During this episode, Ernie Cato, a 30-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, and Eddie Bocanegra, a former gang member who founded an organization that works with young men at high risk of committing crimes, discuss their pioneering work in the field of Community Violence Intervention, an innovative approach to reducing crime and violence.
Also see the corresponding blog post: Community Violence Intervention: Police, “Street Teams,” and Safer Neighborhoods.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, otherwise known as OJP, where we shine a light on cutting-edge research and practices and offer an in-depth look at what we're doing to meet the biggest public safety challenges of our lifetime. Join us as we explore how funding, science, and technology help us achieve strong communities.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: I'm your host, Karen Friedman. I'm the Director of Criminal Justice Innovation, Development, and Engagement at OJP's Bureau of Justice Assistance, otherwise known as BJA.
Our guests today are two proud sons of Chicago who share much in common both personally and professionally:
- They both grew up on the Windy City's West Side in some of the town's toughest neighborhoods.
- They both have risen to hold prominent, influential leadership positions in public safety and public policy.
- And they have worked together to reduce crime and violence in Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods, using an innovative approach called Community Violence Intervention, otherwise known as CVI.
But that is where their similarities end.
Ernest, or Ernie, Cato III is a career Chicago cop. He spent more than 30 years on the force, much of it policing his native West Side. He held a variety of increasingly senior command positions and retired last fall as the department's Chief of Counterterrorism.
Eduardo, or Eddie, Bocanegra witnessed his first fatal shooting at the age of 13, joined a gang at 14, and at age 18 committed a revenge homicide for which he would serve 14 years in prison. But while he was incarcerated, he altered his life in dramatic fashion.
He has since founded a groundbreaking organization called READI Chicago, which works with young men at grave risk of committing crimes and acts of violence. Early last year, he joined the United States Justice Department as a Senior Advisor to share the lessons he learned at READI Chicago with others nationwide. And as a point of privilege, he is also one of my favorite colleagues.
So, I'm very, very excited that Ernie and Eddie are here to tell us about their unlikely partnership and to explain how the sometimes-unconventional techniques of Community Violence Intervention can fight crime and reduce violence.
Eddie and Ernie, thank you so much for joining me today. I'm so delighted to have you here.
ERNIE CATO: Thank you for having me.
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: Thank you, Karen.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: All right. Eddie, let's start with you. You've drawn on your own life experiences to do pioneering work in the field of CVI. Could you tell us how you got involved with CVI and how it differs from traditional anti-crime programs?
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: First and foremost, it’s a pleasure to be here sharing this space with Chief Cato, someone who I truly respect because of the way he opens up and thinks about public safety.
CVI is a strategy that incorporates various elements within the concept of the community. Meaning, it brings together shareholders who are really invested in public safety. That includes organizations from law enforcement to academic institutions as research partners. But more important, it really dives into the community to hire individuals with lived experience. And by lived experience, I mean people who have been either victims of violence or perpetrators of violence. CVI thinks about how we leverage their insights and deploy them into the community to help identify high-risk individuals who are very likely to end up being a victim or a perpetrator of violence.
That's the overall summary. But it's really a strategic approach that helps community members use their own journey in life to try to convince others that the path they're on is a very destructive one.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: The most visible element of many of these CVI programs is their use of what are often called street outreach workers or violence interrupters. And those are usually community residents, some of whom might have criminal records themselves, who reach out to potentially violent young men in ways that law enforcement cannot. How do these street teams work?
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: It's important that we acknowledge a couple of things, right? We have a large population of people returning home from prison. And in most cases, these individuals are going back to the same communities where they lived, like the West Side or the South Side of Chicago. We know that gun violence is very concentrated in specific communities, and even within certain city blocks in those communities.
Just in Chicago’s Austin Community, for example, there are certain city blocks that are called million-dollar blocks. There were studies done over 10 years ago that added up the amount of money taxpayers have spent to incarcerate people who live on certain city blocks. We're talking in the millions.
