To Gary Slutkin, giving up guns is a lot like swearing off smoking
After the fact. When preventive measures fail, the violence interrupters go to the hospital emergency room and talk to the victim's friends, aiming to head off retaliation. Outreach workers also offer alternatives to thug life, such as school or job training, through community organizations. "I feel I took so much away from the community as a predator," says Lenorris "Bee" Bolden, a violence interrupter who did six years for drug conspiracy. "The best thing I can do now is to try to stop the problem."
Since 2000, CeaseFire has hired about 120 workers and has spread to 16 neighborhoods in Chicago and nine outside the city. Most have seen a drop in shootings and homicides compared with neighboring precincts without CeaseFire. In the 11th Police District, for instance, killings declined from 72 in 2001 to 25 in 2004.
Those numbers have not gone unnoticed, particularly by politicians eager for a good-news story. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has boosted annual funding for CeaseFire to $6.25 million, and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine hopes to expand a fledgling program in Newark and Irvington. First lady Laura Bush visited CeaseFire's outreach workers in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood last June. Impressed by Slutkin's idea that violent behavior is learned, and thus can be unlearned, Bush asked Slutkin to sit with her at the 2006 State of the Union speech, and she has connected him with White House advisers to talk about quelling violence among kids in the Middle East.
Slutkin on first glance seems an unlikely antiviolence crusader. Pale, thoughtful, and turned out in a conservative navy blue suit, he looks at 55 like he should be in private practice on Chicago's tony Gold Coast, not ministering to the gangbangers of Englewood and East Garfield Park. He grew up in West Rogers Park, with a father who nurtured his curiosity about science (he fondly recalls having a model of the human eye in his room at age 9) and a mother who "was relentlessly enraged by injustices." Those two influences merged after medical school, when he began to specialize in infectious disease, first fighting a TB epidemic among Vietnamese refugees for the city of San Francisco, then moving to Mogadishu, Somalia, where he worked for the International Rescue Committee treating cholera and TB outbreaks among refugees from the country's civil war. Daniel Tarantola, who worked with Slutkin on World Health Organization campaigns against AIDS in Africa and Thailand, remembers him as a solid thinker who never flinched at harsh conditions. With CeaseFire, he says, Slutkin is applying lessons learned with AIDS, addressing not only the visible manifestations "but their links to deeply rooted causes."
Criminologists praise CeaseFire's fresh approach to suppressing violence and give the group extra credit for taking on the highest-risk groups in the worst neighborhoods, rather than just giving lectures in high school auditoriums, as many anticrime programs do. "They're taking on a tough target," says Wesley Skogan, a professor at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research, who studies violence in Chicago. Just 5 percent of offenders commit 40 percent of crimes, Skogan says. He has started a two-year study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, to determine how much of the recent decline in violence in Chicago can be attributed to CeaseFire and how much to other anticrime programs, such as the federal Project Safe Neighborhoods program and Chicago Police Department efforts. Slutkin is only too happy to share the credit. "Why have only one intervention?" he asks, noting that it took many different approaches, including seat belt laws, air bags, and speed limits, to reduce highway deaths. "If you add to something else, soon you get synergy."
Born: Aug. 7, 1950
Education: B.S. in physiology, University of Illinois; M.D., University of Chicago
Countries worked in: Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zaire, Thailand, 15 others
Last read: Presence, by Peter Senge