As Chicago wrestles with a spike in the homicide rate, a panel of experts gathered recently to provide a snapshot of the current situation and share promising strategies for preventing violence among the city’s young men.
“Violence is one of the most pressing problems facing not just Chicago, but almost every major urban center across the country,” said John Wolf, senior program manager for the University of Chicago Crime Lab, and one of the three panelists. “Unfortunately, while we’ve seen substantial progress in other leading causes of death in the United States — such as infant mortality, heart disease and stroke — the homicide rate has remained stubbornly persistent.”
The discussion, moderated by Virginia Bishop, MD, MPH, assistant professor of Preventive Medicine in the Division of Behavioral Medicine, centered on encouraging results from two specific prevention efforts: Becoming a Man, a mentoring program in Chicago Public Schools for male students, and the Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy, which engages directly with individuals most at risk for group-related violence.
A.J. Watson, director of the Becoming a Man program, shared data from randomized, controlled trials at the University of Chicago that found the program reduced violent crime arrests among participants by up to 50 percent, compared to a control group, and boosted high school graduation rates nearly 20 percent, among other promising outcomes.
Conducting such studies is a major focus of current prevention efforts. “Randomized, controlled trials are something that happen in medicine all the time, but unfortunately are all too rare in public policy,” Wolf said. “We need to take evidence, science and empirical solutions more seriously, and test whether some of the programs that are already happening in schools and communities might be able to move the needle on reducing crime.”
The Becoming a Man program, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, focuses on instilling critical social and cognitive skills in at-risk young men to help them more appropriately respond to high-stakes situations. The strategy is based, in part, on Chicago Police Department data that shows three-quarters of all homicides stem from a less serious altercation.
“In many cases, an argument over something that seems trivial escalates — and if there’s a gun ready, it unfortunately oftentimes ends in death,” Wolf said. “So we focus on programs that get young men to stop, look, and listen, and learn to make decisions that lead to more productive outcomes.”
Chris Mallette, executive director of the Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy, agreed, noting that much of the current violence is no longer necessarily related to drug trafficking, but is instead a result of heated, high-stakes encounters. “The majority of the violence we’re seeing is beef-related, more than business-related,” Mallette said. “So while poverty and other issues are key factors that need to be addressed, I would put the cognitive development piece ahead of everything else.”
Bishop wrapped up the event with a call for ongoing discussion. “Despite what we heard, I hope people leave here feeling more optimistic than pessimistic,” said Bishop, also assistant director of Diversity and Inclusion. “I hope medical students continue to learn as much as they can, from the variety of different resources we have in the university. The strategy should be more than doing a rotation where you take care of someone who has been shot or is dying — it’s also about getting involved, doing advocacy, and realizing we are all stakeholders in this.”