Within months of being released from prison in 2002, Zale Hoddenbach was approached by a stranger who seemed to know a lot about his life.
The man was working for an organization called CeaseFire, a group which interferes in gang violence. He contacted Hoddenbach to recruit him as one of the group’s “violence interrupters”. After a few failed attempts, the man finally convinced Hoddenbach to come on a response call. Hoddenbach agreed and was able to personally witness what CeaseFire was doing.
After officially taking a position with the group a few weeks later, Hoddenbach went on his first response call after a child was shot. The goal was to console the family and prevent any possible retaliation.
“Seeing the young kid dead there is what really just struck me,” said Hoddenbach, who is now CeaseFire’s supervisor for the Latino community.
Before joining the group, Hoddenbach was sent to prison when he was 18 for violent, gang-related crimes, including shootings and aggravated battery. Aside from his work with CeaseFire, Hoddenbach also teaches a “street smarts” curriculum to approximately 600 children every week, mainly in the Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods. He presents the children with four different modules, ranging from gang awareness and resistance to conflict resolution.
CeaseFire, which was formally started in 2000 by epidemiologist Dr. Gary Slutkin, goes through the same routine countless times every year, recruiting workers from the streets. The recruits—often referred to as “violence interrupters”—then use their experience and reputations to reach out to other at-risk youth, putting their biggest focus on those they feel are most likely to retaliate with violence.
“The idea is just to stop the murders,” Hoddenbach said. “Get in there, be the ears of the community. Feel the heartbeat of the community—the pulse of the community.”
The program works with neighborhood organizers to develop strategies to prevent and assess violence. They also work with police and rely on public education programs to help spread their anti-violence message.
“We feel it’s successful, but we feel there’s more we can do,” Hoddenbach said. “We’re stopping a lot of things on the front end but there’s more we can be doing.”
In 2010, the number of Chicago homicides dropped from 460 to 435. Many think CeaseFire’s presence played a role in this.
Officer Darryl Baety, Chicago Police Department spokesman, said there are a lot of variables that contribute to declining homicide rates, including political and police strategies.
He said it comes down to the police working with different organizations to achieve community goals.
“I would definitely attribute some of our success to CeaseFire,” Baety said.
According to a 2009 report by the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, in areas where CeaseFire is present, there was on average between a 20 and 30 percent decrease in killings. Areas considered “hot spots” for crime had a larger range of a 15 to 40 percent decrease.
The institute evaluated the CeaseFire program through a commission from the National Institute of Justice. Because the program is funded primarily through charity foundations and private or corporate funders, the study was completely independent.
One of the key components of the institute’s research was personal interviews with more than 300 individuals who worked with the program.
“We interviewed them to see their views of how successful CeaseFire was in terms of disengaging them from gangs, getting them into a GED program, getting them into a job readiness or job seeking program and very substantial percentages of them described success along these lines,” said Wesley Skogan, professor at the Institute for Policy Research.
Skogan said when participants were asked who the most influential and important adults were in their lives, the second most popular answer—behind their mothers—was their CeaseFire outreach worker.
The institute also concentrated on CeaseFire’s general impact on gang violence and CeaseFire’s prevention efforts, which Skogan said is the group’s main focus.
“What we saw in particular were big reductions in reciprocal killings,” Skogan said. “They would step in to stop the retaliations from happening, and they were very successful at stopping the reciprocal killings in their target areas.”
One particular area of focus that provided a good example of CeaseFire’s impact was Englewood, according to Skogan. The institute found overall shootings were down 34 percent in that neighborhood since CeaseFire’s work began.
James Highsmith, program manager for CeaseFire Englewood, said the program is a huge success in his beats.
“When we’re fully funded and fully implemented, it has been proven that it works, and it reduces occurrences of violence, shootings and killings dramatically,” he said.
While Highsmith said he thinks the overall decline in homicide rates could be linked in part to CeaseFire, he said law enforcement and community organizations must also be taken into consideration for the part they play.
“As they say, ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child,’” Highsmith said. “It takes a whole village to deal with the epidemic of violence.”