Abstract: Between a Bullet and Its Target: Street Intervention, Trauma Exposure, Professional Consequences (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Between a Bullet and Its Target: Street Intervention, Trauma Exposure, Professional Consequences

Thursday, January 13, 2022
Liberty Ballroom I, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Kathryn Bocanegra, PhD, Doctoral Student, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
Nathan Aguilar, LCSW, Doctoral Student, Columbia University, NY
Jeanette Lee, AM, Researcher, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose

Over the past decade Chicago has sustained public criticism in its continual struggle to reduce shootings and homicides. 2016 recorded 762 of homicides, an 83% increase from the previous 3 years[1]. 2019, 80.7% of the homicide victims were Black, and 86% of the community areas with over 25 homicides were Black[2]. There is a clear spatial and racial concentration of violent deaths in Chicago. Chicago’s city government and philanthropic community responded by funding the expansion of evidence-based street intervention programs. Street intervention work involves proactive community engagement of individuals who are involved in gangs, cliques, or other street organizations to reduce their risk of violence perpetration or victimization. At a time when distrust in police is exceptionally high, street intervention workers are the primary reference point for safety in Chicago’s Black and Latinx neighborhoods. Street intervention workers in Chicago’s black and Latinx neighborhoods stand between bullets and their targets on a daily basis.

Street intervention work carries unexamined trauma exposure with potentially grave consequences. The study examines forms of traumatic exposure that take place during street intervention work and the responses to manage this exposure. The research objectives were to identify forms of traumatic exposure that take place during street intervention work and analyze the responses (cognitive, emotional, and behavioral) of street intervention professionals. The research also aimed to identify organizational supports or best practices to mitigate the effects of traumatic exposure.


35 semi-structured interviews were conducted with street intervention workers and their supervisors in Chicago between January and March 2021. The research team recruited participants through outreach to community-based violence prevention organizations who were members of a city-wide coalition titled Communities Partnering for Peace. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed using constant comparative and thematic analysis qualitative methods.


The primary forms of traumatic stress identified by street intervention staff included direct threats to their safety via mediations involving street organizations, vicarious trauma through working with individuals affected by gun violence, and structural violence. Analyses also identify mechanisms by which non-profits compound or mitigate this trauma through the support systems developed for their street intervention team.

Conclusion and Implications:

The research team developed a training module and manual centering the experiences of street intervention workers and reframing how trauma is understood within violence prevention practice, how it is manifested in the workplace and at home, and opportunities to mitigate its negative effects. The organizational practices highlighted in the study bear broader implications related to building more robust, community-based public safety infrastructure in ways that do not rely on law enforcement. This infrastructure is built on the wellbeing of primarily Black and Latinx frontline street intervention workers, therefore an understanding of their trauma exposure and the development of a comprehensive support system for their work is necessary for sustained violence reduction efforts in Black and Latinx neighborhoods.

[1][2] Citizen Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting System (2020). Crimes- 2011 to present. Accessed October 15th: https://data.cityofchicago.org/browse?category=Public%20Safety