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. These individuals who are doing this work are daily putting their lives in danger. 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.
And it's a strong workforce. In Chicago alone, for example, there are nearly 500 street outreach workers funded by philanthropy as well as local and state government. The idea is to leverage them and their peers and networks to provide more services for the population that we know is at higher risk of victimization and perpetration.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Chief Cato, you were a police commander in the West Side several years ago when you first encountered CVI and the street outreach teams. And you were one of the first Chicago police officers to begin working with them. How did that come about and what were your impressions?
ERNIE CATO: Let me first state, Eddie, I appreciate you. I appreciate what you and your team do consistently. And I value your partnership.
I became a Commander in 2017 in the 15th District in the Austin community. Austin was named one of the most violent neighborhoods in the City of Chicago. And I learned very quickly that violence cannot be solved only by the police department. So, I had to come up with another strategy. And I was fortunate to meet a person by the name of Teny Gross from the Institute of Nonviolence. Teny's group and his outreach workers had a strategy that they were going to put in place in the Austin community.
Let me preface this: I wasn't in agreement at the very beginning. It wasn't like right away someone said, "Here's a piece of candy. Why don't you have it?" My mother always told me, "Don't take candies from strangers. Get an opportunity to know who they are." So, that's what occurred. Mr. Gross approached me and stated that he had an organization that could help me reduce violence. And he explained to me that these individuals were felons. Some may have committed violent crimes. And as I said, I was skeptical.
So, I told Mr. Gross, "If you want this to happen, you have to go in front of my roll calls and explain to my officers what this organization is about and what the plan is." What I was asking him to do was build relationships. Not with me; one-on-one with me is easy. He had to build relationships with the officers in my district, so they have an idea of what I'm getting ready to stick my foot into. So, when Mr. Gross agreed to actually go in front of my roll call, I knew that he was serious. Because when he stepped in front of the roll call, I walked out and allowed my officers to ask any questions in any form that they chose. And he handled it.
What I quickly learned was that this group was dedicated. And they were invested in the reduction of violence. So, I incorporated the group into my strategy. Because of that group, I was allowed to focus more in certain areas, and it allowed my officers not to go into a hostile atmosphere. Let me give you an idea of what I consider a hostile environment.
In the City of Chicago, we have a lot of different street parties. One night, there's probably about 80 to 100 individuals on the street. Instead of sending my officers into that area, I got on the phone: "Hey, Mr. Gross. You said that if I have an issue where we can prevent violence from occurring, and also prevent a negative engagement between police and the community, you would come forward."
Well, this was his test, this particular night. He sent someone out. That individual looked in my direction, I looked at him, and he walked into that crowd. Before I knew it, those folks were getting in their cars and driving off. There was no negative engagement with the police department, and there were no shootings. So, I became a believer at that point.
And that's how I got involved with these individuals. We started building on that relationship, and it continued to grow to the point where it was just automatic. When I created my strategies that I had to turn in, I included the outreach workers, that they were going to be contacted. I arranged that if there was a shooting in the area, the Institute of Nonviolence would be contacted right away.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Chief Cato, when you started this work you were pretty lonely. I know you encountered a lot of skepticism from your peers in law enforcement. What was that like?
ERNIE CATO: Well, it was an island for a while. You have to remember that when we were kids we played cops and robbers. 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. That's the way we had been brought up.
I was pretty much warned that this could backfire, and to be careful. But I'm a person that leads from the front. So, if I'm going to ask officers to get involved, I had to do it first. We had to build up that trust and that relationship. And as it started to improve, we started to see a reduction in violence. Other commanders got involved, and they started building some of their relationships. A really good friend of mine over in the 10th District, he did a great job. But the skepticism did exist and still exists today.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: I would imagine there’s skepticism on the other side as well. The street team members and other CVI participants, I'm sure they had doubts about working with the police, right? So, how do you build the trust that is necessary?
