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The forgotten public health program that cut homicides by 30% in Philly | Editorial

Mayor Kenney called gun violence in Philadelphia a "public health crisis." Cure Violence is a public health approach -- and it works.

Terry Starks of Philadelphia Ceasefire tapes a poster to a pole near the scene of the subway shooting Wednesday, September 19, 2012. At least one teen was arrested. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Terry Starks of Philadelphia Ceasefire tapes a poster to a pole near the scene of the subway shooting Wednesday, September 19, 2012. At least one teen was arrested. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff PhotographerRead more

As a bloody summer in Philadelphia comes to an end, there are conversations about relaunching Philadelphia’s Focused Deterrence programthe South Philly intervention that was credited with reducing violence in the area by 35 percent over two years. But Focused Deterrence wasn’t the only homicide prevention effort that launched in Philadelphia in April 2013. In North Philadelphia, Temple University’s School of Medicine launched Philadelphia Ceasefire, a gun violence prevention program that utilizes a public health model called Cure Violence. After two years of work funded by a federal grant, Cure Violence led to a 30% reduction in homicides in North Philadelphia.

Over the two years the programs operated, Philadelphia experienced the fewest number of homicides since 1967.

In Focused Deterrence, law enforcement identifies likely would-be shooters and threatens that if the violence continues by anyone, everyone will be punished using all the levers available to law enforcement. That threat usually also comes with an offer of social services, but critics argue the program could be too punitive.

Cure Violence, on the other hand, attempts to address violence before it happens by deploying people with past involvement in violence as credible messengers in a norm-changing campaign. The premise is that violence is “transmitted” from one individual to another through violent acts. The goal is to identify conflicts in the community and deescalate before anyone picks up a gun. Similarly, these “violence interrupters” arrive at crime scenes after shootings to attempt to prevent any retaliatory behavior by gathering information that might not be available to police.

Unlike Focused Deterrence, which is dependent on the ability of all criminal justice agencies to collaborate, Cure Violence could operate from outside the city and independently from law enforcement — a potential benefit for a city with no full-time police commissioner and a district attorney who doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with other entities.

Philadelphia currently has a program in the spirit of Cure Violence — the Community Crisis Intervention Program (CCIP). Every Thursday to Sunday night, the city deploys 15 street workers who walk around violent hot spots, forming relationships with the community and searching for potential conflict to defuse.

The program sounds a lot like Cure Violence but works differently in critical ways — training, relationship with police, hiring criteria, no messaging campaign — than the model that succeeded in Philadelphia and other cities. And while CCIP’s intended goal was to reduce citywide homicides by 5% in its first year, that reduction is nowhere in sight. Further, we don’t know if the program has any impact on homicides in the areas in which the outreach workers spend the most time because the city isn’t conducting an evaluation.

Last year, Mayor Jim Kenney declared gun violence in Philadelphia a public health crisis. If that’s the case, it would make sense to address it with public health — not only criminal justice — models. Philadelphia doesn’t need to choose between Focused Deterrence and Cure Violence. In the years with the lowest number of homicides in recent history, both programs operated.

There is evidence to suggest that Cure Violence, like Focused Deterrence, would save lives — arguably with less risk of harm.