Cobe Williams: Violence Interrupter

Jul 10, 2012, 1:56 PM, Posted by

>>EDITOR'S NOTE: On 9/13/2012 CeaseFire changed its name to Cure Violence.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Cure Violence (formerly called CeaseFire), a program that takes a unique public health approach to stopping gun violence in communities, hosted a screening of the award-winning documentary, The Interrupters, in Los Angeles at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. The screening featured a discussion panel including Ricardo “Cobe” Williams, one of the movie’s lead characters and Cure Violence violence interrupter and national trainer; Sheila Regan, director of hospital partnerships for Cure Violence; and Commissioner Oxiris Barbot of the Baltimore City Health Department, where the Cure Violence model was replicated and found to statistically lower either homicides or nonfatal shootings or both in all four of the historically violent neighborhoods in which it worked. Violence interrupters and outreach workers succeeded at cutting homicides by more than half in the Cherry Hill neighborhood.

Cure Violence pursues a singular, relentless focus on stopping shootings and killings. Maintaining that violence spreads fundamentally like a disease, and that it is possible to interrupt the transmission of violence much like a disease by changing the behaviors and norms that drive violent acts, Cure VIolence employs former gang members and ex-offenders who have the unique credibility with community members to effectively get people to rethink the impulse to resolve disputes using guns.

The program, begun in Chicago in 2000 by epidemiologist Dr. Gary Slutkin and funded in part by RWJF, has spread to other cities where violence is an acute health problem, including Baltimore, Md., Crown Heights, N.Y., Kansas City, Mo., and New Orleans, La. At the recent U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting, New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu stated, Violence is a deeply rooted problem that can only be dealt with as a public health epidemic. The Cure Violence model is built on an idea that is exactly right. It is one of many tools that we have to use to get to the problem.”

The Interrupters tells the story of three Cure Violence Chicago “violence interrupters” who work to protect communities from the violence in which they themselves once were involved.

NewPublicHealth caught up with Williams before the Los Angeles conference to ask about his experience as a violence interrupter for Cure Violence. “Before you do anything to intervene, you have to build relationships. That’s when community members open up to you,” says Williams, who at age 11 lost his own father to homicide. “We’re trying to stop people from retaliation, which is often the mindset they grew up with; it’s the mindset I grew up with,” Williams says.

Williams says it’s his job to “mediate the conflict, to put out the fire—to change their mindset and their thinking.” By establishing trust in the community, says Williams, “people will call me when they see a problem going on and I’m able to talk to people on both sides to work it out without shooting and killing. Once you build those relationships, it’s the fathers, the grandmothers, the brothers who start calling us to help work it out,” Williams says.

While Chicago has seen a dramatic increase in homicides this year over last year, Williams says many of those killings have not been in the communities where Cure Violence operates.

The message is simple, even if the work isn’t, says Williams: Violence is not acceptable, and to achieve new social norms that don’t accept violence as a commonplace, tolerable means of behavior, it’s important for everyone to get involved and build the community. “I grew up in a community where if I’m mad at you, all my friends are mad at you. That’s how I was raised. I lost a lot of friends to shootings. I wanted to be part of the solution.”

>>Bonus Link: Read a NewPublicHealth interview with Cure Violence founder Gary Slutkin.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.