Article  |  Community Violence

Community Violence Prevention, Intervention, and Suppression

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Community violence includes a wide range of crimes, such as murder, gun violence, interpersonal, domestic and sexual violence, robbery, and aggravated or simple assault and battery. While any type of violence in communities is cause for concern and important to recognize and address, this article focuses on how to address a narrower set of offenses, sometimes referred to as street-level violent crimes. Street-level violent crimes include murders and aggravated assaults and batteries that occur on the public way, often involve firearms, and are not domestic incidents. Experiencing or witnessing this type of violence can be traumatic, and increase fear and distrust among community members and feelings that communities are unsafe. Exposure to violent crime also may result in short- and long-term negative outcomes for individuals and communities.

A significant amount of research on street-level violence has focused on gang-involved murders. These studies, conducted in multiple cities of disparate sizes and in varying regions of the United States, have found that a significant portion of gun violence occurs over disputes and rivalries, both within and between gangs.1 Different theoretical explanations have been offered for why gangs, their members, and associates are involved in a disproportionate amount of gun violence, particularly retaliatory violence, but two in particular have been the focus of much of the literature: community-level factors and the role of collective behavior.

Theories that focus on community-level factors, such as poverty, mobility, and neighborhood cohesion suggest that violence is a by-product of environmental conditions in which individuals live. Research has consistently demonstrated that murders and shootings are heavily concentrated in particular places. This is also true in Illinois. Analysis of data reported by Illinois police agencies and sheriffs2 indicate that eight municipalities accounted for approximately 64 percent3 of the murders and aggravated assaults and batteries across the state from 2013 to 2015. These municipalities include Chicago, Aurora, Rockford, Springfield, East St. Louis, Joliet, Champaign, and Peoria (Map 1). The first six municipalities listed reported numbers that were notably above the state’s average,4 even after controlling for population size.5 Chicago alone accounted for around 43 percent6 of murders and aggravated assaults and batteries in Illinois from 2013 to 2015.

Locations that experience high levels of gun violence often also experience high concentrations of other social inequalities, including poverty and low social capital. Social capital, in particular, is important to neighborhood cohesion as it represents the networks individuals depend on to help meet basic needs (e.g., employment), model civil engagement, and where norms of reciprocity are communicated. In other words, social capital is an important producer of community-level informal social control, and low levels of informal social control are associated with increased risk of youth joining gangs.7

The theory of collective behavior posits violence is the result of threats or perceived threats. Threats of violence increase group membership, solidifies group belonging, and escalates the incidence of violence as members respond and retaliate. Individuals fearing violence by others join gangs for protection from external threats. Threats, whether real or perceived, bond group members together while also intensifying the felt need to retaliate against threats of violence, even those that are perceived.8 This further normalizes violence among group members as an appropriate response to threats. Fear of violent victimization also increases gun carrying among young persons,9 which can increase the potential for lethality during conflict and interactions. These theories together suggest that efforts to address community street-level violence should include strengthening the social capital of individuals living in disadvantaged communities while also reducing threats or perceived threats.

Promoting a Comprehensive Model to Reduce Violence

One effective model for addressing street violence, and, in particular, gang-related or group-involved street violence, is the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) Comprehensive Gang Prevention, Intervention, and Suppression Model. This model involves implementing complementary and coordinated prevention, intervention, and suppression activities in a single community. A detailed and comprehensive overview of this model is available here. This article uses this framework to provide examples of evidence-based practices and programs that strengthen youth resilience and build social capital and work to reduce threats or perceived threats. The examples described here are not intended to be comprehensive, but merely examples for illustrative purposes. More comprehensive lists of evidence-informed or evidence-based programs and initiatives are available through the Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, Crime Solutions.gov, or OJJDP’s Model Programs Guide.

Prevention and Intervention

Prevention programs are those that intend to strengthen, empower, and engage people to keep them safe and healthy. These efforts include approaches aimed at reducing factors associated with at-risk, problematic behaviors, and strengthening protective factors;10 they can be directed toward youth and young adults generally, or more specifically directed towards at-risk populations within the community. Intervention programs, on the other hand, target individuals already engaged in at-risk behavior, including gang or antisocial group membership. According to the Centers for Disease Control, evidence-based youth violence prevention and intervention strategies should:

  • Build children’s and adolescents’ skills and competencies to choose nonviolent, safe behaviors.
  • Foster safe, stable, nurturing relationships between young people and their parents and caregivers.
  • Build and maintain positive relationships between young people and caring adults in their community.
  • Develop and implement school-wide activities and policies to foster social connectedness and positive environment.
  • Improve and sustain a safe physical environment in communities and create spaces to strengthen social relationships.
  • Build viable and stable communities by promoting economic opportunities and growth
  • Facilitate the social cohesion and collective efficacy of the community.
  • Change societal norms about the acceptability of violence and willingness to intervene.
  • Change the social and structural conditions that affect youth violence and lead to healthy inequity (p. 18-20).11

Examples of effective or promising programs include the following:

Youth Development. These programs focus on engaging young people to develop their emotional, physical, social, and intellectual selves. Program like these provide opportunities for youth to practice conflict resolution and prosocial life skills. Promising programs include the Life Skills Training program.

