Chicago’s Budget for Violence

Mayor Emanuel – Let’s rethink the budget and really cure our violence problem

Chicago_police_panAt my company, Public Good, we look for organizations that are effective at solving the world’s most important problems. We sift through one of the biggest databases ever compiled of nonprofit and NGO information and sometimes we make interesting discoveries. For example, we discovered that the most innovative and effective approach to ending violence has been developed right here in the City of Chicago. Like all great innovations, it sounds crazy until it sound obvious. The idea is treating violence like a disease epidemic.

Dr. Gary Slutkin, a widely respected doctor specializing in infectious disease, first noticed the relationship between the spread of violence and the spread of disease when he returned from Africa where he led a historic reversal of infection trends in cholera and HIV. The key is that the biggest predictor of violence isn’t economic hardship, poor policing, or easy access to guns: it’s other violence. If the cycle of violence and retribution can be interrupted the outbreak can be controlled.

Here in Chicago, Slutkin implemented the idea as a program called CeaseFire, and later replicated his results in dozens of cities worldwide under the moniker Cure Violence. His extensively peer-reviewed data shows reductions in violence in serviced areas starting within months of implementation and reaching 40-70% reductions in fewer than 3 years. It’s been hailed by the World Health Organization as a breakthrough.

So what does it look like? The idea is to find “credible messengers”, individuals with friends, family, and experience in a community blighted by violence. These individuals are given extensive training in de-escalation and conflict mediation and then visit homes, communities, hospital trauma centers, and other key locations. Many of the these “interrupters” are former gang members. Some have done time for violence themselves. They work to cool tempers and show that a cycle of violence helps no one. Because they’re part of the community and don’t wear a badge, they’re trusted and listened to in ways even the best police officer isn’t.

Despite the program’s manifest success here in Chicago and the warm adoption of its methodology by cities like New York and Los Angeles who have watched their rate of violence fall while ours rises, Chicago has cut funding to the program. It isn’t because we can’t afford it – CeaseFire estimates that a “fully funded” program for the city would cost approximately $25 million per year and would bring our level of violence down below that of our peer cities.

To put this in perspective, in addition to hiring 1,000 new police and investing heavily in training, Mayor Emanuel’s 2018 budget calls for a $20 million increase in police overtime to a total of $100 million. And, counter-intuitively, there is no good evidence to support the idea that increasing police staffing will reduce violence levels. So why not put a portion of the budget we are putting towards public safety into a proven, effective program that will make a difference? The State of Illinois has recently stepped up to cover around $5 million of the program cost so the overtime increase alone would cover the difference.

I’m certainly not arguing that a strong police force is not in the interests of the city, nor that funds for reform and training should be reduced. But I am arguing that withholding funding from a proven program that would saves hundreds of Chicagoans’ lives and save thousands more from grievous injury for the benefit of an unproven, more expensive alternative is clearly not the right answer. I hope the mayor will reconsider.


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