Gary Slutkin: Why Should We Treat Violence Like A Contagious Disease? While looking at the problem of gun violence, Dr. Gary Slutkin wondered — what if it could be treated like a communicable disease? His program, Cure Violence, aims to do just that, with real results.
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Why Should We Treat Violence Like A Contagious Disease?

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Why Should We Treat Violence Like A Contagious Disease?

Why Should We Treat Violence Like A Contagious Disease?

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Next up, wrath - fierce, vengeful anger, the kind of emotion that can lead to violence. So back in the mid-1990s Gary Slutkin was one of the many researchers trying to figure out why certain places in America seemed to be more violent - way more violent - than others.

GARY SLUTKIN: So I spent a lot of time just looking at graphs and curves and maps.

RAZ: Maps of where gun violence was happening. Now, Gary was not a crime expert. He still isn't. He's a medical doctor, an epidemiologist, actually. And at that time - again, this is the mid-1990s - Gary had just come back from working overseas. He spent over a decade trying to stop the spread of diseases like tuberculosis and cholera in Africa and in other places. And that's why he couldn't help but notice that those maps that charted gun violence in American cities, to his eyes, the patterns looked surprisingly familiar.

SLUTKIN: When you look at Bangladeshi neighborhoods you see where the cholera clusters. When you look at gonorrhea or HIV, you see the same type of clusters.

RAZ: Which got Gary thinking, maybe violence...

SLUTKIN: It's going from one person to another to another.

RAZ: ...Is more like a disease.

SLUTKIN: Just like flu causes more flu causes more flu.

RAZ: This is amazing. I mean, you're basically saying that this is not a sin or the behavior of like, bad apples or bad people. Like, this is like a contagious disease.

SLUTKIN: Yeah. It isn't like a contagious disease - it is a contagious disease.

RAZ: That idea gave Gary a second one - what if we treat an outbreak of violence the same way we treat other epidemics? So he started up a group called Cure Violence. And the group basically goes into rough neighborhoods.

SLUTKIN: And actually, we hire the people who already know everybody around from the same neighborhoods, and they're very much trusted.

RAZ: Which is the exact same method epidemiologists use to fight Ebola and cholera outbreaks. Gary calls these workers violence interrupters.

SLUTKIN: They find out, you know, who is mad at who, who was shot that might cause a retaliation, you know, who just came out of prison or something who is looking for some revenge.

RAZ: And it turns out a good cure for that kind of wrath is conversation. Here is Gary's TED Talk.


SLUTKIN: There's a way to reverse epidemics. And in order to interrupt the transmission, you need to detect and find first cases. In other words, for TB, you have to find somebody who is active TB who is infecting other people. Make sense? So violence interrupters hired from the same group - credibility, trust, access and trained in persuasion - cooling people down, buying time, reframing. Now, our first experiments of this resulted in a 67 percent drop in shootings and killings in the West Garfield neighborhood of Chicago.


SLUTKIN: Now, this was a beautiful thing for the neighborhood itself. The first 50 or 60 days, then 90 days and then there was, unfortunately, another shooting in another 90 days. And the moms were hanging out in the afternoon, they were using parks they weren't using before. The sun was out, everybody was happy. But of course, the funders said, wait a second - do it again. And so we had to then, fortunately, get the funds to repeat this experience. And this is one of the next four neighborhoods that had a 45 percent drop in shootings and killings. And since that time, this has been replicated 20 times. There've been independent evaluations supported by the Justice Department and by the CDC and performed by Johns Hopkins that have shown 30-50 and 40-70 percent reductions in shootings and killings using this new method.

RAZ: This could really change not just the way we think about violence, but really how we manage it, right? Because what you're saying is that crime doesn't necessarily happen because somebody is bad.

SLUTKIN: Of course not because how about someone who has tuberculosis, for example? We used to think that people who had tuberculosis had it because they were bad. And we also thought this with leprosy, with plague, with people with seizures. We used to see them as bad. But why did we? Well, we didn't fully understand what was going on within the biology of it, that there were invisible microorganisms which we didn't know about.

RAZ: Right.

SLUTKIN: Well, a very similar thing is going on with violent behavior. It's that people are actually acquiring the behavior from other people.

RAZ: Gary Slutkin. You can find out more about Cure Violence and see Gary's entire talk at

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