Gun violence is the leading cause of death for young people in the United States and disproportionately harms Black and Hispanic/Latino American children, youth, and young adults. From 2000 to 2020, the number of gun-related deaths among young people rose from 6,998 to 10,186, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Community-based violence intervention (CVI) programs serve as an effective solution to combat gun violence and curb firearm-related deaths. CVI programs that employ a violence interruption model seek to reduce gun violence by meaningfully engaging with the small number of individuals at the center of gun violence. At the heart of violence interruption programs are neighborhood change agents who build trust and form the personal relationships needed to mediate conflict. Change agents may also connect violence-impacted individuals to critical supportive social services. Through violence interruption programs, individuals have an opportunity to change their life trajectory.
Violence interruption models have tremendous potential to save lives and address the contributing factors to gun violence in communities. In fact, the implementation of violence interruption programs was associated with a 63 percent decrease in gun shooting victimization in South Bronx, New York, and a 43 percent reduction in gun-related deaths and assaults in Richmond, California. Policymakers and government leaders should continue to invest in the growth and development of these programs to ensure that they are responsive to the unique characteristics and needs of the neighborhoods in which they are implemented.
Gun violence is the leading cause of death for young Black and Hispanic/Latino Americans
The pervasiveness of gun violence in the United States poses a particular threat to Black and Hispanic/Latino American youth and young adults. Compared with their white peers ages 15 to 24, young Black girls and women are seven times more likely to die from gun violence, while Hispanic/Latina women are twice as likely to lose their lives to gun violence. Young boys and men of color are especially vulnerable: Black boys and men from the ages of 15 to 34 constitute almost 40 percent of gun homicides in the United States, despite making up just 2 percent of the country’s population.
CVI programs reduce gun violence
Community-based violence intervention serves as a promising solution to gun violence by seeking to reduce gun-related killings and injuries. CVI programs work with local communities affected by gun violence, focusing attention and resources on the individuals most at risk of perpetrating or experiencing violence.
Throughout the planning and implementation process, CVI programs collaborate with a variety of stakeholders, including residents, service providers, and, at times, local government. An alternative to reliance on the carceral state, CVIs identify individuals at the center of violence, provide access to supportive services, and promote alternatives to violence in an effort to mediate conflict.
Several different CVI models are used across the country. The hospital-based violence intervention model, for example, reaches out to individuals who were shot and hospitalized in an effort to prevent retaliation and connect survivors to social services. In the group-violence intervention model, law enforcement and community members collaborate to deter at-risk individuals from engaging in violence. The violence interrupter model may be one of the most promising, taking a community-centered, public health approach to the issue of gun violence.
The violence interrupter model
Contrary to the dominant narrative, gun violence is often sparked by retaliatory, interpersonal conflicts among a small number of community members. The violence interrupter model, also known as “street outreach,” aims to reduce violence by targeting those closest to the source.
Violence interrupter programs de-escalate conflict, provide mediation, and build supportive relationships with those at highest risk of experiencing violence. While other models may intervene after gun victimization or focus on group conflict, the interruption model prioritizes immediate responses that emphasize relationship-based interventions to de-escalate conflict.
In an effort to reduce violence, some interruption programs focus on more than just conflict intervention and mediation—they also take proactive steps to help people access support. Some violence interrupter programs may address poverty, trauma, and exclusion from social networks. These programs connect individuals at the center of violence to education; housing; cognitive behavioral therapy, strategies to change thinking and behavior patterns; workforce training; and other social services, which ultimately can put them on a better, safer path.
Trusted community members are crucial to violence interruption programs and play a central role in program implementation. Without them, these programs could not exist. Violence interrupters, sometimes referred to as neighborhood change agents, often have a revered role in the community and may have had personal experiences with gun violence or violent crime. Violence interrupters’ ability to build trust enables them to work directly on the ground with local residents and form the personal relationships needed to mediate conflict and connect people to supportive social services.
A number of violence interrupter programs across the country have shown successful outcomes, including the following:
South Bronx’s Save Our Streets program
In 2013, the Center for Court Innovation launched South Bronx’s Save Our Streets (SOS), a program that has proved highly successful in curbing gun violence in the South Bronx, reducing gun victimization by 63 percent in its initial years of implementation.
