoods and in violent gangs, often by 30 percent or more, in the year or two after such interventions.

But how such interventions work, and the true extent to which they work, has gone unexplored, says criminologist George Tita of the University of California, Irvine. It’s not known, for instance, if gang and clique members who participate in interventions tell their friends who didn’t attend to avoid or reduce revenge killings. And since U.S. homicide rates have declined substantially after peaking in the mid-1990s, possibly due to declines in crack cocaine use, rising employment rates and other factors, it’s hard to know how much  any particular  gun violence program contributed to declines in shootings.

“It’s time to start evaluating the behavior of individuals, not just groups, exposed to these interventions,” Tita says. In that way, investigators can establish not only whether someone who attends a gun violence prevention program becomes less violent, but also whether that person’s social contacts follow suit.

Spreading effects

George Wood and Andrew Papachristos, sociologists at Northwestern University just north of Chicago in the city of Evanston, Ill., have looked into the how gun violence prevention efforts have played out in the city where 051 Melly was gunned down.

Their work, published August 19 in Nature Human Behavior, focuses on a Chicago intervention that, between August 2010 and June 2016, invited violent offenders, identified via Chicago Police Department records, to one-hour meetings, known as call-ins, held in community centers and other public places. The study tracks recorded instances of being shot among nearly 8,500 individuals, including program participants and their associates, who are known from arrest records, police and outreach workers to be involved in violent groups.

As in programs in several dozen U.S. cities, the call-ins began with officers emphasizing that shootings had to stop. If they didn’t, perpetrators as well as neighborhood associates would be hit with outstanding warrants, parole violations and charges for other crimes.

Then community representatives, including parents of murdered children, ministers and street outreach workers, told participants that they are loved and valued, but need to become involved in constructive activities. Victims of gun violence and their relatives described the trauma of their experiences.

Finally, local social service workers offered access to job training, drug treatment and other programs.

Chicago anti-violence protestors
Anti-violence protesters in Chicago march toward Wrigley Field on August 2, 2018.Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

A total of 1,642 individuals, nearly all male, responded to invitations by attending a call-in. Another 707 were invited, but never showed up. Using police data, the researchers identified another 3,034 people who had been arrested along with a participant in the three years before a call-in, and 3,098 others arrested in the three years previous with people who failed to show up for a call-in.

Within two years after the call-ins, about 10.6 percent of participants became victims of gun violence, compared with 18.1 percent of those who skipped the meetings. Among those previously arrested with participants, 7.5 percent fell victim to gun violence, compared with 9.7 percent of people arrested with non-participants.

Wood and Papachristos gauged the intervention’s effects after statistically accounting for a greater tendency of the most hard-core and prolific shooters to skip call-ins. Thus, those who were invited but didn’t participate started out as more likely to become victims of future gun violence than those who did attend call-ins.

The researchers also statistically corrected for greater gun violence to begin with among individuals previously arrested with no-shows, versus those who had been arrested with participants.

Participation in the intervention reduced instances of being shot in the next two years by an estimated 3.2 percent, the researchers say. That works out to about 53 fatal and nonfatal shootings of participants averted as a result of the intervention. A roughly 1.5 percent reduction occurred among participants’ past co-offenders as a result of the intervention. That worked out to about 45 fewer shootings among associates of participants.

“There has been lots of speculation that the effects of gun violence interventions spill over from individual participants to others in their groups,” Wood says. “This is the first test of that possibility.”

Saving big

Preventing roughly 98 shootings over two years with call-ins hardly puts Chicago’s gun violence problem to rest. But that outcome represents a substantial achievement, says David Kennedy, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Kennedy directs John Jay’s National Network for Safe Communities, which helps cities organize call-in interventions. He also devised Boston’s original Operation Ceasefire with economist Anne Piehl, now at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Chicago call-ins recruited young men from some of the toughest, most violent groups in the country at a time when rates of gun killings and injuries were high, Kennedy observes. “Small effects of gun violence interventions designed to influence people not directly touched by those interventions really matter.” Aside from reducing gun violence, such programs tend to result in lower arrest and imprisonment rates and improved relations between police and poor communities, Kennedy says.

Wood and Papachristos’ results also highlight the huge financial impact of even modest reductions in gun violence, says criminologist Anthony Braga of Northeastern University in Boston. Using a cost-of-crime calculator developed by the RAND Corporation, a research institution based in Santa Monica, Calif., Braga estimates that preventing 98 shootings over two years in Chicago saved around $178 million in medical bills and other costs associated with gun homicides and injuries. His estimate was guided by previous data indicating that about one of every five shootings is fatal.

Retaliation shootings decline as fewer people get shot, a trend not included in cost-saving estimates, says Braga, who participated in Boston’s Operation Ceasefire project as a Rutgers graduate student.

Braga plans to examine trends in shootings among gang members in Oakland, Calif., who attended call-ins between 2013 and 2017, as well among those men’s allies and rivals.

Culture change

Back in Chicago, Lance Williams sees gun violence prevention programs as a partial fix for a bigger problem. A largely white research community needs to work with African-Americans in impoverished, violent neighborhoods on strategies to reduce joblessness, rebuild communities and provide legitimate opportunities for youth, he says.

group therapy
Young men attend a group therapy session as part of a Chicago program that targets individuals considered likely to commit gun violence. The program also provides job assistance and social support services.Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Associated Press

Isolated from mainstream society, young black men in neighborhood cliques organize their identities around a hair-trigger sensitivity to any signs of disrespect from others. Feuds easily erupt and intensify via threats and boasts posted on social media sites, where rap videos that celebrate revenge shootings are popular. Young men caught up in this violent lifestyle have typically experienced many traumatic events since early childhood, from suffering physical abuse at home to witnessing shootings on the streets (SN:8/9/19). Most skip high school and enter young adulthood with no designs on legal employment. Even if one of these men got a job, Williams says, virtually anything a boss told him to do would be viewed as a violence-provoking insult.

“A cultural intervention is needed to rebuild how these men see themselves and the world,” Williams says.

Public outrage over the loss of young men like 051 Melly in the nation’s inner cities, comparable to that expressed over mass public shootings, might get the preventive ball rolling. Williams anxiously awaits that day.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Science & Society