Stopping Urban Violence By Treating It Like An Infectious Disease

The Cure Violence program, started by a doctor and operated like it’s combating a health problem, sends trained “violence interrupters” to track down patients and prevent them from infecting others.

Stopping Urban Violence By Treating It Like An Infectious Disease
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Violence breeds violence. There’s a reason why it seems to thrive in certain areas and shrivel up in others: it’s contagious, worming its way into human brains like tuberculosis and HIV take control of the body. Epidemiologist Gary Slutkin never thought about any of this–until he started seeing the patterns. Now Slutkin’s 13-year-old organization, Cure Violence, is in cities around the world, where it’s dramatically reducing shooting, homicides, and other violent crimes.


“Most of my career up until this was working on the standard run of the mill usual epidemics. I worked abroad with tuberculosis epidemics, with cholera, AIDS,” says Slutkin. When he returned to the U.S., Slutkin noticed similarities between his work and violence. “I started to look at graphs, charts, maps. It was looking like an infectious process to me. It had the basic characteristics you’d find in spreadable, contagious processes,” he says.

In 2000, Slutkin launched CeaseFire (now known as Cure Violence) in an attempt to attack the urban violence epidemic like a disease. The basic premise: much like, say, tuberculosis workers will track down disease cases and ensure that patients aren’t infectious, Cure Violence’s recruited community members suss out possible locations of future violence and intervene before an outbreak occurs.

“With AIDS, we had to design new kinds of workers to deal with the epidemics, and here we just designed some new workers who we called violence interrupters,” says Slutkin. “We put into place new categories of workers that can detect and interrupt events.”

The approach is working. In Slutkin’s home base of Chicago, the Cure Violence model has cut down on violence in every neighborhood where it operates. Some neighborhoods have slashed the number of retaliatory homicides by 100%. And a seven-year U.S. Department of Justice study in the city found that shooting and killings dropped substantially in the long term.


In 2005 and 2006, Cure Violence started receiving requests from cities all over the world that wanted to implement the program. Today, the organization has partners all over the place–New Orleans, Louisiana; Baltimore, Maryland; Iraq; Kenya; and elsewhere. Cure Violence helps with selection and training of nearly all the local workers.

Earlier this year, a National Academies of Science workshop (organized in part by Slutkin) published a lengthy paper examining the contagion of violence. If you want to learn on a scientific level why violence is so contagious, it’s a fascinating read. Slutkin explains: “When you start to do violence as a group, you start to justify it more. There are cortical mechanisms that try to deal with your cognitive dissonance, and you end up having brain disregulated towards using violence in the same way the intestine is disregulated by cholera.”

These days, Cure Violence is continuing to expand–and taking new and creative approaches to violence prevention. In Kenya, the organization has partnered with Ushahidi, Medic Mobile, and Sisi ni Amani to launch a program called PeaceTXT that uses mobile messaging at crucial times to cut down on violence. “We did some unsuccessful work on this in Chicago because we learned that people don’t keep their phones, so we moved this innovation to Kenya,” explains Slutkin.

Cure Violence also recently partnered with Groupon to write up some of its most impressive violence prevention success stories. For even more information on Cure Violence’s success, check out The Interrupters, a 2011 film looking at some of Chicago’s violence interrupters.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.