The Battle of the Antiviolence Gurus

Last spring Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess invited David Kennedy and Gary Slutkin, two of the most prominent figures in national antiviolence campaigns, to his city to present their respective methods so that Burgess could choose the best fit for Seattle. Both men agreed to come, but not at the same time. Burgess doesn't remember which one refused first, but he quickly gathered, both from them and from others, that there was no love lost between the two reigning kings of antiviolence.

On the face of it, it would seem that the two should have a lot in common. They both came from outside the traditional arena—neither is technically a criminologist—to pioneer innovative, attention-grabbing anti-crime programs. Both have been the subjects of profiles extolling their methods—Slutkin in The New York Times Magazine and on This American Life, and Kennedy in The New Yorker and this magazine. And both programs are called Ceasefire, a name both men claim to own. "The controversy over the name is illustrative of the deeper problem," Burgess says. "They are two brilliant and competitive people, and they both acknowledged that there's conflict there." The heart of that apparent conflict, which Kennedy and Slutkin prefer not to discuss publicly: two men with big personalities, who have similar methods but different philosophies, competing for the same limited pool of funding. The disagreement between them underscores a bigger question: what is the best approach to violence prevention in America today?

Both Ceasefire (Kennedy's approach) and CeaseFire (Slutkin's) send people—in Slutkin's case, "outreach workers," and in Kennedy's case, "street advocates"—into the community to help deter crime preemptively. Beyond that, both programs are built around the idea of simply reasoning with potential offenders; getting their friends, family, and community leaders to convince them that continuing to engage in violent behavior is in nobody's best interest; and, in this way, ultimately ending cycles of violence and changing existing norms.

But there's also a fundamental difference between the programs. Slutkin, who previously spent 10 years as an epidemiologist for the World Health Organization and is now based in Chicago, advocates looking at violence as if it were a public health issue akin to smoking, tuberculosis, or malaria. His method targets potential outbreaks of violent crime just as one would target impeding epidemics, sending "interrupters" to "block the transmission" of violence or, in other words, to persuade someone about to retaliate or engage in violent behavior to change that behavior. Critical to his approach: removing any judgment or morality, as well as any law-enforcement officials, from the issue. "There is no science to good and bad," Slutkin says. "There's absolutely no science at all. In public health, we look at how to make less of undesirable outcomes using behavioral change or epidemic-control methods."

Kennedy's Ceasefire, meanwhile, uses police officers from the very beginning. When a city adopts his method, the local police department identifies the community's most frequent offenders, compiles a case against them, and hauls them in to threaten prosecution if they don't agree to stop. Gang members are then offered job placement to help them transition from criminal behavior. But although officers are part of the program, Kennedy says that the police involvement is primarily a threat, an additional motivator for gang members to stop engaging in violence or drug dealing. "When the law-enforcement response is acting at its most highly effective level, that puts the gang on notice," he says. "You don't have to go around arresting everybody."

But other aspects of the two programs aren't so different. In the mid-1990s, when Slutkin was first transitioning from epidemiology to antiviolence work, he says he looked for guidance from everyone he could who was working in the field, including Kennedy, who at the time was involved in the Boston Gun Project. "I think early on, Gary tried to soak up as much information as he could from David, and in a way they had a kinship," says Dan Webster, codirector of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Meanwhile, Kennedy's approach evolved from one based primarily on policing to one more inclusive of outreach efforts. Still, the cooperation of the police department underscores a fundamental difference: "David does it with the law-enforcement hammer hanging above somebody. Gary does it with mediation," Webster says. "What David is trying to do is more classic criminology … whereas Gary comes from a harm-reduction approach."

If Slutkin treats violence like a disease and Kennedy treats it like a criminal-justice issue, which approach is better? Both men claim that theirs is the only program to achieve conclusive results, but the truth is that neither has been through what most academics would consider a rigorous independent study. And each program has its zealous advocates. Burgess, for his part, ultimately elected to join Kennedy's National Network for Safe Communities and implement his approach, as have some 30 cities nationwide, and is pleased with the results. Seattle doesn't have statistics thus far, but the area that was an open-air drug market has largely been shut down, Burgess says, and he's going to bring the program to another neighborhood in 2010. The city of Baltimore, meanwhile, has put Slutkin's program into effect, and results there are similarly encouraging: one of the original neighborhoods where the program was implemented hasn't seen a homicide in two years; it was averaging three per year before the program was put in place.

Kennedy's National Network aims to be a self-sustaining web of cities offering support and guidance to each other, and putting his ideas into action is remarkably inexpensive: he claims it's cost-neutral after an initial $100,000 investment. Slutkin's program, meanwhile, requires a lot more oversight and careful observation, and the price reflects that. Implementing his program properly can cost up to $16 million, depending on a city's size and level of need, but he says it's an investment that is recouped because less money is spent on prosecution, imprisonment, and hospital visits for victims.

Still, any investment in experimental crime programs is likely to be a stretch for cash-strapped state and local governments, and the vast majority of federal funding goes toward punitive approaches—more than $7 billion to detention and incarceration alone. With Kennedy's and Slutkin's programs competing for the same scarce dollars, it's no wonder that the two men at the top are at odds. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that social-justice programs that might work together are instead in competition because they're after the same limited pool of resources. "Everyone is trying to get attention for funding," says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. "Everyone is trying to become the favorite program of the Justice Department … Everyone is claiming they've got the end-all, be-all model."

It might be that Slutkin's and Kennedy's successes are bolstered, not limited, by their personalities and insistence that their programs are best. "Very few people think we can tackle gun violence," Webster says. "To get people to listen, you need people like David Kennedy and Gary Slutkin. They can win you over. They both recognize that gun violence ranks right up there with our most important social problems, and if we're going to do something about it, we have to stop questioning ourselves and really go after it in a real way. In my mind, they're perfect complements to each other."