Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Interruptors: Why I don't like this movie.

I can’t join the parade for the recent movie The Interrupters.  I admire the former gang members, many of whom I know, working to stop the cycle of violence.  So what’s wrong?

You can see my problem by viewing this brief video clip from CeaseFire’s founder, David Kennedy. 


This is certainly an incredible tale with the emphasis on incredible.  To put it frankly, David Kennedy is lying.  Their own evaluations demonstrate that for all the millions of dollars in CeaseFire funding, there is little or no effect from their program. What we have with The Interrupters is the creation of a myth:  CeaseFire as a magic bullet to reduce violence. Send your money now. 1

Now, I admire the former gang members who work in CeaseFire. I know many of them and what they do is important and even noble. But what the police do is important too, if also problematic.  What churches and community organizations do is important.  There are many people out in Englewood besides CeaseFire putting their selves on the line on a daily basis, with little credit and less funding to “interrupt” violence.  What CeaseFire does is not new.  David Kennedy and his Chicago counterpart, Gary Slutkin, however, claim something more: that CeaseFire reduces violence and they point to a Northwestern University evaluation as proof. The problem is that if you actually read the evaluation, and more importantly the appendices where the data is displayed, you come to completely different conclusions than the PR spin from the academics who benefit most from the bloated administrative costs of CeaseFire and their newly claimed "superstar" status.

Carefully reading the study produces an embarrassment of riches. Since space is short, lets look at this chart buried in the body of the report.


Whoops. Except for one of seven Chicago neighborhoods, there is no demonstrable effect of CeaseFire’s programming by their own data.  A careful read of data analysis in the appendices by two respected academics, Richard Block and Andrew Papachristos, reveals statements again and again like “However the proportion of both the CeaseFire and comparison areas in the red or orange categories barely declined” (Block;  B-21) or  “both overall homicides and gang homicides dropped in the program and comparison areas, though neither change was statistically significant.” (Papachristos: C-12).

Papachristos even states that in Auburn-Gresham, the only neighborhood where there might be a CeaseFire effect:  “Yet, another spike in gang murders occurred in 2005, roughly two years after the start of CeaseFire”  (C-7).  Murders went up after CeaseFire was in full swing. What the heck is happening?

It’s not hard to figure out. Violence was already declining when CeaseFire began. Since they properly picked the highest violence neighborhoods, what we are seeing is “regression to the mean” or the tendency for high scores, or homicides, to decline over time toward the average. 

We might also ask the common sense question:  What accounts for variation in rates of homicide within a neighborhood?  CeaseFire is one intervention, but the evaluation admits that it does not take into account any other interventions or changed conditions that may have occurred.  Changes in police strategy?  Not measured. Changes in housing policy, which I showed to have a major effect on Chicago homicides in the 90s? Not measured. What about decisions by the gangs themselves, or action by churches or community groups that might vary by community?  Not measured, though Papachristos’ network analysis of gangs reports little or no changes in gang homicide.  What about neighborhood demographic changes or variation in employment? Not measured.

Some confusion may come from reading Skogan’s narrative in the evaluation. Nary a critical word can be found in his worshipful descriptions of CeaseFire. Where, for example, does he report on tensions with community agencies whose funding has been usurped by CeaseFire’s hogging of violence reduction resources? Where does he explore the problem of older former gang members who are completely out of touch with the younger generation? Where is the explanation of how much violence actually is “retaliation” and therefore even amenable to “interruption?”  The narrative is one-sided and uncritical, more fitting for a movie script than an expensive Justice Department evaluation.

And you know, sadly, it all comes down to the money. When the program started, violence was already on the decline and CeaseFire, just like the Chicago Police, claimed credit. What are they going to say when violence goes up? Oh, yeah, we need more money..... or cops. According to a state audit in 2007, CeaseFire in Illinois received more than $13 million,  not pocket change by any means.   The dozens of on-the-streets, risking-their-lives  violence interrupters, according to their own evaluation, were paid $189,050 total (3-19). CeaseFire is not a struggling grass roots program, but a multi-million dollar enterprise, now with their own myth-making movie.

Violence has deep structural roots untouched by Ceasefire.  A short paragraph at the end of the evaluation admits: “The reasons for this general decline in crime are, as elsewhere in the nation, ill-understood, and we could not account for possible remaining differences between the target and comparison areas in terms of those obviously important factors.”

But lets forget the facts. Watch the movie and send CeaseFire more money. The Open Society Institute has already swallowed the Kool-aid as CeaseFire is now in Iraq on its grand journey to “cure violence” all around the world. They say violence is a disease, like Aids, and the doctors have the cure.

Violence is not a disease, but that is a story for another day. My problems with CeaseFire begin with its shameless spin, and the movie adds to the myth. My reading of history is that major changes in behavior, like street violence,  occur with the emergence of mass social movements who challenge authority.   Social movements are about change. CeaseFire isn't about change, it's about big bucks.


1 CeaseFire in Boston is different in many respects from its more famous Chicago counterpart. Both, however, claim to have "the cure" for inner city violence. 

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