As the small group of ex-offenders gathers in a storefront in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, Cobe Williams – formerly jailed himself on four separate occasions for drug possession and aggravated battery – listens closely as they trade news from the troubled streets.
A recent shooting left one man dead. Another put a second man in the hospital. Before those or other beefs could lead to more violence in the form of revenge or retaliation, the group will head out – as its members do most nights – to infiltrate the neighborhood’s social circles, using their street credibility to build relationships and “interrupt” the spread of further shooting before it can happen.
“They know what’s going on,” says Williams, 43, a former “interrupter” who now trains others. “They’ve got to.”
The effort – which goes under different names in the several U.S. cities where it’s having an impact – is part of the expanding national and international Cure Violence model shaped by Gary Slutkin, a University of Illinois-Chicago public health professor and epidemiologist who’s applying the lessons he learned battling infectious diseases to target an epidemic of killing.
And it works: After Cure Violence launched in Chicago in 2000, shootings dropped between 41 percent and 73 percent in the seven communities studied by Northwestern University. “These are lifesaving services,” says Daniel Webster, with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
For Williams, it’s about more than that: It’s redemption, both for himself and for those he knew growing up on these same streets, not all of whom survived.
“I lost a lot of friends to gun violence – a lot of friends locked up,” says the father of a 20-year-old son. He admits that he patterned his early years on his own father, whom he calls a “big-time drug dealer” who lost his life to street violence when Williams was 11.
“I want to watch my son grow up. I don’t want him to go through this,” he says. “People I used to run the streets with, they call me their hero now.”
To read more about the Cure Violence program’s success, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.