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Community violence interventionists face on-the-job violence, trauma

Researchers from Northwestern, UAlbany say vulnerable frontline practitioners need more support
community violence
Northwestern scientists have found that the single-year rates of gun violence and victimization among community violence mediators exceed those of Chicago police.

Trained civilians working to intervene in and de-escalate street violence face job-related violence themselves, as well as secondary trauma from that violence, according to two published articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Scientists found that the single-year rates of gun violence and victimization among community violence mediators exceed those of Chicago police.

The data come from a landmark survey of the street outreach workforce in Chicago, the Violence Intervention Workers Study (VIeWS), conducted in 2021 by sociologists from Northwestern University and the University at Albany, SUNY. The research team sought to provide a comprehensive look at these “first responders” who play a pivotal role in violence prevention.

Programs employing community violence intervention (CVI) workers have made strides in reducing violence and building connections within the neighborhoods they serve. Civic leaders and policymakers have called for increased investment in CVI programs to respond to the recent rise in gun violence and homicide rates. The approach complements a renewed focus on racial inequality and the social harms stemming from existing police and crime control policies.

But until this landmark study in 2021, little was known about the growing field of community violence intervention (CVI), and the physical dangers and psychological hazards of the work.

An article published Dec. 23 in Science Advances reveals that 59% of CVI workers witnessed someone being shot at, and 32% witnessed a victim struck by gunfire. During work hours, 20% were shot at, and 2% were shot and wounded.

“The findings of these studies suggest that investment in community violence intervention should prioritize improving worker safety and reducing violent exposure while developing support for vulnerable frontline practitioners,” said Northwestern sociology professor Andrew V. Papachristos, co-lead of the VIeWS research and the paper’s co-author.

Papachristos is a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research and co-director of Corners, the Center for Neighborhood Engaged Research & Science.

The paper’s lead author is David Hureau, executive director of the Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center and assistant professor at UAlbany’s School of Criminal Justice, and co-lead of the VIeWS research study. Co-authors include Jalon Arthur of Chicago CRED; Christopher Patterson of the Office of Firearm Violence Prevention, Illinois Department of Human Services; Theodore Wilson, assistant professor at the UAlbany School of Criminal Justice; and UAlbany Ph.D. student Hilary Jackl.

The researchers note that in addition to direct exposure to gun violence, the Chicago interventionists commonly face direct exposure to death, violent death and loss of colleagues. For Chicago CVI workers, the survey found:

  • 83% have seen a shooting victim at the scene
  • 80% have responded to a scene of violence before emergency services arrived
  • 74% have seen a deceased victim
  • 65% knew someone from their professional duties who was killed
  • 52% experienced the death of a client due to violence
  • 25% have directly witnessed someone get killed in an act of violence
  • 20% knew someone through work who committed suicide

In a separate study published in Preventive Medicine, the research team examined this indirect exposure to violence and found that Chicago CVI workers experienced symptoms of secondary traumatic stress — the stress stemming from working with traumatized populations — that was exacerbated by their exposure to violence in the workplace that is common in the profession.

Using the VIeWS study data, the authors Hureau, Wilson, Papachristos and Wayne Rivera-Cuadrado, a Ph.D. student in sociology at Northwestern, found that nearly all interventionists reported at least one secondary traumatic stress indicator within seven days of taking the survey, and that workers who experienced the death of a client, witnessed a shooting, or were shot at themselves were more likely to be affected by secondary traumatic stress. 

“In a moment where policymakers are seeking to invest more seriously in community violence intervention strategies, my hope is that this research will stimulate further interest in supporting people that do this important public safety work,” Hureau said. “Improving work conditions for community violence interventionists will ultimately lead to greater effectiveness and healthier communities.” 

“We aren’t paying attention to this population — which is largely Black and Latino men,” Papachristos said. “I think this information stresses that you can’t have successful [CVI] work without a healthy and safe workforce. If we want them to succeed, we need to support them to keep them healthy and safe.”

The research team has begun investigating cities beyond Chicago, starting with New York’s state-funded SNUG Street Outreach program and plans to extend to Boston.

This research was partially supported by a grant made to Northwestern University by Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund .

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