Skip to main content

Asking Who in Gang Violence Prevention

Tony Cheng
JD Candidate at New York University, School of Law
PhD Candidate at Yale University, Sociology Department


Who do violence preventers target to achieve violence prevention?  Targeting is a process of defining what qualifies as relevant violence and selecting concretely on whom to focus efforts.  Law enforcement are not the only ones making targeting decisions—non-profits are increasingly deploying credible street outreach workers (SOWs) who can build relationships with targeted gang members and channel prosocial influences.  SOW-oriented programs have existed since the 1930s, but have gained new life with Cure Violence’s public health approach, which conceptualizes SOWs as interveners positioned to block the transmission of violence among the highest risk targets.  Yet we know remarkably little about how SOWs build relationships and which strategies actually work.  Program evaluations of Cure Violence replications have yielded mixed results, sometimes even revealing increased violence.  My article “Violence Prevention and Targeting the Elusive Gang Member” provides insights into how SOWs make targeting decisions, and in doing so, generates insights into why only some programs have succeeded and what can be done moving forward. 


Drawing on eighteen months of fieldwork in a gang violence prevention program in Connecticut called Bullet-Free Bridgeport, this ethnography finds that in addition to standard qualifications such as age and residence, SOWs only recruited gang members who were deemed “ready” to change their lives.  No form or internal document mentioned this readiness requirement.  Instead, it was communicated orally in roll call meetings as SOWs vetted potential targets.  Youth interested in SOW services demonstrated readiness by staying in contact with SOWs, showing up to required activities, and complying with other program rules.  SOWs’ focus on readiness was motivated by demands from program funders who measured effectiveness by the total number of intakes; supervisors who wanted to avoid trouble cases of non-ready clients; and SOWs themselves who feared “getting played” by clients interested in the perks associated with a SOW relationship (like free food and movie tickets) but not in participating in formal services (like anger management or drug rehabilitation).  By requiring readiness, however, SOWs only recruited fringe gang members or whom they called “wannabes,” as opposed to those most central.  Thus while the violence prevention model prioritizes the most active and highest risk gang members, a youth’s very centrality may deter—rather than justify—providing them services.  

Policy efforts should focus on closing the gap between workers’ actual incentives and realities, and with the model’s conception of them.  One option is to further limit the pool from which SOWs can select clients to a neighborhood, for instance, so SOWs are encouraged to focus on each and every client.  Another option is for funders and supervisors to differentially reward recruitment of more central gang members.  Both options can help incentivize recruitment of those not yet ready, but active nonetheless.  Thus evaluating the success of any social service program requires examining who is offered services to begin with.  In the case of violence prevention, this insight translates into the question: who is being targeted in the first place?    

Popular posts from this blog

Workshop for Junior Scholars, University of Cape Town

Convened by Mark Fathi Massoud of the University of California, Santa Cruz (USA), and Kelley Moult and Dee Smythe of the University of Cape Town (South Africa), the first Sociolegal Studies Early Career Scholars Workshop in Africa took place at the Centre for Law and Society, University of Cape Town Faculty of Law, 17-20 August 2017.
The conveners are grateful to the University of Cape Town Faculty of Law (including Dean Penny Andrews and the team at the UCT Centre of Law & Society for hosting the workshop), to the Law and Society Association for a small grant award, to the six mentors and six participants and others who attended the sessions, to Law & Society Review for its co-sponsorship of the workshop, and to the Fulbright specialist program for its support of LSR co-editor Susan Sterett’s visit and participation in all events.
The conveners selected scholars to present their work in a competitive process. Six participants and two alternates came from a range of countries, …

LSR Writing Workshop in South Africa

Writing Workshop in Africa
Law & Society Review is co-sponsoring the inaugural Sociolegal Studies Early Career Workshop, held at the University of Cape Town (South Africa), 17-19 August 2017. Financial support is provided by the University of Cape Town and a 2017 Law and Society Association Small Grant award.
Why hold a writing workshop in sociolegal studies in Africa? Responding to a call among members of the Law and Society Association for more research in law and society by scholars living and working in the global South, this workshop is designed for advanced doctoral students and early career faculty in Africa.The workshop is purposefully small, to promote focused discussion, mentoring, and peer networking. The goal is to give a promising group of manuscripts the close attention they deserve from senior scholars and mentors, to help ready those papers for submission and publication.
Six participants and their papers have now been selected for inclusion into the inau…

Race, Law, and Sports: Speaking Out Against Injustice

By Susan M Sterett
After my good fortune in working with the scholars in the emerging scholars workshop in August at the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town, I think about South Africa and the United States together more than I did. Today, race, law and sports intertwine.

I rarely follow professional or college or any other sports. Neither the sports important in the United States, such as American football, nor the sports important in the rest of the world, whether rugby, cricket or what most of the world calls football.

However, on September 24, 2017, I watched the unfolding display by U.S. football teams concerning the U.S. national anthem, which is sung before every sports game. The quarterback Colin Kaepernick went to bended knee last year during the anthem to protest police violence against African Americans. He’s not employed as a football player this season.

President Trump issued a statement calling for team owners to fire players for exercising their fi…