Street Intervention/Interruption, Active Outreach, and Engagement. These programs target at-risk youth to provide crisis intervention and de-escalation of high stress situations. Such programs can assist in reducing the threat or perceived threat that can increase risk for violent occurrences. Examples of promising programs include Cure Violence, Richmond Comprehensive Homicide Initiative, Operation Ceasefire, and Safe Streets.

Counseling and Therapy. These programs reflect developmentally appropriate therapeutic services provided by a mental health professional. Effective programs incorporate cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or include contingency management approaches. These programs are often individual or family-based, such as Multisystemic Therapy, Functional Family Therapy, Multidimensional Family Therapy, Aggression Replacement Training, Assisted Outpatient Treatment, and Coping Power Program, CBT for Trauma in Schools, Good Behavior Game.

Case Management. Case management programs support youth and their families in identifying and accessing resources. Individuals at risk for involvement in street-level violence can be difficult to engage in services. Case management approaches that actively engage youth and families (i.e., active outreach, in-home meetings with youth/families, community engagement) are more effective at long-term client retention and developing trust than more passive approaches (i.e., requiring youth/families to meet in office locations).12

Suppression

Suppression involves implementing formal and informal social controls to prevent and reduce crime. Formal social control is produced through police and other government agencies. Examples of effective strategies for supervising, managing, and controlling violent crime and offenders exist for policing as well as community corrections. These programs help to reduce the threat or perceived threat that can increase risk for violent occurrences by managing or removing those who are promoting violent responses. Examples include:

Policing. Pulling levers policing, also referred to as focused deterrence, is an effective, evidence-based strategy for reducing violent crime.13 Focused deterrence attempts to maximize law enforcement efforts by strategically and directly applying interventions and providing social service resources to high-risk individuals.14 The strategy includes employment of enhanced prosecution or other available legal options, sometimes referred to as “lever pulling.” By responding with the most severe penalties available, interventions seek to deter potential offenders from committing violent crimes and interrupting the cycle of retaliation that is often present in gang crime.15 Focused deterrence also capitalizes on and supports informal social controls by influencing peer group norms and standards of conduct and encouraging the creation of police-citizen partnerships to address crime, thereby creating a single, united voice against violence.

Community corrections (probation or parole). Several practices and programs have been shown effective for addressing violent individuals. These efforts are designed to address criminogenic and other needs of justice-involved individuals. Effective practices include the use of Risk-Need-Responsivity principles, which incorporates the use of and referral to services that emphasize cognitive-behavioral therapy and contingency management approaches. Many of these evidence-based programs that address justice-involved individuals’ criminogenic needs are individual or family-based programs such as Multisystemic Therapy, Functional Family Therapy, Aggression Replacement Training, and Assisted Outpatient Treatment. In addition, there are Risk-Need-Responsivity-based supervision models that probation or parole officers can use to increase justice-involved individuals’ use of problem-solving, social skills, and goal setting and achievement. Examples include Effective Practices in Community Supervision (EPICS), Staff Training Aimed at Reducing Rearrest (STARR), and Strategic Training Initiative in Community Supervision (STICS).

Implementing a Trauma-Informed Violence Reduction Model

Understanding the role of trauma also is important when developing violence reduction strategies. Community violence is unpredictable and traumatic and exposure to it can produce long-term negative outcomes for youth and adults. It can increase fear, distrust, and feelings of being unsafe, weakening existing familial and community-level informal social control. Exposure may include directly experiencing, witnessing, or hearing about violent victimization. Exposure to community violence is associated with increased internalizing behaviors (e.g., anxiety disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]), externalizing behaviors (conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder),16 and family stress and conflict.17 Gun carrying is also associated with exposure to violence. Data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods indicate that youth who report carrying firearms also reported high rates of witnessing, hearing, or experiencing violent victimization.18 Adults also experience negative outcomes, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other symptoms as a result of their own victimization experiences.

The trauma experienced by youth, their families, and other community members is not limited to crime. Community members may also experience other forms of trauma, including historical and institutionalized racism and other disadvantages. These experiences also can be traumatic and have a long lasting impact on an individual’s well-being.

The impact of trauma on coping strategies used by children, youth, young adults, and adults must be taken into consideration when addressing community violence. A trauma-informed approach is one that acknowledges trauma, recognizes that behaviors may be symptomatic of traumatic experiences, and encourages policies and practices that are sensitive to this reality.19 Developing and implementing a comprehensive approach to violent crime that incorporates prevention, intervention, and suppression should do so with the understanding and acknowledgement of the potential impact trauma has had in the lives of those the approach intends to engage and how youth and adults will view and experience the program implemented (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Trauma-Informed Prevention, Intervention and Suppression Model for Addressing Street-level Violence

Conclusion

Community violence reduction efforts should include a comprehensive strategy of evidence-informed, coordinated, and complementary prevention, intervention, and suppression activities. The strategy will be enhanced when the community stakeholders consider how trauma has impacted residents and particularly how trauma has affected those targeted by intervention and suppression efforts.


