GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Grand Rapids officials have announced the next step in curbing violence in the city.

The City’s Office of Oversight and Public Accountability wants to hire a Chicago-based organization to help keep 2021 from becoming another 2020, when a record number of homicides and other violent crimes occurred.

The group is called Cure Violence and is a one-of-a-kind program that uses a public health model to stop violence. Like a public health investigator looks for a cluster of disease, Cure Violence takes a similar approach.

“We find the clusters where there is high levels of crime, like day-to-day gun violence. Those are the areas we pick our violence interrupters from,” Cure Violence’s Demeatreas Whatley said. “They’re constantly talking about conflict mediation. Constantly explaining to them just because you have an argument, it doesn’t have to lead to gun violence. It didn’t have to lead to a fight. And they must already have these relationships in the community.”

So-called Violence Interrupters and other staff are hired from within communities targeted by Cure Violence. They know the streets and the players, so they’re considered  best at intervention after violent crimes.

“We can get places where law enforcement can’t get because we have those relationships with those individuals on the streets, so they trust us. They know we’re not trying to send them to jail. We don’t want to see them get killed or arrested, so we’re able to mediate conflicts before it gets out,” said Whatley.

When Grand Rapids began looking for outside help to curb violence, it looked for a group with a successful track records.

Cure Violence was founded in 2000 in Chicago and lists a number of successes.

A 2009 National Institute of Justice-Northwestern University evaluation showed a 41% to 73% reductions in shootings in Chicago and a 100% reductions in retaliation homicides in 5 of 8 communities where Cure Violence operated.

A more recent 2017 evaluation by Temple University credited Cure Violence with a 30% reduction in shootings in Philadelphia.

Those numbers don’t always last. Chicago, for example, saw a record number of homicides in 2020.

Whatley says part of the problem lies in cuts to funding from communities that hire the organization, even when Cure Violence is producing results.

“Everybody buys in. And then for some reason, the funding slips away,” Whatley said. “That used to be the case sometime. But not all of the time. Most of the time, cities build on it.”

There are other concerns. Critics contend Cure Violence’s use of local residents with past criminal history can be a problem.

A screening process using the community and law enforcement helps weed out those who may still be involved with criminal activity.

“They have to have something else going on in their life besides just waiting on a Cure Violence job: involved with their religion or whatever type of thing it is, they have some type of foundation,” Whatley said.

But there are other issues. Say a former gang member has to intervene in a situation involving a former rival.

“When we do mapping of a particular community, we figure out what groups are in that community. So what we try to hire people from each of those groups, or each of those parts of the community,” Whatley said, “so that we won’t have just one person dealing with group A and group B.”

The contract between Grand Rapids and Cure Violence is still being worked out and is expected to go before the city commission later in the month, with implementation of the program by the summer.