South Bronx’s SOS program was based on Chicago’s Cure Violence program, founded in 1999. Cure Violence’s mission is to “reduce violence globally using disease control and behavior change methods.” The organization aims to detect and interrupt violence by identifying and changing the behaviors and thoughts of those at the center of it, in an effort to shift community norms. Cure Violence emphasizes outreach, conflict mediation, and community engagement. It has worked with communities in Chicago to improve public safety, helping reduce gun fatalities by 31 percent from 2011 to 2013. Today, similar programs operate in cities across the country and internationally.
- Location: South Bronx and Morrisania neighborhoods of the Bronx, New York City
- Years active: 2013–present
- Target demographic: SOS works primarily with teenagers and young adults.
- Program design: SOS seeks to reduce gun violence through outreach and de-escalation. Outreach workers—generally men who have lived in the neighborhood and have an intimate knowledge of life on the streets—work on the ground and in the community. The job of SOS staff is twofold: to de-escalate conflict and to take on a supportive role as mentors. Outreach workers encourage participants to avoid gun violence by educating them about its harms. SOS uses the same staff to perform both outreach and conflict mediation work, whereas other Cure Violence programs separate staff into outreach workers and violence interrupters.
- Stakeholders: Bronx Community Justice Center; Center for Court Innovation; Crown Heights Community Mediation Center; New York City Housing Authority; community leaders and activists; faith-based organizations; hospitals; City Council; and local government offices, such as the Criminal Justice Coordinator’s Office
- Funding: SOS has received funding and managerial aid from New York government agencies, the U.S. Department of Justice, and philanthropic donors, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
- Outcomes: After the implementation of SOS in 2013, South Bronx’s gun injuries were 37 percent lower than they had been prior to the program’s start and its gun victimization levels were 63 percent lower. In addition, program participants’ likelihood of using gun violence to resolve serious conflicts fell by 33 percent from 2014 to 2016.
- Distinguishing features: Similar to other Cure Violence programs, SOS engages the entire community to educate residents about gun violence and mobilize action. The program holds vigils after shootings, shares information related to local gun violence, and fosters youth activism through its youth council. SOS also provides services for survivors of violent crime.
Baltimore’s Roca program
Originally founded in Massachusetts in 1988, Roca is a nonprofit organization that seeks to reduce urban violence. Roca’s mission is to disrupt “incarceration, poverty, and racism by engaging the young adults, police, and systems at the center of urban violence.” Roca emphasizes cognitive behavioral therapy and long-term relationship-building.
Roca equips young people with the tools and support they need to heal from trauma and improve their life outcomes. The program’s approach to reducing violence is informed by studies in brain science. Roca staff support participants in adopting healthy behaviors and mindsets that can help them respond to stressors or conflict. In 2020, Roca had seven active sites across the country. Of these, Roca Baltimore has shown particularly promising results.
- Location: Baltimore, Maryland
- Years active: 2018–present
- Target demographic: Roca Baltimore identifies and reaches out to young men ages 16 to 24 who are at high risk—meaning that they have been arrested or been involved in problematic activity with a street group—and have experienced trauma related to poverty and systemic racism.
- Program design: Roca Baltimore utilizes a trauma-responsive approach, prioritizing “relentless” outreach, relationship-building, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The goal of the Roca’s Re-Wire curriculum, which integrates CBT, is to help young people learn how to regulate emotions and respond to conflicts in a healthy manner. In addition to providing relational and emotional support, program staff help participants develop work-readiness skills and learn about various career paths.
- Stakeholders: Roca Baltimore partners with law enforcement, criminal and juvenile justice agencies, health care organizations, and employers who help provide referrals to the program. Roca also engages with them for advocacy purposes.
- Funding: Roca Baltimore receives funding from the city of Baltimore but it relies mostly on philanthropic support from organizations such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Abell Foundation.
