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Kan. city adopts new program to curb rising gun crime

The program is based off the “Cure Violence” model which seeks to deal with violent crime as a public health crisis: using “interrupters” and “outreach workers” to prevent shootings and other violent crimes

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This month the Wichita City Council unanimously approved $1.27 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding for a small-scale “violence interrupter” program run by Destination Innovation.

City of Wichita

By Chance Swaim
The Wichita Eagle

WICHITA, Kan. — Wichita is taking steps to fight violent crime outside of the criminal justice system.

Violent crime spiked in Wichita in 2020 and 2021, especially gun violence, surpassing homicide records set during the street-gang wars of the early 1990s. In 2021 alone, 207 people were shot in Wichita. Nearly half of those victims were under the age of 24. The number of killings has been trending downward but remains higher than historical averages for Kansas’ largest city.

This month the Wichita City Council unanimously approved $1.27 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding for a small-scale “violence interrupter” program run by Destination Innovation, a Wichita nonprofit led by Marquetta Atkins-Woods that also operates Progeny, an activist organization that seeks to reform the juvenile justice system and offers support to at-risk youth.

Becca Johnson, who works in the city’s office of community services, said Wichita’s interrupter program — Community Restorative Innovation — will target two areas in Wichita that have been identified by the city as hot spots for gun crime: I-135 to Oliver between Ninth and 25th Street North and Broadway to Oliver in the Planeview and South City neighborhoods.

“Each target area will have one site supervisor, two outreach workers and three violence interrupters,” Johnson said.

The program is based on the Cure Violence model that started in Chicago in 1999, which spread to other high-violence cities such as Baltimore. Now, several other cities, including Atlanta and Wichita, are using federal ARPA funds to start up violence interrupters using Cure Violence’s approach under the Community Violence Programs funding line. The money must be committed by the end of 2024 and spent by 2026.

Cure Violence was founded by Gary Slutkin, an infectious disease specialist and former head of the World Health Organization’s Intervention Development Unit. Slutkin’s model seeks to deal with violent crime — especially gun crime — as a public health crisis: using “interrupters” and “outreach workers” to prevent shootings and other violent crimes. Violence interrupter programs have also been used in New York City, Philadelphia and Oakland.

The Cure Violence organization will help Community Restorative Innovation implement the interrupter program in Wichita, providing training and other support.

Cure Violence operates under the premise that violence is contagious and focuses on stopping the spread in communities as public health workers might fight an epidemic: detecting and interrupting conflicts, identifying and treating the highest risk individuals and changing social norms to prevent future spread, according to the Cure Violence website.

The model relies on outreach workers and interrupters, often ex-cons who use their connections to street gangs and people who participate in criminal activities to get out in front of shootings and other violent crimes by deescalating tensions and talking people out of retaliating. The interrupters will focus on intervening to stop immediate threats. Outreach workers will keep in contact with people of the highest-risk of committing gun violence and attempt to connect them to resources as a longer-term solution.

They’ll respond to shootings within 72 hours, with the goal of understanding the root causes and interrupting any potential retaliatory shootings. That work will include canvassing the neighborhood and speaking to the victims and their families and friends. It could also include news conferences and community events focused on calling for an end to violence.

Interrupters are also expected to build relationships within the target communities, so people call them when they know a violent crime is imminent. That helps them to defuse the situation in a more proactive way.

Victoria Chandler, Ascension Via-Christi’s trauma services prevention coordinator, said the hospital system supports the program in Wichita.

“In the past few years, we have seen an uptick in gun violence, gun injuries to our hospital, so we want to partner with the community and hopefully have this interrupter program and see different numbers go down to support our community and make it a better place,” Chandler said.

After receiving the grant, Community Restorative Innovation is now working to hire and train interrupters and outreach workers who are familiar with and have credibility in each target area. The program could be operational by as early as March.

Part of Community Restorative Innovation’s work on the grant program includes developing a plan to operate after the grant funding runs out. According to its proposal accepted by the city, one option is replacing school resource officers with interrupters in Wichita Public Schools.

“To best strengthen the Violence Interrupters prevention foundation, CRI recommends the shift in perspective on community violence be introduced to all children in public schools,” the proposal says. “This may be a fantastic opportunity to create a dramatic shift in how schools are designed to be and feel safer, by the City of Wichita funding Violence Interrupters in schools rather than SROs.”

Another part of the nonprofit’s work will include voter registration and other “community culture objectives” such as providing trauma-informed counseling to help victims of violence and raising awareness of systemic racism, according to the Community Restorative Innovation proposal.

City Council member Bryan Frye said the program is necessary to get out in front of violent crime before it happens.

“This is new territory for us as a council to do this,” Frye said. “Paying people to be eyes and ears in our neighborhoods as violence interrupters is a new type of program for the city of Wichita. I think it’s sad that we’re getting to this point where government has to insert itself in this manner. When I was growing up, it was my neighbors, it was my family, it was my friends, it was my church, it was nonprofits that helped keep me personally responsible and accountable.”

Frye said he supports the violence interrupter program but stressed that it can’t be expected to be the only solution to violent crime in Wichita.

“I just encourage our community to not let this be the answer,” Frye said. “It’s part of the solution, but we need you to be our eyes and ears just as much as we need these violence interrupters.”


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