'CeaseFire' Prevents Gang Violence in Chicago

Group tries to put an end to shootings among Chicago gangs.

Sept. 16, 2010— -- Two teenage boys gunned down, a family in anguish, a neighborhood full of hatred and hungry for revenge. It's an all too common scene on the rough streets of Chicago, a city notorious for its gang violence.

But a group of negotiators is using a new tactic to stop the bloodshed.

A group called CeaseFire says it treats violence as an infectious disease that needs to be isolated before it spreads. Members refer to themselves as "violence interrupters," who try to calm potentially violent situations so others don't react with more aggression.

It's a novel approach being used in Chicago and 14 other cities across the country.

Dr. Steve Salzman, a trauma surgeon at Advocate Christ Medical Center, treats hundreds of gunshot and stab wounds every year.

"The reality is violence is epidemic. Epidemic to a point where most Americans do not realize how out of control the problem is," he said.

"It's as violent, if not more violent, on a consistent and steady basis than Iraq or Afghanistan."

In Chicago, CeaseFire workers are paid about $30,000 a year to patrol in the meanest parts of town. They urge victims of violent crime, who live in the group's jurisdiction, not to retaliate, as well as offer job and education counseling.

Most employees of the program are ex-convicts and former gang members themselves. Some have even taken bullets.

"It was a wake-up call," said CeaseFire member Nikenya Hardy as he pointed to his gunshot wounds.

After Hardy was shot, a CeaseFire worker approached him in the hospital and begged him not to kill the man who had pointed the gun at him. The worker made several visits until the message got through.

"He got into my head and made me realize that me trying to retaliate wouldn't be nothing but selfish," Hardy said. "I let him live his life. I went on and lived my life ... and it's working out for the best for me and my kids."

Hardy said he has crossed paths with his shooter since then. The last time was in a nightclub. Hardy approached him, shook the man's hand and moved on.

With several members carrying heavy reputations as former gang bangers, CeaseFire has credibility on the streets.

One member, 51-year-old Fred Seaton, served 11 years in prison and is well known in his East Garfield Park neighborhood. On patrol one night, Seaton physically put himself in between Tommie Haynes and a teenager accused of stealing TV sets from Haynes's car, ultimately defusing the situation.

Preventing Shootings Before They Happen

Seaton said if he had not intervened, "somebody would have got shot."

Haynes agreed. "Fred saved me," he said.

The CeaseFire program is run out of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and analyzes these pockets of violence as they spread throughout communities.

Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist, is the founder and executive director of the group. He spent a decade monitoring and treating people with AIDS and tuberculosis in Africa, and believes diseases and violence exhibit very similar characteristics.

"They both spread. In both cases, one event leads to another, leads to another, and then you have a cluster, and pretty soon the whole community is involved," Slutkin said.

Treatment for both is also similar. The idea is to keep small inflections -- in this case, trivial fights on the street -- from blowing up into deadly viruses. A spat can quickly escalate into a gunfight, as others in the neighborhood feed on the aggressive energy and sometimes look for reasons to pull the trigger.

When two teenage girls got into a fight over a boy on the South Side of Chicago, it caught the attention of local gang members -- with their weapons. Dozens joined the fight. One of the girls was maced.

CeaseFire brought both families together in the group's office in Englewood, Ill. to talk it out. If left untreated, they knew this incident could boil over into bloodshed.

"If something happens to somebody's family, it's going to bring grown folks into it," said Michelob Williams, who is the father of the injured girl. "When grown folks come in there, it's gon' get big time. It's gon' be some real shooting, some real gang banging, and we got enough people locked up."

Interrupter Janell Sails pleaded with the families, "I'm begging y'all, and I don't even know y'all. Please leave it alone."

Both girls eventually agreed to let the issue go, but CeaseFire continues to keep an eye on the situation to make sure tensions don't flare up again.

CeaseFire Has Multiple Visits With Victims

"If it ain't resolved today, we're gonna keep working it until it get resolved," interrupter Ricardo "Kobe" Williams said.

CeaseFire interrupters also take their work to hospital bedsides to talk with shooting and stabbing victims, knowing that the victims or their friends might seek revenge on the streets. Dr. Salzman explained how intervening at the hospital can be very influential in preventing violence.

"This is the moment where people are most vulnerable. This is the moment of truth, where you can make that change," he said.

Such was the case with gunshot victim Jerrod Spruiel after CeaseFire member Charles Mack paid him a visit in the hospital during his recovery.

"I want to change my life. I'm tired. I'm 24 years old. I feel like I'm 56 years old," Spruiel said.

The group's efforts appear to be having a positive effect in Chicago.

A study funded by the Department of Justice found violence was tapering off in neighborhoods where CeaseFire was active.

"The average effect is between 40 and 70 percent drops in shootings and killings," Slutkin said. "Maywood, just outside of Chicago has gone a year without a single killing and they used to have 20."