CeaseFire founder is ready to help tackle gang problem

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The founder of a global violence prevention programme says it would take “just a phone call” for his team to move in and stop the gang warfare plaguing Bermuda’s streets.

Gary Slutkin, who founded the CeaseFire programme, is promising “fast results” if he is called upon to come to the Island to break up rival gangs.

The physician trained in medicine has had a dramatic impact in some of the world’s most troubled cities by treating gang violence like the spread of an infectious disease.

Dr Slutkin uses a ‘public health approach’ focusing on violence being a learned behaviour that can be prevented using disease control methods.

The CeaseFire programme has long been mooted as a way to end the unprecedented violence occurring between the 42 and Parkside gangs, which has resulted in 16 murders in the last two years.

Dr Slutkin said he was “more than happy” to help stop the shooting in Bermuda, but Government had not yet called upon his assistance.

He said: “We would need someone to reach out to us. It would just take a phone call.

“They would request our help then we’d come to visit to assess the situation. We’d then look at resources and start to find workers.

“It would just start with that phone call and with that prior commitment it would just take a couple of months to get things moving.”

He added: “If Bermuda is interested, I’d urge someone to reach out to me.”

Dr Slutkin spoke to The Royal Gazette ahead of the screening of the The Interrupters as part of this weekend’s Bermuda Docs Film Festival.

The documentary, which is being shown at the BUEI on Friday at 8pm, tells the story of three ‘violence interrupters’ working for the Ceasefire programme in Chicago.

There has long been talk about Bermuda adopting a CeaseFire type programme as a model for transforming our community.

National Security Minister Wayne Perinchief said just a few months ago that there would be “no harm in investigating the programme” after a two-year push by Shadow National Security Minister Michael Dunkley.

It is understood that a team of Bermuda Government officials have already visited New York to analyse the CeaseFire initiatives.

Dr Slutkin said he didn’t know “too much” about Bermuda’s violent crime, but said: “This approach is generally very adaptable, so we can make it work. We come up with solutions to end the epidemic of violence.”

A Department of Justice report on CeaseFire in Chicago found 41-73 percent drops in shootings and a 100 percent reduction in retaliation murders in five of eight neighbourhoods.

The programme had such a significant impact in Chicago, that it has since been rolled out to a whole host of US cities, including New York, Baltimore, Kansas, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Oakland. It is also being used in Trinidad and Tobago and South Africa, and is about to begin in London.

Dr Slutkin said: “We’ve been really encouraged by the results, but we’d like to be able to do more.

“There are so many other places suffering from violence, there is a lot of demand.

“It’s really important to get the word out there that this is something places can try.

“It is said to be effective, not only by us but also by independent studies.”

CeaseFire is said to “combine science and street outreach” to track where shootings will take place, then move in to calm the situation down.

So like an infectious disease, former gang members go after the most infected and stop the infection at its source.

Dr Slutkin said: “With violent events happening so quickly, it is clear that those carrying out the violence are acting like an infectious disease.

“Our goal is to interrupt the spread of violence and change the underlying behaviour driving it.”

CeaseFire is a three-pronged approach, taking in identification and detection, intervention and risk reduction, then finally changing behaviour and people’s norms.

It is initially the job of former gang members to use their street knowledge to find out when shootings or retaliation attacks are expected to take place. ‘The Interrupters’ do this by “listening to whispers” on the streets and preventing people from carrying out the attacks.

The trained volunteers then intervene and work closely with individuals or groups “for weeks, months or however long it takes”. It is their aim to breakdown gang disputes as with their backgrounds, they know who to talk to and how to defuse situations.

The CeaseFire programme concludes with work to change the thinking about violence at a community level. Society is taught to stop accepting violence, which Dr Slutkin compares to when people stopped accepting smoking in public places.

He said: “The results come fast. We start to see changes within just a couple of months.

“What takes the most time is finding the right workers to help turn things around.

“We like to find the workers who have the access, the trust and the credibility. The programme’s effectiveness relies on them.”

Dr Slutkin said the programme repeatedly found that most gang members “didn’t want to be behind the violence”.

He said: “They feel pressured to carry out violence. But they don’t want to be violent and they don’t want any violent acts done to them.

“We find that they have gradually picked up their behaviour from friends without even questioning it. They are following others without even knowing why they are following.

“When we go in and talk to them we face very little resilience, most people are happy to change. It’s a relief to them.”

Dr Slutkin is trained in infectious disease control and has previously increased the cure rate of tuberculosis in San Francisco from 50 percent to 95 percent. He has also worked on cholera and tuberculosis epidemics in Somalia and Uganda, the only country in Africa where the AIDS epidemic has been reversed.

In 1995 Dr Slutkin returned to the US to work on the violence epidemic and carried out about five years of research before launching the CeaseFire programme.

CeaseFire operates out of the University of Illinois where Dr Slutkin is a professor of epidemiology and international health.

Dr Slutkin said he wanted to initiate change as he had spoken to lots of people about violence and “the things being discussed did not make a lot of sense”.

He said punishment was not changing people’s behaviour, so he set about looking at the problem of violence with “fresh ideas.”

Dr Slutkin said: “That’s when I decided to develop a new strategy. I approached things in a new way and did things that hadn’t been tried before”.

More information: www.ceasefirechicago.org and www.bermudadocs.com

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Published Oct 18, 2011 at 8:47 am (Updated Oct 18, 2011 at 8:46 am)

CeaseFire founder is ready to help tackle gang problem

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