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Program aims to combat gun violence in US before the trigger is pulled

Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO- Former convict Alphonso Prater has seen too many disputes about a girlfriend or a dice game escalate with someone getting shot in his neighborhood.

"Some people don't know how to fight. They just get a gun. And I just don't want to see them messin' up their lives," said Prater, a 49-year-old who works for CeaseFire, a program trying to stop gun violence.

Law enforcers, civic leaders and politicians have praised CeaseFire with helping to slash Chicago's homicide rate to its lowest numbers in decades. It has gained national attention and the program is being studied and employed in some of the most violent cities across the U.S.

The program, funded by state and federal governments and by grants from various foundations, also has attracted a few skeptics who say more research is needed to prove its success.

CeaseFire is trying to change the mind-set of many who have grown up around violence.

"Law enforcement catches you after you cross the line. CeaseFire keeps you on this side of the line," said program founder Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We say no prison, no death, no one needs to get caught. ... We're not trying to be nice. We're trying to be different."

Though CeaseFire has several components, including community outreach, education and activism, Prater and his fellow "violence interrupters" are the crux of the program. Many workers are former gang members and ex-convicts. All know the streets and those who run them.

"Some people can go on the front porches and talk to people, but these guys can get into the inner circles. They get inside the front doors," said Tio Hardiman, a former street-hustler-turned-academic and CeaseFire's director of gang mediation services.

They drive around and walk door-to-door in some of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods to see what is going on and try to diffuse arguments between people likely to use guns to resolve a fight.

On a recent evening, Prater saw a crowd surrounding two young men arguing on a street corner about a woman. Prater knew the guys from the neighborhood and felt if he did not intervene, someone could get shot.

"I told them: 'Neither one of you is going to win. If you hurt him, then you're going to jail. And then your woman will just get with someone else. Shooting's not going to solve nothin," he said. The two men eventually calmed down and went their separate ways.

Chicago tallied 641 homicides in 1999, the year before CeaseFire began. By 2004 that number fell to 448, a 25 percent decline from 2003. Last year, the rate was 447_ the first time the city recorded two consecutive years with fewer than 500 homicide since 1964 and 1965. Chicago, which led the nation in murders with 600 in 2003, fell below New York and Los Angeles the past two years.

Though Chicago police say their attack on gangs, drugs and guns has decreased the homicide rate, they give some credit to CeaseFire. In neighborhoods where the program operates, homicides fell 45 percent from 97 in 2003 to 49 in 2004, according to CeaseFire's latest statistics.

"They work directly with the community groups, and that structure makes it unique," said Chicago Police Deputy Superintendent Charles Williams. "They don't just go to the community meetings and say we're here for you; they also are walking the neighborhoods."

Slutkin, who has studied AIDS in Uganda and cholera in Somalia, views violence as an epidemic in the United States and he tackles it like other epidemics by trying to alter behavior.

"CeaseFire is about changing the mind-set of thinking violence is normal. It's not. It's abnormal," Hardiman said.

The program debuted in Chicago's West Garfield Park neighborhood five years ago. In its first year, shootings declined 67 percent to 14, according to CeaseFire. The lower numbers have continued, with a total of nine shootings in 2004.

Several communities across the U.S. have launched CeaseFire. In May, Newark, New Jersey, began its program. Baltimore is on the brink of starting it, Slutkin traveled to Los Angeles recently and officials from Pittsburgh came to Chicago this month to learn about it.

Some gun violence experts say they remain a little skeptical of the program.

Daniel Webster, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at John Hopkins University, said CeaseFire shows promise but needs to produce better statistics to prove its value.

"In the areas where they have been in for greater periods of time, it appears as if they are able to keep the violent crimes down at a greater rate then in areas they are not in. ... But there needs to be more sophisticated statistical analysis," said Webster.


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