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Why Chicago is shuttering anti-violence programs amid spike in shootings

Operation CeaseFire deployed former gang members and felons to intervene in confrontations that can often lead to violence, but a political stalemate has left the program empty handed.

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Autry Phillips (l.) director of Target Area Development in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood, talks with area resident Justin Garner during a walk along 79th Street, Sept. 3. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner froze funding for the anti-violence program Operation CeaseFire because of the state budget crisis, forcing Target Area and other organizations to shut down the program at a time of year when shootings spike.

Sara Burnett/AP

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It might be politics as usual, but to some it’s a matter of life and death.

A prominent Chicago anti-violence program has lost its funding due to a political stalemate in the Illinois state government.  

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Operation CeaseFire deployed former gang members and felons to intervene in confrontations that can often lead to violence. It was brought to national prominence by the 2011 documentary “The Interrupters.” Researchers say gang involvement, shootings, and retaliatory killings have dropped since the introduction of the program.

When Illinois began running out of money because of a severe state budget deficit, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner froze money for the anti-violence program. CeaseFire was cut off before it could receive all $4.7 million it was allocated for the previous fiscal year.

Governor Rauner and Democrats, who control the legislature, are waging a political battle over the state budget while programs in Chicago and elsewhere are shuttered.

Chicago is grappling with gun violence nearly unmatched by any other city in the United States. Shootings and homicides are up 20 percent in the Midwest city compared to this time last year.

"Our kids in our communities are still dying," Autry Phillips told the Associated Press. He is the executive director of Target Area Development, a nonprofit organization on Chicago's South Side that was forced to end its CeaseFire program. "We're going to do what we can do, but we need funding. That's the bottom line."

Before this current freeze in funding, Rauner proposed cutting CeaseFire’s budget by nearly $3 million. A spokeswoman for the governor held Democrats responsible, citing their opposition to Rauner’s business-friendly agenda, which includes weakening labor unions. Rauner is a first time office holder and former venture capitalist. 

"The governor has asked for structural reforms to free up resources to balance the budget, help the most vulnerable and create jobs," spokeswoman Lyndsey Walters said earlier this week. "Unfortunately, the majority party continues to block the governor's reforms and refuses to pass a balanced budget."

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After Chicago police criticized the program because they said the staff wasn’t collaborating with law enforcement, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013 canceled a one-year, $1 million contract for CeaseFire programs in two neighborhoods.

Today, six Chicago neighborhoods still have CeaseFire programs, while more than 12 have closed in nearby communities because of funding cuts.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.