  1. Decker, S. H., & Curry, G. D. (2002). Gangs, gang homicides, and gang loyalty: Organized crimes or disorganized criminals. Journal of Criminal Justice, 30(4), 343-352.
  2. Although no single data source on gun-related street violence exists, one source of data on murders and aggravated assaults and batteries is the Illinois Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program maintained by the Illinois State Police. These data reflect the aggregate number of murders and aggravated assaults and batteries reported to police each year. The data cannot be broken out by weapon type or motive or in a manner that would allow more refined analyses of micro-places within jurisdictions. However, the data are useful in that they provide a glimpse into the extent of violent crime occurring in Illinois communities.
  3. Percentage was based on a weighted three year average of murders and aggravated assaults and batteries reported in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
  4. Notable was defined as having weighted averages that were one standard deviation above the average.
  5. The following cities had rates that were one standard deviation higher than the state average rate: Chicago, Aurora, Rockford, Springfield, East St. Louis, and Champaign. Calculations based on a three year weighted average.
  6. Percentage was based on a weighted three year average of murders and aggravated assaults and batteries reported in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
  7. Decker, S. H., & Van Winkle, B. (1996). Life in the gang: Family, friends, and violence. Cambridge University Press.
  8. Decker, S. H., & Curry, G. D. (2002). Gangs, gang homicides, and gang loyalty: Organized crimes or disorganized criminals. Journal of Criminal Justice, 30(4), 343-352.
  9. Molnar, B. E., Miller, M. J., Azrael, D., & Buka, S. L. (2004). Neighborhood predictors of concealed firearm carrying among children and adolescents: Results from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 158(7), 657-664.
  10. For a list of risk and protective factors associated with violent behavior see Reingle, J. M., Jennings, W. G., & Maldonado-Molina, M. M. (2012). Risk and protective factors for trajectories of violent delinquency among a nationally representative sample of early adolescents. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 10(3), 261-277.
    Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3782307/.
  11. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/youthviolence/pdf/opportunities-for-action.pdf.
  12. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/231200.pdf.
  13. Elliott, D. (October 2016). Selecting evidence-based prevention and treatment interventions. Presentation at the National Criminal Justice Reform Project Summit, Denver: CO.
  14. Braga, A. A. & Weisburd, D. L. (2015). Focused deterrence and the prevention of violent gun injuries: Practice, theoretical principles, and scientific evidence. Annual Review of Public Health, 36, 55-68.
  15. Papachristos, A. V. (2009). Murder by structure: Dominance relations and the social structure of gang homicide. A*merican Journal of Sociology, 115*(1), 74-128.
  16. Cecil, C. A., Viding, E., Barker, E. D., Guiney, J., & McCrory, E. J. (2004). Double disadvantage: The influence of childhood maltreatment and community violence exposure on adolescent mental health. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(7), 839-848. DOI 10.1111/jcpp.12213.
  17. Holtzman, R. J., & Roberts, M. C. (2012). The role of family conflict in the relation between exposure to community violence and depressive symptoms. Journal of Community Psychology, 40(2), 264-275. DOI: 10.1002/jcop.20511.
  18. Molnar, B. E., Miller, M. J., Azrael, D., & Buka, S. L. (2004). Neighborhood predictors of concealed firearm carrying among children and adolescents: Results from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 158(7), 657-664.
  19. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2015). Trauma-informed approach and trauma-specific interventions. National Center for Trauma-Informed Care and Alternatives to Seclusion and Restraint. Available at: https://www.samhsa.gov/nctic/trauma-interventions.

Megan Alderden, Ph.D.

Megan Alderden is research director of the Authority’s Research & Analysis Unit and the Illinois Statistical Analysis Center. Ms. Alderden joined the Authority in June with 16 years of research experience in the field of criminal justice working as an academic and practitioner. Prior to joining the Authority, Ms. Alderden was an associate professor of criminal justice at Saint Xavier University, and preceding her work in academia, Ms. Alderden was a researcher for the Chicago Police Department and the Authority. Ms. Alderden’s most recent research focuses on sexual victimization and issues in policing. She is currently working as a co-principal investigator on a project examining evidence-based practices in homicide and sexual assault investigation in Illinois and on a federally funded study examining the impact of forensic evidence on prosecutorial decisions and court outcomes in sexual assault cases.

She is also a researcher with the National Police Research Platform, where her work focuses on police diversification, police culture, and the civilianization of police agencies. She has published in several government reports and articles in scholarly journals. Ms. Alderden received her doctorate of philosophy in criminal justice with a gender and women studies concentration from the University of Illinois at Chicago, her master of science degree in criminal justice from Michigan State University and her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Calvin College.