- Outcomes: According to Roca, more than 80 percent of Baltimore participants demonstrated improvements in their behavioral health in 2021. Independent analysis conducted by Abt Associates also found that 90 percent of Roca Baltimore respondents felt equipped to utilize the CBT skills they learned through the Re-Wire curriculum. Eighty-four percent of participants had not been arrested during the program. Additionally, instances of retaliatory violence among Roca’s targeted population also decreased.
- Distinguishing features: Roca stands out from other similar programs particularly for its approach to relapse. If a participant shows regressive behaviors, Roca continues to work with individual participants even during their setbacks. The program does not penalize relapse because it recognizes that behavior and mindset change takes time.
Richmond, California’s Advance Peace program
Advance Peace is a nonprofit organization that seeks to end “cyclical and retaliatory gun violence in American urban neighborhoods” by investing in the “development, health, and wellbeing of those at the center of this crisis.”
Advance Peace launched pilot programs in the California cities of Sacramento, Stockton, and Richmond and was officially established in 2018. The organization seeks to reduce gun violence by addressing trauma and alleviating the various financial, health, and personal challenges of individuals most exposed to violence. Specifically, its street outreach workers connect with individuals most at risk of being involved with gun violence. Advance Peace’s model emphasizes healing from trauma as well as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Through its Peacemaker Fellowship, Advance Peace works with program participants to help them achieve personal development and life goals through life management action plans.
The Advance Peace program has expanded beyond California and now operates in Fort Worth, Texas, and may extend to other cities.
- Location: Richmond, California
- Years active: 2010–present
- Target demographic: People between the ages of 14 to 25 who are closest to the sources of violence
- Program design: For 18 months, fellows receive individualized support with goal setting and daily check-ins. Participants in the program also have an opportunity to earn a monthly allowance of $1,000. Behavioral health services and substance abuse treatment are also made available. Moreover, fellows can receive additional support from an Elders Circle, which provides bimonthly intergenerational mentorship as well as assistance navigating social services.
- Stakeholders: Office of Neighborhood Safety; Brotherhood of Elders Network; Richmond Police Department; and Richmond city government
- Funding: The local city government administers and funds Advance Peace Richmond. Additional funding comes from the state and federal governments as well as donors. Anything related to the fellowship, such as activities, travel, and the stipend, is funded by private donors.
- Outcomes: After Advance Peace’s implementation in 2010, the rate of firearm homicides and assaults was 43 percent lower than it had been prior to the introduction of the program. According to Advance Peace, “Richmond, California, experienced a 66 percent reduction in firearm assaults causing injury or death between 2010 and 2017.”
- Distinguishing features: Advance Peace does not partner with law enforcement and is focused on teaching individuals, rather than entire communities, anti-violence practices. Moreover, many of Advance Peace’s staff go on to become city employees.
Ensuring effective implementation of violence interrupter programs
For groups or localities interested in implementing violence interrupter programs, the following points should serve as guideposts:
- Obtain adequate funding to cover operational costs and provide staff fair, living wages commensurate with their responsibilities and assumed risks.
- Provide professional development opportunities for violence interrupter staffers; implement credentialing and robust training; and guarantee worker benefits.
- Advocate for substantial budget increases for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which provides funding to community-based safety initiatives, particularly leading up to the federal congressional appropriations process.
- Push for continued research on violence interrupter programs. While outcomes have proved promising, more studies need to be conducted to collect robust evidence that further establishes effectiveness and circulates best practices.
- Choose the violence interrupter model that best meets the needs of the community. Because neighborhoods can vary immensely, there is no “one size fits all” solution to gun violence reduction. When piloting new interrupter initiatives, program organizers must understand that certain program features may need to be modified.
Community-based violence interrupter programs, which have shown great promise in communities across the nation, are critical to curbing gun violence and violent crime. At its core, gun violence is a symptom of poverty, trauma, residential segregation, and social exclusion, much of which traces back to systemic racism against Black and Hispanic/Latino American communities. Solutions to gun violence must respond to and intervene in these underlying issues, following the example of the violence interruption model.
While the characteristics of violence interrupter programs may vary, they all share the same goal. By identifying, supporting, and equipping individuals at the center of gun violence with critical resources, violence interrupter programs can help foster healthier and safer communities.