CeaseFire’s use of violence interrupters made the program unique. Although many public health campaigns hire people who are adept at reaching target populations, hiring former gang members is not a common approach in the criminal justice field.
CeaseFire’s violence interrupters were not always part of the program, however. As program officials realized that they needed better access to gang leaders, they made a strategic decision in 2004 to hire people who were uniquely suited to do this.
Violence interrupters must work in the netherworld of street gangs and pass muster with gang leaders. Interrupters cruise the streets of the toughest neighborhoods to identify and intervene in gang-related conflicts before they intensify. If a shooting has occurred, they seek out the victim’s friends and relatives and try to prevent a retaliatory shooting.
People who fit this bill often lack traditional workplace experience, and finding and hiring them is not easy. Many have been in trouble with the law. However, the violence interrupters interviewed for the evaluation said they had turned their lives around and wanted to help others do the same.
CeaseFire set up many safeguards to ensure that the violence interrupters stayed clean. They are hired by a panel that includes police officers and local leaders. Background checks are run, with particular attention given to crimes against women and children. Some sites do not hire anyone with a felony conviction. Violence interrupters have to pass periodic drug tests.
Turnover can be high. The work is dangerous, and the pay — about $15 an hour at the time the researchers performed their evaluation — is modest. In many respects, violence interrupters are exposed to hazards from all sides. They are vulnerable to shootings, as well as stop-and-frisks by the police. Gangs are suspicious that violence interrupters are somehow associated with law enforcement, yet those who are ex-felons are at risk of legal repercussions from being “associated” with a gun.
Funding of Chicago CeaseFire has been unstable. Often, budget shortfalls forced short-term layoffs. Every time a site lost a violence interrupter, staff had to rebuild relationships with gang members and other high-risk youth who were the most likely to commit — or be the victims of — gun violence.