ERNIE CATO: Well, you could see the distrust in the outreach workers' eyes. They thought I had a trick coming out of my bag, you know. But my goal was to let them know that I appreciated them. Any opportunity that I got, if I saw one of them in a small group, I would say, “I appreciate the work that you're doing.”
This is not something that happens overnight. This relationship has to build, and it has to come from both sides. I think when they realized that we didn't have a trick coming out of the hat, or I took the time to acknowledge the work that they were doing, the trust started to build on both sides. And then they start seeing the reductions in violence, we start seeing reductions. You know, everyone likes a good ending. Everyone wants to jump on that boat of progression.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Eddie, was there something you wanted to say?
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: Yeah, Karen. You know, this distrust, as you pointed out, works both ways. There's still this kind of code of silence that people kind of live by. All it takes is for somebody to see an outreach worker talking to law enforcement, and the assumption right away is they’re sharing information, right? And now, that person is targeted. That's the reality of the people who are doing this work.
As we build trust and those relationships evolve, as the Chief and his colleagues acknowledge folks for their work, that makes a person who's on the corner feel like their contribution makes a difference: they're being seen. That starts to change the culture within CVI, within outreach workers.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Eddie, your former organization, READI, uses crime statistics and other data to seek out young men who are most likely to commit violence and ask them to make fundamental changes in their lives. How do you begin that process and what's necessary to make it work?
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: This will give you a snapshot. At READI Chicago, 37% of the men we worked with — and I'm talking about men who are 18 years and older — were victims of gun violence before they came to the program. Research tells us that if you've been shot already, the likelihood of you being shot a second time goes up by a factor of 10.
There are other statistics that I would tell you. On average, READI clients had seventeen to eighteen arrests, including four to five felony arrests. About 80 percent of them were victims of violence; they had been shot, stabbed, or assaulted. The reason why we know that is because we had a strong partnership with the University of Chicago's Crime Lab, which was conducting a randomized controlled trial study, the same kind of studies that we do for medicine. Because of the Crime Lab's great relationship with the police department, they had access to police data that traditional organizations typically wouldn't have access to.
This is how we were able to identify individuals that were more likely to be victims of gun violence or perpetrators of gun violence. I would tell you that because of the randomized controlled trial study, and because of the innovation of this program, and because of great partnerships with the police department — with the Cook County Sheriff's Office, with the Department of Corrections, all law enforcement agencies — that really allowed us to make a stronger argument for what it is to truly serve this population.
This was not an after-school program. We weren’t ordering pizzas on Friday and running a basketball league. We need those activities and services, but this wasn’t that. This was more lazer-focused.
I'll give you a case in point. Some of our staff had to kind of become detectives, because we couldn’t find some of the high-risk potential clients identified by the Crime Lab. If we didn't know who they were, we used social media to try to get in contact with them or find out who knew them.
Another thing our staff did, they 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. 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?"
And that was the carrot to the stick. We were able to engage them and offer them a job on the spot, which is very unique compared to most programs across this country. It was a privilege to be able to do that.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: This a question for both Eddie and Chief Cato. It's incredibly difficult to address the complex causes of crime and violence, and Chicago remains a very violent city. So, how do you measure success? How do you know that CVI is making a difference?
ERNIE CATO: I measure success based on reduction in violence. Numbers aren't as important to me as some others. 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?
Eddie said something really important about employment and about working with community groups. We got together with some of the outreach workers and were doing job fairs on the corners of the most violent blocks. What we saw were young men who would historically be involved in shootings or selling narcotics standing in line. I remember one line that was about two blocks long. What brought tears to my eyes was that when they got to the front they became frustrated and wanted to walk away. Not because they didn't want a job, but because they didn't know how to fill out the application form on a laptop.
So, when we think about folks who are selling drugs or committing violence, it's also their job. Shooters get paid. Folks who sell drugs are getting paid. If they get the opportunity, they may want another job. But you just don't give them a job and walk away.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: They need the soft skills.
