Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, has suffered record homicides for three years in a row. The Milwaukee Police Department records 196 so far in 2022, already higher than the total for 2021. The biggest increase came in 2020, when deaths doubled compared to 2019. As in other cities, the COVID-19 pandemic had a huge impact, among many other complex factors.
Nationally, rates of violent crime remain at far lower levels than historical peaks in the 1990s. Predictably, that hasn’t stopped political attempts to exploit people’s fears of crime to push for yet more “tough on crime” policies.
But in many cities, residents connected with impacted people are working hard to prevent violence before it happens and cops show up on the scene. Community violence intervention (CVI), as it’s known, can take many forms. But basically it is about trusted, influential community members working directly with people “at risk” in different settings. It’s certainly about preventing violence, but it’s also about addressing other problems and neglect people are facing.
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, CVI programs in cities like Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago have coincided with shootings falling by over 30 percent in hard-hit neighborhoods. And for every dollar invested in one of these programs, the Institute reports, “cities can save up to $18 in reduced medical and criminal legal system costs.”
To get a better understanding of this work, Filter contacted the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE) Education Fund, which supports CVI programs across the state. I spoke with WAVE Policy Associate Nick Matuszewski and Program Manager Deja Garner. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alexander Lekhtman: Could you outline that work that WAVE does in Milwaukee and the rest of the state?
Nick Matuszewski: WAVE’s role in this whole process has been helping ensure the groups doing the work on the ground have adequate funding, including from state and federal. We have many partners throughout Wisconsin doing more hands-on work in communities.
In Milwaukee, 414Life is working closely with the Medical College of Wisconsin to set up community violence intervention programs, and also Froedtert Hospital to set up a hospital-based violence intervention program.
That’s a form of intervention that deals with survivors of violence who are hospitalized. They bring in resources and ensure people are receiving adequate medical care, and help with getting people insured. They bring in therapists to talk about the circumstances that brought them to where they are, and how to forge a better path going forward or find job opportunities. If they’re involved in a gang, they try to find ways to get them out of that lifestyle or facilitate peaceful connections.
“Usually the interrupter is an elder in the community … It’s important to hire people who are familiar with the communities you’re working with.”
What does this work look like when it’s happening in people’s neighborhoods?
Matuszewski: We also have street-based intervention. You find individuals who have been impacted by gun violence and use them to lead the process of going into these communities; find the individuals most at risk of violence either as perpetrators or victims, and get to the root causes of what’s causing it. They try to provide resources, whether financial or therapeutic, to try to end conflicts.
How do you assess whether someone is at risk of being a victim of violence versus someone at risk of committing violence? And who is best placed to intervene?
Matuszewski: Oftentimes, they are the same people. Sometimes people most likely to be victims of violence are also likely to be perpetrators of violence.
Usually the interrupter is an elder in the community, who’s from there and has found a way to survive and better their situation. It’s important to hire people who are familiar with the communities you’re working with. If they were raised there and understand the dynamics, they will understand the best way to contact people most at risk.
“I try to avoid the ‘at-risk’ language and focus more on underserved communities.”
Deja Garner: There is this language of “being at risk,” but there are factors and different conditions that contribute to high rates of gun violence. It may be inequity in education, inadequate access to jobs or health care, high rates of poverty—more often than not when these risk factors are higher, the rates of gun violence are also higher.
It’s pretty easy to pick up on which areas may need more intervention than others. I try to avoid the “at-risk” language and focus more on underserved communities.
Funding for programs like these has always been only a tiny fraction of that allocated to police. What efforts are you making with the Wisconsin state legislature, or in conversations with other officials, to get more attention on community violence intervention?
Matuszewski: One of our policy priorities is to establish an Office of Violence Prevention at the state level. To get federal funding for these programs, you need an office to manage how those funds come in and are disbursed. If the federal justice department doesn’t think there are appropriate tools in place, they are less likely to grant funds—and if you don’t have anyone applying for them, you certainly won’t get anything.
We know from the research that community violence intervention programs do work; the issue is there’s not enough funding at this point. We would really increase the money coming in for these programs, which would have an impact throughout the state and certainly in Milwaukee.
“Gun violence is not something we can arrest our way out of. It’s not something solely policy can solve. We need to navigate this from a community-facing lens.”
You’re also seeking reform of gun laws in Wisconsin. What do you want to change? And what’s the bigger picture around the success of community violence intervention programs?
Matuszewski: We’re pushing for more traditional measures like extreme risk laws and universal background checks. We’re trying to close the domestic violence misdemeanor loophole in the state. We have seen that community violence intervention in conjunction with these measures is the most effective way to end gun violence statewide.
Garner: Gun violence is not something we can arrest our way out of. It’s not something solely policy can solve. We need to navigate this from a community-facing lens and try to figure out those root causes, and try to intervene before the gun violence even happens. Even before someone purchases a firearm, at what point can we intervene?
Community violence intervention works best in partnership with credible messengers, trusted partners and people who have shown a proven history of being community-first. A police officer may fit that description or they may not. There’s a certain profile of a person that is successful in this work; as long as you fit that, it makes a difference.