We need answers on anti-violence program


June 30, 2014 6:50PM

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Updated: August 2, 2014 6:14AM

The anti-violence program CeaseFire itself is under fire, which adds to the importance of a study now underway of the program’s effectiveness.

An earlier Northwestern University study concluded that CeaseFire does help to reduce crime as its “interrupters,” who often are ex-felons, comb streets where disputes often are settled with bullets and try to mediate conflicts before they blow up into shooting wars. A separate study now underway by the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago could shed additional light on the real impact of CeaseFire. It’s an important question to which we need a clear answer.

Some of CeaseFire’s interrupters have themselves been charged with serious crimes, and each time that happens, the question takes on greater urgency. Most recently, as Frank Main reported Sunday in the Sun-Times, Richard Hernandez, a $16-an-hour “violence interrupter” for about a year, faces 36 counts charging him with sexual assault and kidnapping of a teenage girl while he worked for the program. Hernandez, whose association with CeaseFire ended in April, is among at least nine CeaseFire employees to face serious criminal charges in recent years.

There’s no shortage of unimpressed Chicago Police officers who think CeaseFire, which is affiliated with the University of Illinois at Chicago, is little more than a dodge. But that’s not entirely fair. Any program that attempts to fight crime from the ground up is going to have these problems. The concept behind CeaseFire is to hire people with checkered pasts because they are the ones to whom young men on the street will listen. Inevitably, some of those ex-offenders are going to run afoul of the law again.

Prosecutors have said Hernandez is a ranking member of the Maniac Latin Disciples gang. He was sentenced to prison for a 2006 gun conviction and a 2005 drug conviction, court records show. But Tio Hardiman, former CeaseFire director, said Hernandez was effective in cooling off conflicts in Humboldt Park and Hermosa.

CeaseFire and police have a natural conflict. The police would like the intervention group to pass on tips about crimes. But CeaseFire thinks it can’t be effective if the people it is trying to work with think it is just an arm of law enforcement.

And as much as some cops sneer at CeaseFire, the department has adopted some similar techniques. Under a “custom notifications” program, police and social service representatives try to forestall shootings by visiting and talking to people identified as likely to be involved in violence before anything happens.

What both CeaseFire and police know is that the vast majority of the killings in the city can be traced back to a very small number of offenders. If members of that small group start thinking twice because of persuasion by either CeaseFire or police, the decline in violence could be significant.

CeaseFire, whose work was highlighted in the acclaimed documentary “The Interrupters,” believes its work has led to a reduction in murders and shootings. But it’s hard to sort out, because police are using their strategies in the same areas. The study now underway can help clear that up.

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