Cook: If we can stop smallpox ...

Cook: If we can stop smallpox ...

January 8th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

LaToya Holloman knew the man who was stabbed to death Sunday night in the first homicide of 2014. They'd talked not long ago.

"At my rally," Holloman said.

Holloman, 29, is a growing figure in our city's anti-violence efforts. She's started a street ministry, and has organized weeklong rallies, marches, concerts, with another rally scheduled this Sunday at 4 p.m. at Orchard Park Seventh-day Adventist Church -- all for one reason.

"Stop the violence," she said.

But how? This will not be our last killing of 2014; in the months to come, there will be more shootings and stabbings in the same neighborhoods where folks were shot and stabbed in 2013. And 2012. And 2011.

Perhaps to stop the violence, we need to see it for what it really is.

"A contagious disease," said Gary Slutkin.

Slutkin is a doctor who spent years in Third World countries fighting epidemics: cholera, tuberculosis, AIDS. Returning to America, he realized that in certain violence-prone neighborhoods, there was a similar contagion at work.

Just like the flu, violence behaves like an epidemic. It infects. It spreads. There are hosts, victims and hot spots.

"Like infectious epidemics," he says in his 15-minute TED Talk.

If a measles outbreak hits Red Bank or whooping cough busts through East Brainerd, officials will respond with a strategy of controlling -- and then stopping -- the disease. The same strategy can be applied to violence; to understand why, we have to recognize the nature of violence itself.

Like a virus, we get sick when we're exposed to it.

"The greatest predictor of a case of violence is a preceding case of violence," Slutkin said. "Which also sounds like ... the greatest risk factor of tuberculosis is having been exposed to tuberculosis."

A multitude of studies -- behavioral, neurological -- illustrate how violence plus violence equals more violence. (A gang banger's brain is literally altered by violence). Even without the science, our hearts recognize this as true. We've felt how violence can disfigure, how it neither elevates nor promotes. How it shames and sickens. Somehow, we can't keep it to ourselves: We get wounded, and we pass the pain onto others.

This explains gang shootings and road rage and war-making and rape and gossip and mean-talk.

So in 2000, Slutkin began Cure Violence on the streets of Chicago; he identified the main carriers of violence, then those susceptible ones who may become future carriers.

He then hired "violence interrupters": individuals with street backgrounds (ex-gang leaders, paroled prisoners, folks with trust and community cred) and trained them just as you would train a medical worker in Asia working to stop a bird flu outbreak.

"Just like health workers in Somalia, but designed for a different category, and trained in persuasion, cooling people down, buying time, reframing," he said.

(I can name a half-dozen perfect interrupters right now; Holloman is one. Before it was disbanded, the Gang Task Force was set to hire three interrupters).

Next, after outreach workers begin altering patterns of community behavior and thinking so that violence is transmitted less and less and less. No one with a badge or City Hall office stands up and declares certain men as the worst of the worst, yet it is this model of punishment that defined our anti-violence policy.

"It reminded me of ancient epidemics that were previously completely misunderstood," Slutkin said. "The prevalent ideas were that there were bad people or bad humors or bad air. And widows were dragged around the moat and dungeons were part of the solution."

Federal prison is the new dungeon, and it is not working and never will any more than stopping cholera by blaming sick people. These ideas are not soft on crime. Just ... scientific and smart.

That first year of Slutkin's work?

"A 67 percent drop in shootings and killings," Slutkin explains.

Cure Violence has been replicated in 20 other American cities, and is spreading (pun intended) into anti-violence efforts around the globe: Puerto Rico, Kenya, Iraq and other countries. Time will tell how fast these ideas spread here. But no new police chief or anti-violence strategy will succeed long term without them.

"A new strategy, a new set of methods, a new set of workers: science, in a way, replacing morality," Slutkin said.

Like Holloman says, stop the violence before it spreads.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.