Experts at Harris panel point to cognitive behavior intervention and data analysis as hopeful strategies. Exchanging phone numbers might work, too.

While researching the reasons why people fight and what can be done to prevent it, Professor Chris Blattman met a violence prevention outreach worker in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood who’d come up with a novel idea. The worker had persuaded two rival gang leaders to exchange cell phone numbers.

When a member of one gang committed a minor provocation against the rival gang—perhaps driving through a hostile neighborhood while blaring music—one leader would contact the other and offer him the option of taking care of the slight before the rival gang did.

“That was really effective, and there’s a handful of people doing this,” Blattman, the Ramalee E. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies at Harris, told about 300 people at a panel discussion in Chicago in October. “But we don’t do it very often, and we’re not doing it systematically.”

Professor Blattman's book, Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace, was released earlier this year.

An economist and political scientist who studies global conflict, crime and poverty, Blattman was one of five panelists discussing the topic, “Why We Fight,” which is also the title of his book released in April 2022 by Viking Press. Other panelists at the Harris event included Monica P. Bhatt, Senior Research Director at UChicago’s Crime Lab and Education Lab; Chris Patterson, Assistant Secretary for the Illinois Department of Human Services Office of Firearm Violence Prevention; and Dr. Chico Tillmon, Executive Director of the READI National Center for Safe Communities and a Senior Research Fellow at University of Chicago Urban Labs.

Heartland Alliance President Evelyn J. Diaz, moderator of the conversation, started by asking Blattman about the five overarching reasons—he characterizes them as stories—that he offers for why violence occurs: unchecked interests, intangible incentives, uncertainty, commitment problems, and misperceptions.

Diaz asked which stories apply to Chicago’s violence. Blattman’s answer: misperception, as when an individual senses that they’ve been slighted and acts aggressively on that perception; and unchecked interests, or an awareness that the justice system is failing to hold criminals accountable.

“The third story,” he said, “is a strategic story, and it’s a story of cold and calculated violence.”

Cold, calculated violence is a story of uncertainty and accounts for a surprising amount of violence, Blattman added. To illustrate, he offered a grim anecdote of a young man Blattman interviewed who said he engaged in retributive, severe violence to stop others from robbing him repeatedly.

“If you remember one tagline from the book,” Blattman said, “it’s, ‘every time we fight, it’s because we had a reward or we’re willing to pay the costs.’”

What’s working

Professor Blattman addresses the audience at the Harris Policy Forum event.

While Blattman and his book were the center of the conversation, each panelist provided insight into a seemingly intractable problem that has spiked since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020. Much of the conversation illuminated what was working on a limited basis to reduce violence and what should be done to solve the issue on a broader scale.

One promising program is READI Chicago, a Heartland Alliance initiative that combines cognitive behavioral interventions, economic opportunities, and other support to men at high risk of being involved in violence. The program has shown reductions of almost 80 percent in arrests for shootings and homicides, though effects of the program on other outcomes are more mixed.

Another successful local program Bhatt noted is Choose 2 Change, which provides cognitive behavioral therapy and mentoring to young people at high risk of being involved in violence. UChicago research has shown that youth participants in Choose 2 Change, an initiative of Children’s Home & Aid and Youth Advocate Programs, have nearly 50 percent fewer violent-crime arrests than young people not in the program.

Monica Bhatt explains the latest research from the UChicago Crime and Education Labs.

“I think people should take heart that we’ve seen some progress in intervention design that suggests building and practicing these cognitive skills can lead to real behavioral change,” Bhatt said, “which, by the way, is one of the hardest things to do. Just think about making behavioral changes in your own life.”

She pointed out, however, that research and initiatives need to account for different motivations behind different crimes.

“It’s worth it for all of us to think about the specificity of what kinds of interventions might affect what kinds of specific outcomes,” Bhatt said.

Data analysis also can help close gaps in existing services, she said. As an example, Bhatt mentioned the Lab’s analysis of one Chicago school that had 42 community partners. However, in reviewing the roster of students receiving services, they found none of the partners working with homeless students at the school.

The critical benefit of strategic use of data and research, she added, is that it doesn’t require new resources, merely allocating existing resources differently.

‘Need everybody on board’

Dr. Chico Tillmon speaks as Monica Bhatt looks on.

Bhatt and the other panelists emphasized the need for collaboration among experts and practitioners, a “pooling of our best ideas,” followed by activating and evaluating those ideas.

Also crucial, Tillmon said, is the realization that violence has existed in some communities on Chicago’s South and West Sides for a century.

Changing those conditions requires a shared responsibility much like the broad response from business, health care, and all levels of government that was necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. Effective violence prevention also requires law enforcement and others involved in public safety to incorporate cognitive behavioral interventions into their approaches.

“What we must stop doing is funding small organizations that do this work with small amounts of money to stop an epidemic that’s been going on for 100 years,” he added. “That’s insane—one organization, changing this violent cycle for communities like Austin, which has 80,000 people. We need everybody on board.”

In that vein, Patterson pointed to a level of collaboration never seen before among organizations in Chicago’s Austin and North Lawndale neighborhoods. The main reason for that more extensive cooperation, he said, is a change in private and public funding of violence prevention initiatives.

In recent years, funders’ approach has encouraged the organizations to cooperate on common goals. For years before that change, Patterson said, funders inadvertently pitted community organizations against each other for financial support.

In addition, Patterson pointed to Illinois’ Reimagine Public Safety Act, enacted in June and expanded in December. The law’s goal, supported by $250 million to nearly 40 communities throughout Illinois, is to create a comprehensive approach to violence prevention.

Chris Patterson explains work being done in the state of Illinois.

It seeks to accomplish that by promoting economic security, stable housing, locally designed violence prevention, education, youth opportunities, employment opportunities, and healthcare access. Local Advisory Councils will make recommendations on spending the funds based on information the state’s Office of Firearm Violence Prevention provides.

Near the end of the discussion, Diaz noted that the U.S. Department of Justice has selected Heartland as a technical assistance provider to help up to 25 cities across the U.S. prevent violence through program design consultation, leadership development, data analysis training and other assistance.

“That doesn’t sound very sexy, I know,” Diaz said, “but if we want to lift all cities, let’s help them build that capacity so when the money comes, they’re ready to go.”

She closed the conversation on an optimistic note, saying the perspectives discussed provide a fresh look at the longstanding problem of violence, largely because Blattman’s book “caused us to think a little bit differently.”

Diaz reads from Blattman's book.

Then Diaz read aloud an excerpt from Why We Fight.

“When it comes to war and peace, people have three kinds of reactions,” Diaz said. “One is to be intellectually engaged but emotionally detached… A second response is helplessness: “How could anyone ever solve such a massive problem, especially me? The last reaction I see is an urgent desire to do something. Not necessarily a savior complex, but a sincere longing to contribute to something larger than yourself. Many people—and I am one of them—feel all three at the same time.

“But I think the challenge only feels massive, impersonal, and impossible if we think about trying to solve it all at once…The correct approach starts by saying, careful, diligent steps will move us in the right direction.”