The Dutchtown neighborhood, in southeast St. Louis, has seen anti-violence initiatives come and go over the years.
Now it’s one of three neighborhoods selected for a nationally known program called Cure Violence. As its name suggests, Cure Violence treats violent crime such as shootings and homicides as a disease that can be cured with the right intervention.
In Dutchtown, there’s a sense of cautious hope that the latest initiative might make a difference in a neighborhood that’s seen 13 people killed and more than 130 shot this year alone.
Caylen Vinson, the youth program manager at the Thomas Dunn Learning Center, is looking forward to having Cure Violence as an option. “The way of making it an epidemic, and like a sickness kind of, and focusing our minds on that,” she said.
Thomas Dunn sits on the edge of Marquette Park, at the heart of where the city is implementing Cure Violence in Dutchtown. The program will also be tried in Wells-Goodfellow and Walnut Park in north St. Louis.
The center has been in Dutchtown since the 1960s and returned to its original mission of serving St. Louis youth six years ago. Teens from the neighborhood go there to get help with schoolwork, read in the library or use the computer lab.
There is nothing specifically “anti-violence” about any of Thomas Dunn’s offerings, Vinson said, but they do provide important support for kids who might otherwise get involved with violence.
“It’s more safety, more things for them to do that they are able to do because they are free, and just more opportunities to be off the street,” she said.
The Cure Violence model
Cure Violence began as Chicago CeaseFire in 1995, and has been tried in hundreds of cities since then. Its model has three key elements:
- “Interrupting” the violence by mediating ongoing conflicts in an effort to prevent them from turning violent, or escalating to someone being killed. This is handled by “interrupters” — individuals from the neighborhood who have street credibility, generally because they were previously involved with criminal activity.
- Identifying those most likely to commit violence and working to change their way of thinking. This is handled by outreach workers whose job it is to connect these individuals with services like job training or treatment for substance use disorder.
- Changing the community norms around violence, which allows for longer-term reductions in violence.
“We know that 1% of the population is typically responsible for 60% of the violent crime within any community,” said Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. “So we need to get that 1%. We need to find out what’s happening in their lives, and this program allows us to do that.”
Reed was part of the effort to secure city funding for Cure Violence — more than $7 million over three years. There is already a one-year contract in place to get the interrupters and outreach workers hired and trained.
The push for funding also got a big boost from advocacy groups like the Organization for Black Struggle and the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression as part of their campaign to rethink the city’s public safety strategy.
“What we were hearing from folks was, ‘We agree with you that the lack of education is one of the root causes of crime,’” said John Chasnoff, a co-chair of the coalition. “But it takes a long time for those root-cause-type programs to really kick in and have an effect. We’ve got an immediate violence problem in the city of St. Louis, so what can we do in the short term?”
Both Reed and Chasnoff have high expectations for Cure Violence.
“One of the reasons we picked Cure Violence is they’ve been able to show rapid results once they get up and running,” Chasnoff said.
Reed is making a bold prediction.
“Next year, if everybody has done their part appropriately, we should see a 40% drop” in violent crime, Reed said, which in Dutchtown would equate to almost 80 fewer shootings and two fewer homicides compared to 2018.
Cure Violence’s own website highlights other dramatic drops: a 30% drop in shootings at a site in Philadelphia, and a 48% drop in shootings in the first week of the program at a location in Chicago.
‘A tool in the toolkit’
Others, like public safety director Jimmie Edwards, are more measured in their expectations. He is expecting a reduction but isn’t putting a percentage on it.
“The worst thing we can do is indicate to the community, indicate to our neighbors, that we expect an outcome that we have no control over,” he said.
Research backs Edwards’ caution. A 2015 paper that reviewed past studies of Cure Violence found that while homicides and shootings dropped in many neighborhoods, it wasn’t clear that the program was the cause. In other neighborhoods, Cure Violence didn’t have much of an impact at all.
Still, one of the paper’s authors endorses the program.
“Cure Violence is not the solution to gun violence, but it’s relatively cheap and it has an effect, and it definitely should be in the toolkit of any city,” said Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
The “toolkit” has been opened a lot in Dutchtown in the past 10 years. There was the federally funded Dutchtown-Mount Pleasant Crime Reduction Partnership in 2009 and 2012. Dutchtown was included in then-Mayor Francis Slay’s PIER Plan in 2015. This year, Police Chief John Hayden made it one of the Hayden’s Rectangle neighborhoods.
Those past programs did a lot of good, said Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward.
“But one of the struggles that we’ve had is that these all seemed to be flashes in the pan, and not something we continue to put sustained resources to,” he said.
The $7.5 million commitment from the city has Cohn slightly more optimistic about Cure Violence, but skepticism remains, especially because he found out that Dutchtown was one of the Cure Violence sites from the media, rather than firsthand.
“In my mind, if you’re identifying neighborhoods in which you want to offer these programmatic services and whatnot that you would have engaged not only the local leaders in the community but also the elected representation as well,” he said.
Paula Gaertner, CEO at Thomas Dunn Learning Center, also has questions.
“We know that Cure Violence has been successful, but we don’t know how St. Louis is going to use Cure Violence,” Gaertner said. “That would help the community. That would help the neighborhood feel comfortable. It would help us so we can position our programs to better align with Cure Violence here in Dutchtown.”
Some in Dutchtown, like Cassandra Logan, aren’t sure they will ever feel comfortable with Cure Violence. In her view, the interventions are meant for gang violence, which isn’t what is happening in her neighborhood.
“I don’t think it's gang-related; it's just individuals that are misdirected, confused, angry, frustrated, not educated. It’s a gamut of things,” said Logan, who runs Logan’s Kids Resale on Meramec, about a block away from Marquette Park. “Because of how good old things has been done, there’s a great distrust with anything that is brought in to say it’s supposed to help the community, the neighborhood, our youth. And it’s like a camouflage. Like, oh, it’s just making it like y’all doing something.”
There are also unanswered funding questions. The $7.5 million from the city covers the data and staffing costs of Cure Violence for three years only, and so far there’s been no boost in funding for things like drug treatment and job training, which are key parts of the Cure Violence strategy.
Though Reed says he will always support more funding for services, he doesn’t expect the need for them to grow that dramatically.
“Remember I said 1% percent of the population is responsible for 60% of the violent crimes that we see in our city,” he said. “So we’re not talking about bringing 20,000 more people into the system.”
As for funding the program in the long term?
“In the future, the program will prove itself,” Reed said. “In three years, we should be able to show that it would be a travesty for the city of St. Louis to go back to the old days that we’re seeing today.”
The city has already signed a contract with Cure Violence so the hiring and training process can begin. If all goes to plan, interrupters should be on the streets of Dutchtown, Wells-Goodfellow and Walnut Park in the spring.
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