ERNIE CATO: Not only soft skills; they're going to need someone to stand behind them a little bit. When we recognized that they couldn't manipulate the laptop, it was a great opportunity to build a relationship between my officers and those individuals. I called my officers over while they were in uniform and told them, "Help them fill that application out." That went a long way to build credibility for my officers and myself. It's important that you identify these individuals and give them some form of opportunity. But you don't give somebody opportunity and walk away. That's failure. You’ve got to support them when you give them the opportunity.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Eddie, you wanted to add to that?
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: Going back to your question about measuring success, it’s absolutely about reduction of homicide, reduction of shootings, reduction of violent crime, right? That's tells us, are we doing what we're supposed to be doing? Are we targeting the right people?
But 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.
The other thing that I would say is, are we also engaging other stakeholders that traditionally have not been a part of the solution? Hospitals, for example, and learning institutions.
In Illinois, about 80% of people who are incarcerated have only completed a 10th grade level of education. So, how are we engaging the schools to help us problem-solve for this? There are a lot of good things happening there, but we won't see the return on those investments until years later.
Because of what Chief Cato and his department have done, studies have found a reduction in homicides and violence in the communities of North Lawndale and Austin. But I don't want to celebrate this. And I'm not saying that the Chief is celebrating, either. Because every single time that we see a homicide or two, that means that someone's child, someone's loved one, has passed away. Whether they were engaged in the streets or not is irrelevant. It is still a human being whose life is lost. We need to see the value of individuals and find ways to legitimate their lives and find opportunities for them to be engaged in a more proactive life.
ERNIE CATO: I totally agree with that. It's up to us to show them that we care enough so that they will have hope. And we try our best to be there to participate in all types of activities that each block has. And we do it together.
We created something called the Community Outreach Briefing out of my office. And the Community Outreach Briefing worked throughout the area with multiple outreach organizations. Twice a week, we provided them with data on what was going on in the area, so we could be strategic with their movement.
I didn't expect any information in return from these groups. What I did expect was a reduction in violence. I provided the information to them, and they went out. Because we did it in one setting with all the groups there, they were able to exchange information. They were able to say, "Okay, we'll come help you."
Now, did I put myself out on the line a little bit doing that? Absolutely. But what I found was that when they saw how much I trusted them, they trusted me. They trusted me enough to say, "Hey, Cato, we got a problem over here. Can you intervene a little bit?" If they had an issue with an officer, they called me. And I’d help them handle that.
One night, I responded to a shooting. There was a mother, dead on the sidewalk. When I arrived, I looked up and saw a four-year-old looking out the window. So, I said, "What's wrong, baby?" She goes, "That's my mommy." So, once I knew that the scene had been taken care of by the responding officers, my focus was with the four-year-old.
I immediately got on the phone. And, again, I called the outreach workers. They sent someone immediately. We're talking about a child with mental health trauma right now. Not next week, not a month later, not 10 years later. And that went a long way.
So, those types of partnerships are very valuable. You can turn to a group and say, “Look, I don't think this is really a criminal matter. It's a social matter. Can you help us?” When we develop those partnerships between law enforcement and outreach groups and mental health groups, you will see more police who have the ability to respond to in-progress calls, to respond to 911 calls.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Everything you're saying is so true and so important. You know, people in more privileged neighborhoods really don't get it. This four-year-old has just experienced so much trauma, and then we expect that when they become an adolescent and a young adult they're going to act and function like an 18- or 19-year-old from a more privileged background who never experienced anything like that.
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: I would just add that when I look at folks like Chief Cato — and there's probably about a dozen chiefs and high-ranking officers across this country that I truly respect — they took a risk. And that is disrupting the status quo, the norm of most law enforcement agencies, which don't see the value in specific populations or people. And I'm referring to people who have made past mistakes.
The Chief mentioned that four-year-old. I was 13 years old when a young man was shot in front of me, just maybe 15, 20 yards in front of me. And the impact that it had was that in the following year I joined a street gang. And I did so for two main reasons.
