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The NYPD Hopes to Help Rehabilitate Gang Members With Pizza Parties

As part of a program to fight youth violence, the NYPD has been inviting members of rival gangs to come eat cheese pizza and gain some food for thought.

Who doesn't enjoy kicking back with some buds, inhaling a few slices and a couple of sides of breadsticks, and washing it down with some semi-flat cola?

The NYPD agrees—which is why they hope to fight youth violence by inviting (or rather, mandating that) members of rival gangs to come hang out with them and eat some cheese pizza.

As noted in The New York Post (which, in typical fashion, insisted on the highly sensationalized headline of "NYPD throws pizza parties for gangbangers"), the New York Police Department has arranged several pizza-fueled get-togethers for criminals from some of the city's most dangerous gangs, such as the Wave Gang, the Very Crispy Gangsters (no word on whether they prefer very crispy pizza crusts), and the Rockstarz. But the aim of these gatherings isn't just to sit back and snack—it's to hopefully inspire young criminals to turn their lives around, stay out of trouble, and seek new means of nonviolent conflict resolution with their peers.

The pizza parties are part of a nationwide pilot program called Cure Violence (originally founded in Chicago by University of Illinois professor Gary Slutkin under the name CeaseFire). Devised by David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the gatherings intend to build bridges and reduce violent crime through the evocation of a simple message: "Everybody here cares about you. Everybody here respects you," in David's words. Cure Violence uses the same tactics employed in disease control (Slutkin is a Professor of Epidemiology and International Health at University of Illinois's Chicago School of Public Health) to fight crime, essentially treating violence, quite literally, as an epidemic. Exposure to violence in one's community begets violence; it's only through education and treatment that its spread can be minimized.

And the numbers back it up. In New York City's program known regionally as Operation SNUG, for example, all seven areas targeted with the initiative experienced a substantial decline—15 to 40 percent—in shootings during the two years following the launch of Cure Violence.

"The Post story is about as wrong as a story can be," David tells me over email, referring to the article's implication that the police are hosting the events to buddy up with gang members. "There's a very large and complicated intervention here to prevent gang violence, in which dinner is sometimes offered at the end. But dinner is hardly the point."

The New York branch of the Cure Violence program works with young men between the ages of 15 and 24 years in tandem with local community organizations in areas hit hard by gang violence such as Central Harlem, Crown Heights, and East New York. There's a lot more to the program than just cheese and crust—the three main strategies are to detect and interrupt potentially violent conflicts, identify and treat high-risk groups and individuals, and mobilize local communities to respond to violence with objection and spread positive norms. But when urging gang members to listen to the advice of police and preachers, it probably doesn't hurt to offer them some of America's most beloved convenience food.

Back to the pizza. The first such event took place late last year, in early December 2014, at a Masonic temple in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene. (Did they have the Margherita from Graziella's? Perhaps the Bianca from Lean Crust?)

At the event, the 16 gangsters present—all of whom were required to attend as terms of their parole or probation, with many having been convicted of homicide, shootings, or robberies—were mainly there for food for thought (though they likely appreciated the pizza). Local preachers, social workers, police officers, and prosecutors offered guidance and motivational fodder on topics including how to earn a GED and how to get admission to substance abuse rehabilitation and job-placement assistance programs, with a healthy dose of cautionary advice as well on the possible repercussions of continuing the gang lifestyle.

Chief of Department James O'Neill, who was present at the gathering, reportedly told attendees that "this was an opportunity to walk away from your lifestyle. And if you don't, and you stay associated with your gang or crew, and a murder is committed, then we're coming after everybody."

The good cop–bad cop routine seems to have made an impression, as attendance swelled to 22 participants at the subsequent March 4 meeting.

Hopefully, for those present, pizza and positivity will go hand in hand.