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Program Profile: Project Safe Neighborhoods (Chicago)

Evidence Rating: Promising - One study Promising - One study

Date: This profile was posted on July 13, 2012

Program Summary

This is a comprehensive antiviolence initiative that uses collaborative strategies to alter perceived costs and benefits of gun violence and is intended to reduce illegal gun offending among ex-offenders. The program is rated Promising. Treatment districts experienced a 37 percent reduction in quarterly homicide rates and fewer gun-related homicides. There was a modest reduction of aggravated battery/assaults in the treatment district areas.

Program Description

Program Goals
The Chicago, Ill.–based Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) is part of a nationwide federally funded initiative designed to bring federal, state, and local law enforcement together to promote “a comprehensive and strategic approach to reducing gun crime” (Papachristos, Meares, and Fagan 2007, 225). The initiative promotes several context-specific strategies that can be implemented across various cities. Specifically, Chicago’s PSN program is based on three broad goals: 1) to reduce demand among gun offenders; 2) to reduce supply by identifying and intervening in illegal gun markets; and 3) to prevent the onset of gun violence. The demand and reduction goals rely on a combination of efforts to increase perceived costs of illegal gun use to change the behavior of offenders with histories of gun violence. The prevention component is intended to alter perceived notions about the legitimacy of the law and perceived costs of punishment to deter potential gun-related offending.

Target Population
PSN is targeted mainly at individuals who are most likely to be involved in firearm violence—presumably, exoffenders with a history of gun offending. The initiative also concentrates on areas with a high likelihood of gun violence, such as neighborhoods with disproportionately high levels of gang activity and poverty.

Program Components
The majority of Chicago’s PSN strategies take place at the community level. These include community outreach and media campaigns, school-based programs, and various programs specifically geared toward known gun offenders. The most influential strategy applied at the community level is the use of offender notification meetings for exoffenders. PSN also implements multiagency case review and prosecutorial decisions, as well as law enforcement strategies to combat illegal gun offending.

  • Offender notification meetings. This component is unique to the Chicago PSN initiative, and is the one that is most directly consistent with its goals of changing normative perceptions of gun crime among the offending population. The meetings are intended for offenders with a history of gun violence or gang participation who were recently assigned to parole or probation, and are held twice a month. Meetings consist of three segments, each of which is designed to promote a specific aspect of the PSN initiative. The first segment entails participation from law enforcement representatives, who discuss details of PSN efforts and highlight gun laws and sentences for exoffenders. The second segment involves a presentation from an exoffender from the community, who is usually an older former gang leader who works as a street intervention worker. During this segment, the speaker discusses his personal experiences with crime and his decision to reform his behavior. The third segment emphasizes available opportunities for exoffenders, using speakers from various community programs, including substance-abuse assistance, temporary shelter, job training, mentorship and union training, education and GED courses, and behavior counseling. During this segment, several local employers also present information on available employment opportunities in the community.
  • Multiagency gun recoveries. This component entails the unification of a law enforcement team specifically intended to increase the rate of gun seizures. The team consists of agents from the Chicago Police Department; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; the Cook County (Ill.) State Attorney’s Office; the U.S. Attorney’s Office; and the City of Chicago’s Department of Drug and Gang House Enforcement. The goal of the team is to concentrate all available resources on gun crime in target areas, emphasizing supply-side firearm policing activities. The team has two main roles: to investigate cases surrounding gun trafficking, use, and sales in target areas, and to conduct gun seizures and serve warrants for pending firearm cases.
  • Federal prosecutions. In this component, the PSN task force assigns local and federal prosecutors to meet on a biweekly basis to review every gun case in Chicago to determine whether they should be prosecuted at the state or federal level. Prosecutions at the federal level are much more severe than those at the state level, so these cases are reserved for more serious offenses. The goal of the review process is to identify cases 1) involving an offender with a previous history of gun violence, 2) that fall within the target area, and 3) that have an accompanying severe or aggravating circumstance that qualifies the case for federal prosecution.
  • Federal sentencing. This component is intended to increase severity of punishment for gun offenders, and is based on the fact that federal prosecutions for gun offenses are accompanied by lengthier sentences. While program activities do not directly affect sentencing practices, the severity of potential punishments for gun crime are communicated to the general public through PSN billboard and radio advertisements, and to target populations during offender notification meetings.
Key Personnel
The Chicago PSN initiative elicits the participation of a multiagency task force of members from law enforcement and local community agencies, including representatives from the Chicago Police Department, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the Illinois Department of Corrections, the Cook County Department of Probation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois, the City of Chicago Corporation Counsel, the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, and the Chicago Crime Commission.

