Eddie Bocanegra and Ernie Cato were born and raised just a few miles from each other on Chicago’s West Side, but they grew up in different worlds. And, as young men, they lived completely different lives.
But today, they have come together—a former gang member and a career Chicago cop—to help develop a new approach to fighting crime and curbing violence in America’s toughest neighborhoods.
Cato and Bocanegra helped pioneer a movement called community violence intervention, or CVI, which develops unconventional, street-level partnerships between law enforcement and local “street outreach teams”—which often include formerly incarcerated people—to identify and defuse potentially violent situations before they erupt.
CVI programs are spreading to cities, towns, and neighborhoods around the country, with strong support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). BJA’s Community Based Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative funded 86 CVI programs over the past two years.
These programs frequently require police and community members to transcend deep-rooted, mutual suspicion and hostility that can make cooperation difficult or impossible. But when neighborhood residents and law enforcement find ways to work together, both sides reap significant benefits.
Cato, a retired deputy chief of the Chicago Police Department, recently told BJA’s Justice Today podcast, “This is not something that happens overnight. This relationship has to build, and it has to come from both sides. But over time, [community members] start seeing reductions in violence and [police] start seeing reductions. Everyone likes a good ending. Everyone wants to jump on that boat of progression.”
Bocanegra, who serves as Senior Advisor on CVI in the U.S. Justice Department, added, “We know that gun violence is very concentrated in specific communities, and even within certain city blocks in those communities. What CVI or street outreach workers and violence interrupters typically do is identify individuals who are in this lifestyle and try to deter them from living a lifestyle that's going to end up getting them hurt or them hurting somebody else.”
An Unlikely Partnership
The unlikely partnership between Bocanegra and Cato—and the ground-breaking work they have done to make violent neighborhoods safer—would have been impossible to imagine when the two were young.
Bocanegra grew up poor in a West Side housing project, the eldest of five siblings. When he was 13, another boy was shot just a few feet away from him. Shortly afterward, hoping to protect himself and his family, Bocanegra joined a gang. By age 18, he had committed a revenge homicide for which he would serve 14 years in prison.
While incarcerated, Bocanegra not only transformed his life, but he also dedicated himself to helping young men with backgrounds like his. After his release, he earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Chicago. And he founded an organization called READI Chicago, which took a unique approach to preventing violent crime in Chicago neighborhoods and intervening in the lives of those who committed violent crimes.
Using local crime statistics, READI actively sought out young men with repeat criminal offenses and offered them both job opportunities and intensive, long-term programs designed to change their behavior. Four out of five young men served by READI had already been victims of violence.
READI staff members "actually went to the information kiosk at the Cook County court building, and they would type in a name, and a court date would pop up," Bocanegra said. "Our outreach workers would show up that day in court, tap them on the back and say, 'We've been looking for you.' They were, like, 'Hey, man, are you the feds?' And we were, like, 'No, we're here to offer you a job. You want this job?'"
Street Outreach Teams
At the same time, READI worked to protect neighborhoods suffering from violent crime by sponsoring "street outreach teams" that functioned much like a community watch, walking local streets to search for and address volatile situations.
“They're out there without a badge or without a bulletproof vest. They are simply using the power of their journey in life and what they've learned to try to convince someone else that there are other ways of living and other ways of solving problems.” — Eddie Bocanegra
But CVI street teams are very different from their predecessors in one important respect: They often include formerly incarcerated people. This enables street outreach teams to build relationships and go places that uniformed law enforcement often cannot. Unsurprisingly, street teams initially encountered deep skepticism from police and other authorities.
“You have to remember that when we were kids, we played cops and robbers,” Cato said. “When you play cops and robbers, the cops stay where they're at, and the robbers stay where they're at. The job of the cops is to catch the robbers. The job of the cops isn’t to collaborate and cooperate with the robbers. So, naturally, officers had skepticism about it.”
In 2017, after working his way up through the ranks of Chicago Police Department, then-captain Cato took over as commander of a high-crime district on his native West Side. “And I learned very quickly that violence cannot be solved only by the police department,” he said. “So, I had to come up with another strategy.”
"I Became A Believer"
Cato warily began working with street outreach teams sponsored by Chicago’s Institute for Nonviolence. He remembers one particular Friday night when police responded to an open-air street party of about 100 people. Rather than sending uniformed officers to disperse the crowd, Cato called in the street team. “Before I knew it, those folks were getting in their cars and driving off,” Cato said. “There was no negative engagement with the police department, and there were no shootings. So, I became a believer at that point.”
Cato incorporated the street teams into his district’s official strategic plans, and eventually his officers became believers as well. In time, they worked alongside street teams at local job fairs. “When we think about folks who are selling drugs or committing violence, it's also their job,” Cato said. “Shooters get paid. Folks who sell drugs are getting paid. If they get the opportunity, they may want another job.”
Cato and Bocanegra agree that CVI programs differ significantly from traditional social-service programs, however, because their end goal is not rehabilitating individuals but strengthening public safety.
“It’s absolutely about reduction of homicide, reduction of shootings, reduction of violent crime,” Bocanegra said. “There are other pieces that demonstrate the impact that we're having. The Chief just mentioned one: Do we see the community coming together with law enforcement, particularly during this time where there are questions around trust? If the answer is yes, that's one measurement of success.”
“What I look at is, was there a homicide tonight? Was a person shot tonight? Can a grandmother actually stand on her porch? And that's pretty much how I personally measure it. We could come up with numbers and statistics all day. But when it comes down to it, can my aunt walk to the grocery store?” — Ernie Cato
To learn more, listen to the corresponding Justice Today podcast episode: