As progressives seek alternatives to traditional policing after the protests against the murder of George Floyd, one solution has become more important: violence interrupters.
For this approach, groups like Cure Violence and Advance Peace are recruiting members of local communities, especially people with a history of gangs or violence, to act as mediators who can de-escalate interpersonal conflicts before they turn violent.
In the short term, it's about stopping shootings and murders. The long term is to promote stronger norms of peace within communities – an idea which, if successful, could lead to a decline in violent crime in general, without the need for armed officers capable of their own violence.
Interruptions were the subject of a lively documentary in 2011. Since last year, it has grown in prominence as a solution, touted by progressives and cited by news outlets including Vox as the way forward in a world with fewer or no cops. More recently, the concept has even gained federal support – with President Joe Biden's administration aiming to channel new funds and other resources to disruptors, describing the approach as an "evidence-based model".
The Interrupters is a 2011 documentary that tells the story of three violent interrupters in Chicago.
One hope with disruptors is that they could have short-term effects on crime and violence – unlike other proposed police alternatives, which tend to address the root causes of disorder that can take years or generations to resolve. For policymakers who want to deal with crime and violence now, this is very promising.
However, studies of breakers have largely been disappointing. Review of the evidence found that the approach often did not have a significant impact on shootings and murders, and some programs were even linked to more violence. Some studies have found positive effects, but these are few and far between and have methodological deficiencies. Taken together, the research is extremely mixed – with little evidence that the programs deliver what they promise.
Research on interrupters "is mixed, incomplete, and very difficult to do," said Jeffrey Butts, a researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied violence interrupters.
There is nothing wrong with trying new ideas, and investing more time and money into the concept of breakers could eventually bear fruit. But the focus on disruptors could mislead policymakers as they grapple with a new sense of urgency to do something about crime and violence in the US.
In the past year and a half, America has seen an increase in shootings and murders. The number of murders is likely to have risen by about 25 percent in 2020 and, while data continues to be limited to major cities, has increased 11 percent so far in 2021, based on crime analyst Jeff Asher's tracker.
This is a crisis that policy makers are now grappling with and there is growing political pressure to do something quickly. So far, President Biden has taken an "as well as" approach that combines policing and alternatives such as breakers. But most of the crime-fighting policy is done at the state and local levels. If progressives manage to convince local and state lawmakers to agree to breakers over more proven approaches, it would be a throw of the dice – accepting a sparse evidence strategy that puts lives at stake.
The evidence for disruptors is weak
Violence Break was conceived in Chicago in the 1990s by Gary Slutkin, director of Cure Violence, as a public health response to shootouts. The idea is that violence spreads like disease – like retaliatory shooting creates more retaliatory shots – but interrupters can shorten that cycle of violence. With each of these interactions, the interrupters hope to instill norms against persistent violence in a community and show a better way forward.
The concept has gained prominence in the mainstream over the past year, particularly as the Defund the Police movement took off and policymakers sought alternatives to traditional policing.
Cure Violence Global and UNICEF save hundreds of lives! Many thanks to the violence interrupters and the outreach workers! To learn more about their work, check out the link in our bio. pic.twitter.com/vgeMwK6B5t
– CureViolence (@CureViolence) July 2, 2021
But the evidence for the approach is mixed.
A review of the research published in 2015 in the Annual Reviews of Public Health analyzed the results of interrupter programs in several American cities. None of the five included studies gave completely positive results, such as a reduction in gun violence or murders. One program in Pittsburgh did so poorly that it saw "an increase in the monthly rate of serious assaults and gun attacks" in some neighborhoods.
The best-known of these studies, from 2009, looked at the Chicago interrupter program. When comparing the locations of interrupter programs with similar areas, the study found positive effects on shootings at four out of seven evaluation locations. Proponents would hope that interrupter locations consistently outperform comparable areas without the intervention; Instead, they did little better than a coin toss.
The researchers also conducted social network analysis in these areas to see if they could see any deeper changes in homicides and violence. They found again that the results were very different.
"The evidence is mixed," said Butts, who led the 2015 review and subsequent research on breakers. "We need to do more studies."
A 2020 review by John Jay College examining various police alternatives concluded that the evidence base for interrupter was "promising but mixed".
Some of the studies showed positive effects. The most promising program – a program in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago – was "associated with a significant decrease in overall violent crime (-45%) and gunshot wounds (-39%)." A survey in New York measured the propensity for interpersonal violence in men aged 18-30 and found that it fell in areas with and without interruption programs, but that “the decline was steeper in areas used to heal violence (33% versus 12%).
But much of the studies examined were mixed or disappointing. An interrupter program in Richmond, Calif., "May have been linked to a statistically significant decrease in gun violence, but researchers found a small increase in other types of violence." Another in Baltimore had results that were "inconsistent across locations."
The research also consists of largely correlative work with no randomized controlled trials – the gold standard for evidence – on disruptors. So instead of randomly selecting a few neighborhoods, using breakers only there, and seeing how those locations compare to similar areas, the studies typically looked at correlations between locations where breakers were believed to be active and locations where breakers were in By and large they weren't.
Given that less rigorous studies tend to be more positive for an investigated interference in crime and justice, it is all the more worrying that the weak studies for interrupter were found mixed with negative effects.
"It's worrying," said Anna Harvey, a New York University public safety expert who worked on the John Jay Report. "It really is an example of weak evidence."
Research on breakers "is mixed, incomplete, and very difficult to do" – Jeffrey Butts
Proponents of the approach emphasize the more positive results of the studies, including reducing shootouts in specific areas or neighborhoods. However, the same studies often found negative or zero results.
