On the last Thursday night in March, with cold and colds of winter hanging on, Tio Hardiman and Marcus McAllister of Cure Violence Illinois, formerly CeaseFire Illinois, discussed a deadly contagion here. Speaking at Fleetwood Jourdain to about 100 residents, Mr. Hardiman, executive director of Cure Violence Illinois, said violence is like a virus and could spread up from Chicago. “When you have people who come to Evanston [and] have a certain mindset – they spread it [violence] here.”

“This nonsense” – as Mr. Hardiman termed gang and other street violence – is “spread down from generation to generation. You have people fighting for the cause but there is no cause. … Most of what people are fighting about is not gang-related. It’s just people who don’t know how to get along.”

Invited by the City of Evanston, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin and Peaceable Cities to speak to concerned residents, Mr. Hardiman described the principles, the framework and the strategies of Cure Violence – to break a cycle of violence.

Cure Violence focuses on youth who are known either to have committed gun violence or to be capable of doing so, working to interrupt their connection to powder-keg places, changing their behavior and mobilizing the community to help sustain the change.

In Evanston, violence among youth has been more pronounced and deadly in the past several months. Police Chief Richard Eddington told the RoundTable that the City has a framework similar to that of Cure Violence to address the cycle of violence among youth.

“I think that the concept of Cure Violence certainly has a place. Like anything else, we’re going to [adapt it] to the community. Our version is our outreach with Nathaniel Moorman and Kevin Jones – that’s our version of Cease Fire,” said Chief Eddington.

Chief Eddington said over the past several months the City has increased efforts to reach two types of youth: those who are or could become violent and those who are “on the fence.”  He credits Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl’s leadership in focusing on these youth.

City workers – few if any of whom are police officers – have two different approaches, said Chief Eddington. “They aggressively engage with people who may commit violence against someone with a firearm. We need to work with that minuscule piece of the population that is really going to do harm. So now we’ve got the technique, we can focus on individuals to interrupt cycles of violence.”

The second approach, said Chief Eddington, is “getting in contact with at-risk youth, kids who they know or who they believe would commit acts of violence but do not appear to have taken that step.”

Recreation plays a significant part in this, said Chief Eddington. The City has expanded its recreation offerings from the “day-camp” model – where parents drop off kids for a day of recreation, learning or experience – to evening opportunities: roller skating, open gyms, etc. He says he believes these recreation opportunities have bolstered the safety of the community by offering kids something concrete and enjoyable during what could be hours of temptations on the street.

 Changing some community attitudes remains a challenge, said Chief Eddington. A community’s tolerance of violence and antisocial activities can be hard to crack. In Evanston, he sees two ways in which certain segments of the community appear to tolerate violence: the “no-snitch” culture and the culture of retaliation.

“The tolerance of the ‘we’re not going to tell’ is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Chief Eddington. The tolerance of retaliative violence practically ensures the cycle of violence will continue.

The problem is escalation, said Chief Eddington – quarrels that years ago would have seen “pushing and shoving until someone’s friends dragged them away” from the fight now end in aggressive violence. “There seems to be no ‘firewall’ to the next level of violence. … We have gone too far in retaliative violence… There is no firewall that says, ‘we’re not going past this point’ [so] we never get to the ‘It’s done’ part. … “This is where Cease Fire [Cure Violence] and Evanston outreach get to the heart of the problem,” he said.

Chief Eddington said he feels that the City’s programs are focused in the right direction. He appears to endorse the move of street outreach from the police department. “I feel that our outreach is doing pretty well. … I’ve seen the program migrate from a police department function to a parks and recreation department function. The mayor has completely changed the direction of this to subtract the fence-sitters [youth who might be at risk at committing violent acts but could be swayed otherwise]”

“We’ve engaged in this relatively high-risk endeavor because it’s our perception that the stakes are so high – we’re trying to reach our young men who have engaged in violence and will engage in violence… we are engaged to do everything we can to prevent violence,” Chief Eddington said.

Treating violence like an infectious disease epidemic, Cure Violence workers mount a three-pronged attack: identifying the source of the problem, interrupting the transmission of the disease of violence, and changing behaviors and norms – those of both the youth who instigate the violence and the community itself, which may have come to accept at least some aspects of the violence.

Interrupting the transmission involves direct intervention in violent or escalating situations. Most often the Cure Violence workers are themselves products of the street and prisons, who understand the underpinnings of these anti-social choices.

“We work with young men and women to try to intervene in violent situations,” Cure Violence Illinois Executive Director Tio Hardiman said at a forum in Evanston on March 28. In 2012, he said, Cure Violence worked with 1,369 at-risk persons and mediated 750 conflicts that could have resulted in someone being shot.

The interest of the Cure Violence workers is not always the same as that of the police. Cure Violence workers home in on violence and violence prevention. Some of the most dramatic examples of this can be seen in the film “The Interrupters,” where the workers insert themselves into a conflict to defuse a situation having immediate potential for violence. If the police are called, they can make arrests, but Cure  Violence’s success will have been in preventing a shooting.

Changing behavior and changing community norms pose longer-term challenges, Mr. Hardiman said, and the community can become involved after Cure Violence has settled into the community.

Outreach workers handle most of the day-to-day interfacing with at-risk youth, said Marcus McAllister of Cure Violence Illinois, educating them about the possibilities of a non-violent life.

They offer “field trips” away from the gang hot-spot – such as to Springfield, he said. And they bring up the notion of friendship. We tell them, ‘You’re not a friend if you ask someone to hold a gun for you. A friend would not put you in that situation.’”

Changing norms involves community mobilization, said Mr. McAllister, and neighborhood and community organizations, faith groups and houses of worship, residents, businesses, hospitals and schools can all become involved in many different ways: offering jobs, participating in public education campaigns against violence and offering safe places for kids to hang out or play.

In the event of a shooting, Cure Violence will not be on the scene calling for marches or “stop the violence,” said Mr. Hardiman. Instead, it may not become public for about 72 hours, and, when it does, it is with the hope of being allowed to set up shop for its entire strategy of identification, intervention and changing norms.

This strategy has worked, said Mr. Hardiman. He said the founder of Cure Violence (then called CeaseFire), Gary Slutkin, M.D., is an epidemiologist who sees violence as a public health problem. In designing the program in 1995, Dr. Slutkin applied his experience fighting epidemics in Asia and Africa to the epidemic of violence in the streets of Chicago.

According to its website, Cure Violence has been “statistically validated to reduce shootings, killings or both by three independent evaluations conducted by the Department of Justice and Centers for Disease Control in three cities: Chicago, Baltimore and New York.”

Mr. Hardiman said Evanston could decide whether the Cure Violence model would fit this community. He applauded Evanston for considering the problem of violence in the community “before it is out of control.”

Workers at Cure Violence Illinois, he said, “try to be an alarm clock: to wake you up because something has happened or tell you not to go to sleep because something might happen.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...