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Addressing Violence and Crime: Prevention is Better Than Cure

21st September 2010

By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies


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Traditional approaches to addressing crime and violence have seen the level of crime remain an area of concern in many countries. Inadequate justice systems, negative attitudes towards the police and how they treat victims or handle reports, as well as fear of intimidation by the offender towards the victim in both developed and developing countries have seen many criminals walk free, or receive menial punishments for the crimes they commit. With the need to find alternative ways to limit and control the number of criminal and violent activities taking place, as well as decrease the levels of mortality related to these acts, an increased awareness of the need for a public health response (i) to crime and violence continues to grow.

The causes of crime and violence are multidimensional ranging from factors such as social exclusion and marginalisation, to lack of social control, lack of social integration into society and socialisation in the family sphere and schooling, among others. High levels of violence and crime in the form of homicide, rape, abuse, suicide, robberies and civil unrest have left many individuals around the world living in fear of becoming victims of criminal acts of violence, and harbouring feelings of insecurity within the environment they live. Many victims too young, weak or ill to protect themselves are forced by social pressures to keep silent about their experiences. The impact and human cost in grief and pain on communities has meant that incidents of crime and violence impact not only on the individual but also on the quality of the public space of the community as a whole. Violent crime also affects a country's economic prospects, as it scares away investors and diverts large amounts of scarce resources from development.


With traditional approaches to crime and violence yielding less than expected results, specialists, researchers and various organizations are now putting violence and crime in the same category as that of public health, and making use of the same tools as those that are being used to reduce and control epidemics. This is because, for many researchers, health practitioners and organizations, the issue of crime and violence can be prevented and reduced in the same way as that of a contagious disease, illness and injury.

The public health approach to crime and violence identifies behaviour and epidemics as two key sciences that can be applied to alleviating the impact and spread of crime and violence. Behaviour can be seen as social expectation from those around you, copying and modeling what others around you do. It is a trait that is learnt. Research indicates that a large number of violent offenders have had first hand experience of violence as either victims or bystanders, and have in turn replicated and modeled these acts in future circumstances. Violence and crime also behave very similar to that of an epidemic, spreading as a contagious disease would with every action requiring a reaction.


The Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, an organization that works with community, city, country, state and federal partners to reduce violence in Chicago and in other communities in Illinois and throughout the US has developed a new intervention called CeaseFire. CeaseFire is a model that approaches violence in a uniquely different way from other violence reduction efforts and illustrates just how effective a public health approach to crime and violence can be. Launched in Chicago in 1999 the CeaseFire model uses prevention, intervention and community-mobilisation strategies to reduce killings and shootings in Chicago and Illinois. By making use of public health field strategies, the project has managed to change dangerous behaviours within the areas it works. The model makes use of various tools to target violence such as community mobilisation, public education campaigns, anger management counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, assistance in childcare, and finding jobs.

A unique feature of the CeaseFire model is the fact that they make use of not only trained outreach workers who focus on changing the behaviour and mind set of at risk youth (youth prone to becoming violent), but also violence interrupters who focus on gang leaders, calling for truce and getting them to stop retaliating and shooting. Violence interrupters are individuals that have committed themselves to a new lifestyle away from crime and violence and who are well connected to persons still in the gang culture. These men and women intervene in conflicts or potential conflicts by reasoning with the individual(s) and instilling the message that violence is not the answer to solving the problem. These interrupters promote alternative ways to solving the problem and continue to council and educate the people they encounter long after the incident or dispute. Working in cooperation with the police, clergy and community, violence interrupters help the whole community work together against violence and crime so as to change group norms, all the while maintaining the confidentiality of the individuals they work with.

Not without challenges, the CeaseFire program has had a significantly positive impact in reducing the number of shootings in four of the seven areas researched by the National Institute of Justice, in a rigorous evaluation of the program. The evaluation identified that neighbourhoods were made noticeably safer as a result of the program. Killings and shootings decreased, shooting hotspots calmed down and at risk youth, were helped. The programme's executive director Dr. G Slutkin, an epidemiologist who views shootings and killings as a public health issue, highlighted at a recent seminar held in Johannesburg that violence manifests itself exactly like a contagious disease, and has the ability to escalate. By changing the thinking and behaviour of governments and communities, violence and crime can be effectively decreased with long-term sustainability.

This new approach of using violence interrupters as a way to curbing violence and crime highlights the fact that traditional ways of managing and controlling crime and violence are in need of newer and more effective alternatives, and that the public health response may just be a complimentary alternative. The public health response reduces the norm of focusing on crimes from a purely law enforcement and criminal justice standpoint to one that acknowledges and identifies the risk factors that are associated with these acts and allowed them to occur. Factors such as the availability of firearms, alcohol, instances of racial discrimination, unemployment and lack of education, violent upbringings and belief in male dominance over females are all just some of the factors that impact on an individual or community's ability to turn to crime or violence to get what they want. The risk factors attached to a violent or criminal incident play a key role in preventing it. They put the violent or criminal incident into context allowing communities, organizations and governments to identify ways of preventing it.

Written by: Lauren Tracey, Consultant, Arms Management Programme, ISS, Pretoria

(i) The public health response to addressing crime and violence is a science-based approach that identifies the problem and its causes, and then evaluates the response to that problem. It does not replace the work done by the criminal justice system and various other human rights responses but instead compliments it by offering them additional tools and sources of collaboration. (World Report on Violence and Health: 2002)



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