For example, the evidence summary for the Cure Violence interruption program cited the 2009 Chicago rating to claim a "41% to 73% reduction in shootings." But most of this reduction was not statistically significant; it did not differ from the results in control groups, which is why the researchers were only able to associate the intervention with a decrease in shootings at four of the seven study sites – again hardly better than a coin toss.
In acknowledging the mixed results of the research, proponents of breakers point out a number of problems. At the top, interruption programs face inconsistent funding and support, especially as changes in leadership and policy prompt those responsible to redirect resources elsewhere. That makes these programs difficult to implement the way they're supposed to – and could explain some of the poor research results.
“Not having a result for every measure in every community is far too high a bar for me with half funding, irregular funding,” Slutkin told me. "It always has to be done right – and that requires a consistent level of training and technical support on site."
They also argue that the approach is particularly difficult to research. As the John Jay report noted, interruption programs involve working with "individuals who are disconnected from traditional institutions and support systems and already engaged in illegal activities". Many of these people will be difficult to track scientifically, if they even consent to participate in a study. This can result in a lack of evidence without necessarily implying that the approach is ineffective.
Still, this is the evidence to work with. And based on that, the interrupter approach is mixed at best.
The choice is not interrupter or the current police model
For some activists, the aim of these programs is not only to complement the tasks of the police force, but to replace them in part or in full, both with interrupters and with other approaches. Proponents like # 8toAbolition (a reference to the abolition of the police) and DefundPolice.org have repeatedly cited interruption programs as an alternative to the police. The media also played a role: an article in Rolling Stone presented Interrupter as an idea for a “cop-free world”. Another in Vox put forward the idea of breakers to "replace traditional police officers".
When Minneapolis officials disbanded the city's police force last year and replaced it with a new public safety agency, they viewed breakers as one of several possible replacements for the traditional police force.
In the context of the current surge in murders, it is risky to rely on interrupters as an alternative to the police and to label them as such when evidence is lacking. Policy makers saw this in Minneapolis, where reportedly disruptors have been marginalized as the demand for more police patrols rose along with the violence. Some Minneapolis officials have since rejected their support for the dissolution of the police department.
A protester holds a sign reading "Defund the Police" outside the Hennepin County Government Plaza in Minneapolis during a demonstration against police brutality and racism on Aug. 24, 2020.
Kerem Yucel / AFP via Getty Images
There is no reason why breakers need to replace the police. There is even less evidence of this than interrupters in general: the studies on interrupters were all carried out in places where there are still police forces, so that even the most positive empirical results assume that there are still police officers.
The alternative to interrupters is not simply to accept the status quo with the police. It is still possible to reform anti-abuse reforms and introduce new practices that follow a less punitive, draconian model of policing. Some changes could explicitly include a public health approach – for example, sending special teams instead of the sole police force to make emergency calls related to mental health problems.
Interruptors and police can work side by side, addressing different needs in different rooms – and they do in some cities. "They have different roles," Slutkin said, despite envisioning a world where disruptors are central to anti-crime policy.
Other research finds strong evidence that the police have an influence on crime and violence. A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that more police officers are reducing homicides, especially in black communities. Reviews of the evidence, including randomized controlled trials, have found strong evidence that certain strategies, such as hotspot policing and problem policing, reduce crime and clutter.
In many places these approaches still represent a break with the police status quo. They are not necessarily punitive; For example, some police crisis management approaches require police officers to stand in high-crime blocks and take limited action, if any – instead, they act as largely armed surveillance to deter malefactors.
"That doesn't mean the police are a panacea for these things," said Morgan Williams, a Barnard College economist who studies crime and the criminal justice system. "But it does mean that we should be very careful with interventions that we don't know have important benefits or costs."
Now, the amount of research is focused on the police approaches – which makes it difficult to tell whether the police have better evidence than the alternatives, or whether they are simply being paid more attention.
Policing is also likely to cost more than disruptors. When a police approach goes wrong, the unintended consequences can be catastrophic – unnecessary arrests, neighborhood harassment, racial discrimination, and police shootings or killings. The downside of a failed Interrupter approach is more of an opportunity cost: the time and resources devoted to the program could have been used on something else, but there aren't any major negative outcomes.
In short, policing can be effective and not necessarily punitive, but it can lead to dire, unintended consequences. In the meantime, it is not clear whether breakers can be effective even if they don't produce negative results.
Of course, interrupters aren't the only alternative to police use to reduce crime and violence. There is stronger evidence of other approaches, including offering summer job programs, increasing the age of early school leavers, greening vacant lots, installing more street lights, providing more drug addiction, better gun control laws, and increasing alcohol taxes.
However, these other alternatives tend to work in the longer term as it takes time, for example, to revitalize a community by creating more jobs and safe spaces to tackle the root causes of crime.
The police work evidence suggests a much faster impact – as officers can reduce crime in an area the minute they are deployed there simply by deterring them by surveillance.
Interrupters are, in a sense, intended to provide the same short-term benefit by preventing conflicts from escalating once they are deployed. This is one reason they get so much attention compared to the other alternatives: For politicians and a public looking for quicker solutions to crime and murder, whether the benefits are short-term or long-term makes a big difference.
But, given the disappointing evidence on breakers, it's still not clear that they can provide the police's short-term benefits. And as murders rise, American politicians need evidence-based solutions to prevent potentially thousands more unnecessary deaths, hopefully right now.