By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago has entered into an agreement with a crime-fighting group that seeks to interrupt violence before it escalates, the city said on Tuesday, as it battles to reduce a soaring murder rate.
Chicago, the third largest U.S. city, has agreed to pay $1 million to CeaseFire to focus on "highest risk" individuals, such as recent victims of violence and those with a history of violence, to stop them from committing crimes.
The agreement with the organization is in response to a murder rate 37 percent higher year-to-date from the same time period last year - at 250 murders compared to 182 in 2011. Chicago's murder rate has outpaced New York City, which has more than double the population.
"The amount of gang violence in our city is simply unacceptable," said Chicago Police First Deputy Superintendent Al Wysinger in a news conference. Wysinger said the agreement with CeaseFire is only "one of the tools we're putting in our tool box to help tamp down some of this violence."
An initiative of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, CeaseFire is a non-government organization that claims to take a public health approach to violence prevention.
It sees violence as a learned behavior that can be prevented through behavior change for highest risk individuals, changing community norms and other by means.
Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois, said CeaseFire tries to "get out in front of conflicts" before they escalate. In a recent neighborhood incident, a 10-year-old was beaten up by a 12-year-old, and the conflict between the two families grew to the point where cousins started showing up with guns.
CeaseFire representatives intervened and "nobody got shot," Hardiman said. "Everyone got to go home and relax."
Some Chicago police officers are skeptical of CeaseFire because it uses ex-felons to talk people out of violent acts, and a handful have been charged with crimes while working with the group.
Overall crime in Chicago is down by 11 percent from the same period last year. But officials say years of targeting by law enforcement has shattered Chicago's once-stable gang structure, and the jump in murders reflects a power struggle between the smaller gangs.
RISE IN NUMBER OF GANG FACTIONS
Pat Camden, spokesman for the Chicago police union, said police have over the years been "very successful" at putting gang leaders in jail, Camden said.
"As a result, you wind up with gangs that used to have some kind of structure that have broken down into little mini-gangs. Now you have them fighting for a one or two block territory," Camden said. "There's no concern for life -- it's just take what you can."
Camden said there are around 600 different factions in the city's neighborhoods.
Another possible contributing factor to the murder spike is unusually warm weather at the beginning of the year, when frigid temperatures usually keep violence down.
The CeaseFire agreement will put additional CeaseFire workers in two high-crime districts under the pilot program, which starts July 13. CeaseFire has received state and county funding in the past, but no money directly from the city.
"Violence has a contagious nature. We have fundamentally misdiagnosed this problem as a problem of bad people," said Dr. Gary Slutkin, executive director of the CeaseFire Partnership. Started in 2000, CeaseFire now operates in 15 cities.
The police union has also called for more police manpower and more community support to stem the murders.
Camden declined comment on the CeaseFire agreement.
(Reporting By Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and Philip Barbara)