Program Theory
The PSN Chicago strategy is based on a strong theoretical framework, applying principles from criminological theories of deterrence and incapacitation, in addition to norm-based psychological theories of behavioral economics. Deterrence strategies stress the severity, certainty, and swiftness of a sanction’s effectiveness to reduce a specific type of offending. This theory ties in ideas of rational choice criminology, as it is based on the notion that increased sanctions will increase a criminal’s perceived risks of committing an offense, thus deterring him or her from carrying out the act. PSN techniques rely on a combination of efforts to increase perceived costs of illegal gun use for the purposes of promoting deterrence. Several components of PSN demonstrate principles of deterrence through the demonstration of increased sanctions for gun offending, including the increase of federal prosecutions and the use of offender forums to inform targeted populations of sanctions for gun offending.

The criminological theory of incapacitation is based on the notion that crime can be reduced by removing high-risk offenders from society. PSN Chicago applies this approach to its strategies, evidenced by the emphasis on exoffenders with histories of gun use, as well as the emphasis on increasing prosecutions for gun offenders. Finally, the psychological norm-based approach relies on the idea that people comply with the law when they respect their governing authority and believe the law is legitimate. This theory is based on a belief in the fairness of legal norms and procedures to promote the underlying moral bases of law. PSN Chicago applies this approach to alter perceived social norms and preferences within high-crime areas in Chicago. This is evidenced by the use of offender notification forums, which are intended to increase social marketing of deterrence and social norms messages, as well as to stress potential consequences of gun use and available alternatives. This approach ties back into the theory of deterrence and incapacitation, as the program relies on increased severity of sanctions to promote knowledge of potential risks of offending to reduce gun violence.

Additional Information
The Chicago PSN initiative borrowed techniques from two similar violence-reduction programs, Richmond, Va.’s Project Exile and Boston Mass.’s Operation Ceasefire. Project Exile used a deterrence model in which lengthy prison sentences for felonious gun carrying would be actively pursued by federal authorities in a geographically targeted manner, while Operation Ceasefire concentrated on selective targeting of a specified high-risk population of known gun offenders. To combine these two approaches, Chicago targeted gun offending in high-crime geographic areas, while also targeting the high-risk population of known gun offenders.

Evaluation Outcomes

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Study 1

Total Homicide Rate

According to the evaluation by Papachristos, Meares, and Fagan (2007), the Chicago, Ill.–based Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) treatment districts experienced a statistically significant, 37 percent reduction in quarterly homicide rates during the observation period. Specifically, the average quarterly homicide rate decreased to 24.2 per quarter after PSN, compared with a rate of 38.2 before program implementation. The city as a whole and the control districts specifically experienced declines in the homicide rate during the intervention period, but these changes were modest in comparison with the reductions seen in the treatment group, and were not statistically significant.


The analysis of the impact of individual PSN strategies indicated that the use of offender notification forums had the largest impact on the overall reduction in the homicides. Additionally, the analysis indicated that federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) gun seizures were (modestly) significantly associated with a reduction in homicides. Prosecutions were modestly associated with a statistically significant decrease in total homicide (p=.030).


Gun-Related Homicide Rate

The analysis indicated that PSN treatment areas experienced a significantly significant reduction in gun-related homicides. The researchers found that areas with higher dosages of PSN strategies as a whole experienced statistically significant reductions in gun-related homicides.


Specifically, the analysis of the impact of ATF seizures indicated that the logged gun-related homicide rate decreased by nearly 2 percent for every 10 guns recovered in a beat. This translates into the logged gun homicide rate decreasing by about 18 percent for every 100 guns recovered. These results indicate the beneficial impact of multiagency gun recoveries in reducing gun-related offending. PSN prosecutions and offender notification forums were also statistically significantly associated with reductions in gun homicides.


Gang-Related Homicide Rate

The analysis indicated a statistically insignificant reduction of gang homicides in treatment district areas. ­The percentage of offenders who attended the offender notification forums was associated with a significant reduction (p<.001), and the number of prosecutions was also associated with a modestly significant reduction (p<.10).


Aggravated Assault/Aggravated Battery Arrest Rate

The analysis indicated a statistically significant modest reduction of aggravated battery/assaults in treatment district areas. None of the isolated PSN components were found to significantly affect the number of aggravated batteries.

