Much Like the Victims They Try to Help, Gun Violence Prevention Workers Have Scars

Chronic stress, trauma exposure, frequent threats of violence and the relentless grind of gun crimes’ impact: A recently-released report from the University of Illinois Chicago reveals in stark terms the strain and struggles that many frontline violence prevention workers face as they try to combat gun violence.

In 2022, Chicago is coming off another record year of homicides, similar to many other major cities across the U.S. 797 people were killed in 2021 with 3,677 non-fatal shootings—an increase from the 772 homicides and 3,383 non-fatal shootings in 2020. According to Gun Violence Archive, there were more than 44,000 gun-related deaths and more than 40,000 injuries in the United States.
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“I didn’t realize how much this job takes a toll on you,” one worker told the report’s researchers. “I was actually driving to work one day… and I had heard of nervous breakdowns, right? Then I started to shake and cry. I had to pull over.”

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This includes outreach workers and violence interrupters. It aims to stop the violence cycle in inner-city areas. The workers can be members of your local community with some level of credibility. They have the potential to build relationships with people who are both vulnerable and difficult to reach.

While violence interruptors are becoming more common in the push for community-led police reform and increased community-led policing, there’s a lot of pressure for those who work on the ground.

Researchers interviewed 36 people working in violence prevention in Chicago, nine of which are prone to crime. (Rather than conducting their survey with pre-determined questions, the researchers focused on the workers’ stories and lived experiences, and had them describe in their own terms the impact of their work.) It was revealing and shocking to see their perspectives. Many workers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a condition that results in the witnessing of shootings and subsequent aftermaths. They also interact with victims and relatives of victims.

Some workers described feeling patronized and criticized by their colleagues for not having a formal education. Other workers’ concerns stemmed from having to come in close contact with representatives of police departments and the wider criminal justice system, having potentially been through the system themselves—and still facing stigma therefrom.

“We’re always going to be Black and Brown to law enforcement. We’re always going to look like a gang member to the rival gang,” another worker said, according to the study. “We’re always going to be ex-felons, or former incarcerated people that people look at with less regard, or don’t take our words seriously. Or see our line of work as insignificant.”

This presents particular challenges—that are likely to be exacerbated as programs grow in scope and prominence—since many proposed reform models call for increased collaboration between police, healthcare professionals and violence prevention workers.

And while this survey only focuses on Chicago, it’s likely emblematic of what many other frontline violence prevention workers are facing.

“[Violence intervention]Street intervention is stigmatized. Most people don’t even acknowledge street intervention as a profession,” Dr. Kathryn Bocanegra, the study’s principal investigator, tells TIME. “Because they are primarily Black and Brown men and women who have been through the system, people think they’re just thugs with a job.”

Bocanegra, who previously led a violence prevention organization in Chicago, explains that the trauma many of the workers go through can lead to burnout—and leave them desensitized to violence. It can lead to mental and physical problems as well.

“If they’re in this work as part of their path to redemption and restoration, but the work is constantly retraumatizing them, It is worth the effort?‘ Bocanegra says.

The federal government and cities have both begun to invest in violence prevention centers nationwide. This is to address the root causes behind gun violence. Chicago workers, however, said they were not aware of the fact that violence prevention centers are available. They were often underpaid, and didn’t have the resources or time to take care of their families. Without more engagement and support for workers, the model likely isn’t sustainable in its current form.

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A report from the Giffords Law Center for Prevent Gun Violence in October 2021 states that 75% of community violence intervention workers earn between $30,000 to $50,000. Half of these income levels are below $42,000. Beyond that, however, Bocanegra says the workers brought up very basic things that could be done to improve their work situations—greater job security, formal team support structures and access to mental health professionals, for example.

“What they were really indicating are basic, simple things that organizations can do to create a healing work environment. And if you have intact healthy workers, you’re actually going to have sustained violence reduction efforts at the community level,” Bocanegra says.


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