Violence Prevention and Targeting the Elusive Gang Member

Published date01 March 2017
Date01 March 2017
Violence Prevention and Targeting the Elusive
Gang Member
Tony Cheng
Who do violence preventers target to achieve violence prevention? This fun-
damental question of selection is typically associated with law enforcement, yet
gang labeling is critical in another context: nonprofit violence prevention.
Eighteen months of fieldwork in a gang outreach organization find that
(a) workers operationalize gang violence prevention as social service provi-
sion, but (b) services are only offered to those deemed “ready” for life
changes. Readiness is an unwritten eligibility criteria leveraged as a rhetorical
tool to focus recruitment on clients who demonstrate complicity. It is reaf-
firmed through external pressures to document program effectiveness;
organizational-level concerns for efficient resource allocation; the subpopula-
tion of clients who actually want services; and workers’ own fears of “getting
played”—losing face from free-riding clients interested in street worker perks,
but not formal services. While core gang members may be most at-risk, their
very centrality may deter,rather than justify, providing them services.
Who do violence preventers target to achieve violence pre-
vention? This unyieldingly practical question is one of selection—
targeting individuals most likely to start or participate in violence
in the first place. Targeting gang members is typically associated
with the law enforcement domain, where defining gang member-
ship has significant legal consequences in states like California
where gang ties earn enhanced penalties (Klein 1996). The tradi-
tional police approach to gang violence often centers on suppres-
sion: gang sweeps, hotspot policing, saturation patrols, and
exclusionary zones (Tita and Papachristos 2010: 31). Rather than
low-level members, law enforcement often views leaders, key
players, or those most active in high-profile activities like drug
dealing or shootings as key to dismantling the organization (Var-
gas 2014).
I would like to thank Andrew Papachristos, Frederick Wherry, Philip Smith, Yale’s
Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale’s Advanced Sociological Writing and
Research seminar, and most of all, Bullet-Free Bridgeport. This study was supported, in
part, by the American Sociological Association’s Sydney S. Spivack Program in Applied
Social Research and Social Policy Community Action Research Award.
Please direct all correspondence to Tony Cheng, Yale University, Department of Sociol-
ogy,493 College Street, New Haven, CT 06510; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 51, Number 1 (2017)
C2017 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
But identifying gang membership is also critical in another
context: within the sphere of social service organizations. Defin-
ing gang membership in this realm does not elicit enhanced pen-
alties, but rather enhanced services. These social services can
range from boxing lessons to more formal programs like drug
treatment. Given increased privatization of government services
to third parties and the devolution of policy decisions down to
states and municipalities, community-based organizations are
increasingly the primary deliverers of basic social services (Mar-
well 2004). Thus the decision-making practices of employees
working in nonprofits are critical, especially when the stakes
involve community violence.
Whether referred to as street outreach workers (SOW),
detached workers, or curbstone counselors, gang outreach organ-
izations beginning in the 1930s with the Chicago Area Project
promote changing social norms around violence by promising
services rather than threatening punishment (Klein 1971; Kobrin
1959; Short and Strodtbeck 1965; Spergel 2007).
The history of gang outreach is both long and mixed (see
Tita and Papachristos 2010 for a review), but it has resurfaced as
an alternative or supplement to heavy-handed law enforcement
strategies following SOWs’ contributions to the Boston Gun Pro-
ject (Braga et al. 2001; Kennedy et al. 1997) and even more so,
Chicago’s Cure Violence model
(Skogan et al. 2008). Cure Vio-
lence practices a public-health approach to violence reduction
where credible messengers, especially former gang members,
treat the transmission of violence by targeting the attitudes and
behaviors of high-risk offenders (Butts et al. 2015). Cure Vio-
lence stresses prevention by identifying those most at-risk for vio-
In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder revealed a lesson
learned from Chicago Cure Violence’s evaluation: “We learned
that targeting a small, high-risk population can have significant,
broader benefits” (Holder 2009; see also Melde et al. 2011: 279).
The Department of Justice has made gang intervention a primary
focus, and with local municipalities across the United States,
endorses the street outreach worker model as one key to a
After starting in Chicago in 2000, Cure Violence spread to more than 50 domestic
cities and 13 international sites (Cure Violence, “Community Partners,” http://cureviolence.
org/partners/ [accessed 24 December 2015]). Funders range from the Illinois Department
of Corrections to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Cure Violence, “Funding
Partners,” [accessed 24 December 2015]).
Cure Violence defines “high-risk of violence” as individuals who meet four of the fol-
lowing seven criteria: (a) gang-involved, (b) major player in a drug or street organization,(c)
violent criminal history, (d) recentincarceration, (e) reputation of carrying a gun, (f) recent
victim of a shooting, and (g) being between 16 and 25 years of age (Butts et al. 2015: 14.2–
Cheng 43

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