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Evaluation Methodology

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Study 1

Papachristos, Meares, and Fagan (2007) conducted an evaluation of the Chicago, Ill.–based Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) initiative in reducing gun-related offenses, applying a quasi-experimental design with a near-equivalent control group. Based on data on the concentration of homicide and gun violence, treatment and control districts were selected nonrandomly from the city’s 25 police districts. The units of analysis were 54 police beats, each approximately one square mile and with approximately 7,600 residents. Two adjacent police districts were selected as PSN Chicago treatment districts. The PSN group consisted of a cluster of 24 police beats on Chicago’s West Side and was selected based on the area’s disproportionately high levels of gun violence. Two other districts were used as near-equivalent control groups and were eligible if 1) they could roughly approximate the high homicide, gun violence, and social/demographic patterns of the PSN areas but 2) were geographically and socially separated from the treatment area to avoid contamination. A cluster of 30 police beats was selected to use as control beats.


Data was collected from the Chicago Police Department; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF); and the Illinois Department of Corrections. The data spanned a 72-month period from January 1999 to December 2004 and was collapsed to 24 quarter-year periods for analysis. Offender notification meetings began in January 2003 and continued after the end of the data collection period in December 2004.


To assess the impact of PSN’s effectiveness, several measures were used as indicators of crime, including total homicide, gang homicide, gun homicide, and aggravated battery. Individual growth curve models using mixed effects regression were used to detect the influence of the various PSN measures on violence rates over time. The authors estimated propensity scores for each of the beats in the study and included those scores in the model to reduce potential threats presented by nonrandom group assignment. The use of offender notification meetings was the most viable component to isolate the impact of PSN, as the remaining components (multiagency gun recoveries, federal prosecutions, and federal sentencing) were applied throughout the entire city and could not be divided between treatment and control areas for analysis. The impact of multiagency gun recoveries was assessed using the average ATF gun seizure rate, which was measured and factored into an analysis of the strategy’s effects on total homicides and gun-related homicides. This technique was used to assess the impact of the supply-side strategies of PSN, and was quantified as the number of ATF gun seizures per police beat per quarter.


  • Total homicide rate. This measure was used to assess changes in lethal criminal violence. Homicide totals were computed from incident-level police records geocoded to the beat level by the address of the incident.
  • Gun-related homicide rate. This measure was used to assess homicides that involved a firearm, to isolate the program’s impact on serious gun violence. Data was disaggregated by whether a firearm was used in the homicide.
  • Gang-related homicide rate. This measure was used to assess homicides that were gang-related, to isolate the program’s impact on gang violence. Data was disaggregated by whether the homicide was gang-related.
  • Aggravated assault/aggravated battery arrest rate. This measure was used to assess firearm-involved criminal violence, to isolate the program’s impact on nonfatal offending. This data was created from incident-level police records that were geocoded to the police beat.
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There is no cost information available for this program.
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Evidence-Base (Studies Reviewed)

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These sources were used in the development of the program profile:

Study 1
Papachristos, Andrew V., Tracey L. Meares, and Jeffrey Fagan. 2007. “Attention Felons: Evaluating Project Safe Neighborhoods in Chicago.” Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 4(2):223–72.
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Additional References

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These sources were used in the development of the program profile:

Meares, Tracey L., Andrew V. Papachristos, and Jeffrey Fagan. 2009. “Homicide and Gun Violence in Chicago: Evaluation and Summary of the Project Safe Neighborhoods Program.” Research Brief.

Meares, Tracey L., and Andrew V. Papachristos. 2009. “The Reentry of Violent Offenders in Chicago: Summary of the Project Safe Neighborhoods’ Offender Notification Forums.” Research Brief.

Project Safe Neighborhoods Chicago Web site. 2012.
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Related Practices

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Following are practices that are related to this program:

Focused Deterrence Strategies
Problem-oriented policing strategies that follow the core principles of deterrence theory. The practice is rated Promising. The evaluation found that focused deterrence strategies (also referred to as “pulling levers" policing) can reduce crime.

Evidence Ratings for Outcomes:
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types

Reducing Gun Violence
Reducing gun violence is a persistent public policy concern for communities, policymakers and leaders. To reduce gun violence, several strategies have been deployed including public health approaches (e.g., training and safe gun storage); gun buy-back programs; gun laws; and law enforcement strategies. The practice is rated Promising for reducing violent gun offenses.

Evidence Ratings for Outcomes:
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Violent offenses
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Program Snapshot

Gender: Both

Geography: Urban

Setting (Delivery): Other Community Setting, High Crime Neighborhoods/Hot Spots

Program Type: Community Awareness/Mobilization, Gang Prevention/Intervention, Wraparound/Case Management, Community Crime Prevention , Violence Prevention, General deterrence

Targeted Population: Serious/Violent Offender, Gang Members

Current Program Status: Active

Andrew Papachristos
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Department of Sociology
200 Hicks Way, Thompson Hall 728
Amherst MA 01003
Phone: 415.545.0443