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September 14, 2011

Fighting gang violence

Reuel S. Amdur

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The U.S. Embassy recently sponsored a talk in Ottawa by Dr. Garry Slutkin, an epidemiologist who heads an anti-violence project in Chicago called Cease Fire. The program has been replicated in 14 other American cities and five other countries. While the program has garnered attention as the new tool in the struggle to end violence in low-income areas, in fact the approach is not new.

There is a long history of gang work and work in crime-infested neighborhoods going back at least to the 1930s. 

According to American social work educator Irving Spergel, “By the middle 1950s almost all large urban centers in the North and several in the South had gang work programs.” 

Cease Fire’s peculiar twist is its epidemiological approach.  It sees violence as an epidemic.  It identifies violence as learned behavior–“what everyone else is doing,” as Slutkin explained. 

There have been various theories of delinquent gang behavior. Richard Cloward and Llolyd Sellin found the cause in lack of opportunity, an approach that was highly influential in the War on Poverty.  Slutkin’s position falls into the category of explanations focused on culture–subculture of poverty, counter-culture of delinquency, cultural disintegration, etc.  

While these theories differ from one another, programs based on them not so much.  Thus, Slutkin mentioned in passing that an outreach worker might help someone find a job.  Cloward would approve.  There are some clear difficulties in seeing violence as an epidemic, but this is not the place to engage that debate.  Rather, we need to examine what can change illegal gangs and violent behavior.

The general approach, including Cease Fire, is to use outreach workers to get gangs to change direction.  How they operate will vary widely.  In one New York case, workers from two different social agencies encouraged their opposing fighting gangs to take part in a baseball league.  Their participation precluded violence between the groups.

Slutkin also spoke of Cease Fire’s approach as involving clergy, police, and the community in order to change the value system around violence.  Again, community organization efforts are not new.

He showed graphs demonstrating marked decline in violence in neighborhoods where Cease Fire has been in effect.  There are many different things that can be shown to decrease criminal behavior and violence. More street lights have been shown to reduce crime. 

When I was a welfare worker in Toronto, there was an apartment building which was a no-go area for us because of danger.  A camera was installed in the lobby, and the situation in the building changed radically.

In Toronto, there have been missed opportunities to build community rejection of violence.  In one instance, a woman in a low-income area was mobilizing her neighbors to oppose the gangs.  A teenage girl pointed a gun at her as a warning.  Police said that they could not provide round-the-clock protection for her.  Was that the wisest decision on resource allocation?

On another occasion, a woman turned her son in to the police when she found an AK-47 in his bed. While she could not be identified by name since her son was a juvenile, she could have anonymously but publicly been dined at a fancy restaurant with the Mayor.  City Council could have bestowed a plaque in recognition.

Turning again to Cease Fire, there are two things that give it its impact.  It has great public attention right now, the flavor of the month as it were. The second thing is the funding. Slutkin’s program has put together money from different levels of government and various foundations. Money for such programs is not easy to come by.

Canadian cities are constrained by heavy reliance on the unpopular and inequitable property tax.  Police forces always have a heavy claim on the municipal budget.  Preventive measures less so.  Ottawa in budget deliberations in a recent year came close to eliminating all funding for a crime prevention agency.  Enlisting a corps of gang workers in Ottawa–or Toronto–would be a daunting task given financial restraints.

Thus, crime prevention and work with gangs become matters of taxation policy. Provinces need to let cities have access to other sources of funding, especially a municipal income tax.  Crime prevention also has a federal component.  One of the attractions that gang participation offers is quick money–big cars, fancy clothes and jewelry, and women.  Drug money.  Neither we nor the Americans seem to have learned the lessons of Prohibition.

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