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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?    

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