One, I was embarrassed of what my parents did for a living. My mother worked in a factory, and my dad worked fixing cars. And my neighbors were all landscapers and working in hotels. So, there was no pride. I would look at sit-com shows on TV and be, like, “Why isn't my family or my neighborhood like that?”
The other reason is I was the oldest of five siblings, and I wanted to make sure that I could protect them. The only way that a 14-year-old thinks about how to protect their siblings is that by joining a gang, I have this other group of people who are just as lost as I am, who are going to be able to protect each other.
The Chief grew up on the West Side of Chicago, just a few miles away from where I grew up, but very similar. And yet the Chief made decisions in his life that allowed him to be where he is right now. I made decisions based on my understanding of the world as a 14-year-old that led me to go to prison.
Most of the time when people see someone like me, they see an ex-gang member. They see someone who went into the system, who made mistakes, and they're beyond redemption. I will tell you that I'm a person who feels convicted, who feels that I did harm as a kid. And I'm trying to find my way to amend that. And the only way that I know how is by doing the work that I do.
So, following the incident with George Floyd, there was rioting all over the country. Here in Chicago, there was a lot of rioting and a lot of looting. Stores in the communities were being vandalized. We're talking about your mom-and-pop kind of stores.
So, I took a calculated risk and reached out to the McCormick Foundation and said, "Hey, I know you have a strong relationship with the Chicago Bulls and the Blackhawks. Can you find out if I could use their parking lot to convene some community leaders, so to speak, to engage them in the conversation around how can we reduce this violence? Because it's becoming racial now.”
Sure enough, within 48 hours, I had the spot. We had maybe 20-plus people in this parking lot. There was security around the perimeter to ensure that nothing was going to happen. And I remember being with two Latinos, and 18 or 20 African-American leaders. And we really kind of argued back and forth. And at the end of that argument or conversation, there was a truce that happened there.
Chief, you can take it from there.
ERNIE CATO: Michigan Avenue in Chicago is the economic engine of the city. But there's also economic engines within the neighborhoods. In the Little Village community that engine is 26th Street. You had Latin gangs protecting 26th Street and those shops. If someone Black drove through, the gangs assumed that they were going to loot the stores. So, they would throw debris at the cars and attack the cars when people were in them. That almost caused a race war. You had Black gangs that wanted to go in there and retaliate and attack the Latin gangs.
Some of the outreach workers contacted me and wanted to hold a summit in a park with the heads of the Black gangs and the heads of the Latin gangs. When they mentioned that, the vein in my neck was just throbbing. So, I kept it quiet. I didn't tell anyone about it. I got my small core of officers together and I explained to them, "You're going to stay on the perimeter and out of the way."
Now, this could've gone bad. But it didn't. What happened was, we had Latin gangs and we had Black gangs coming into this one park to barbecue and play softball. They all came together and all I asked them was, "Do not look at the opposing gangs' girlfriends, please, because it'll be war.” But the bottom line is, in the next days after that, there were marches. And the marches were Black and Brown marching down the street together, talking about unity.
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: Gangs are a part of the community, whether we like it or not. Some gang members are bad. Some are just lost.
People don't wake up one morning, or they're not born and say, "Hey, I'm going to be a gang member." Things happen in their lives that in some cases are forced, and in other cases they are born into. And in other cases, they make decisions based on what's around them. That's the reality.
And if there are ways that we could proactively engage them, then we're able to alter the way they see themselves in the community. That's the most profound thing that we're trying to do, right? We're trying to build community.
In these communities, people make mistakes and make bad decisions at times based the on circumstances that they're in. But, nevertheless, they're still people. And their decisions impact the rest of their nuclear family, whether they have kids, cousins, siblings. So, we have to figure out a way to create a new trajectory for those individuals.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Very well said. Chief Cato and Eddie, this has really been a great conversation. Thank you so much for the work you're doing on Community Violence Intervention. I really so appreciate you joining me here today on Justice Today. Thank you.
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: Thank you, Karen.
ERNIE CATO: Thank you for having me.
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