Cops and Communities

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photo2A Cincinnati experiment has changed the way police deal with gang violence

Cincinnati is at the leading edge of a nationwide experiment to reduce gang homicides and shootings. Modeled loosely after the Boston Gun Project from the mid-1990s, the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) was launched in April 2007 as an alternative to traditional policing strategies.

“We dealt with spikes in crime by putting 200 cops into a neighborhood for two weeks,” recalled Cincinnati police chief Tom Streicher, who was in New York City this week at a conference of the National Network for Safe Communities. “Crime went down, but citizens' complaints soared though the roof–and we couldn't understand why everyone was mad at us. “

A few days after police ended their surge, he added ruefully, “things went right back to the way they were.”

Streicher and other U.S. police chiefs who have tried the alternative strategy, which entails close collaboration between law enforcement and neighborhood leaders, say it has sharply reduced violent crime in their cities and eased community tensions. But can the strategy sustain lower crime rates over a long period. Is it easily replicable?

One unusual aspect of the Cincinnati experiment is the heavy involvement of criminologists, who are evaluating the the project as it is going on in an effort to find answers to those and similar questions. A research team at the University of Cincinnati, led by Robin Engel with the help of research associates Timothy Godsey, Billy Henson and Jessica Dunham, recently completed the second year of a long-term study of the CIRV project. Based on crime data analyzed so far, the study suggests the initiative has been successful. Comparing two- year periods before and after it started, homicides declined by 36 percent. It is still to early to report significant drops in gun violence, the researchers caution.

The study has added to the growing national attention paid to these alternative policing strategies, pioneered in Boston by criminologist David Kennedy , who is now Director of the Center on Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. At least 43 states and jurisdictions have since joined the National Network for Safe Communities, a coalition of police chiefs, prosecutors, community leaders, street workers, scholars and others aimed at spreading and implementing the strategy on a national level. More than 300 people attended the Network's two-day inaugural conference in New York, which opened December 2.

“It is time to make this work the national standard of practice,” John Jay President Jeremy Travis said in his welcoming address to the conference. “This is an opportunity to change the direction of crime policy in America.”

The Cincinnati study provides a detailed account of how the city's police force implemented the anti-violence strategy, which is based essentially on identifying gang members and then calling them in for a meeting, or a series of meetings, attended by both law enforcement and community representatives. There, they are told that they have two choices: they can continue their lawbreaking activities and face severe punishment; or they can agree to accept counseling or other services aimed at dealing with the problems that contributed to their gang participation.

The deep involvement of community leaders , parents and pastors, whose moral authority carries a powerful impact, combined with the threat of punishment acts as a form of focused deterrence, say adherents of the model. Similar strategies directed at gang members or drug dealers in cities like High Point, NC, Providence, RI and Hempstead, NY have resulted in a marked falloff in gang violence and the disappearance of open-air narcotics markets

In Cincinnati, CIRV project members were organized in four teams: Law Enforcement, Services, Community Engagement, and Systems. The teams use data-driven approaches, and are routinely evaluated to ensure quality and sustainability.

Unlike many traditional anti-crime programs, Cincinnati borrowed from strategies widely used in the business world to set its goals and strategies. For example, authorities developed methods of systematic data collection, a comprehensive services plan, and a style of executive-level leadership and commitment that involved a number of players, ranging for local, state and federal agencies to church leaders.

However, the University of Cincinnati researchers noted, the city was also able to learn from the shortcomings of earlier plans. The Boston project, though successful at first, was unable to sustain its efforts beyond an 18-24 month period. To avoid that outcome, authorities developed a “systems team” overseen by University of Cincinnati Policing Institute and the Cincinnati Police Department to ensure continuity and regular monitoring.

The collaboration has included innovative notification strategies, data-driven enforcement, and community educational efforts. Along with call-in sessions for gang members to hear from law enforcement officials at a court house, the team has utilized community-based call-ins (known as Community Engagement Gatherings), home-visits, and notification letters to spread the stop-the-violence message. There, gang members listen to entreaties from parents of murdered children,

The University of Cincinnati staff have developed tools to track and monitor treatment delivery to gang members and quantify the efforts of Street Advocates, a group of former offenders that serve as outreach workers, coaches, and mentors.

This “Services” Team has evolved considerably and now comprises a social service agency, an employment agency, and street advocates, according to University of Cincinnati researcher Timothy Godsey . The general strategy, he wrote in an email, is to form and improve a “life-change system” that successfully engages members of violence-prone groups and moves them into a conventional non-violent lifestyle.

To date, more than 400 individuals have contacted the street advocates to learn more about the services available. Over 115 have completed job training, and 61 are currently employed.

The study is continuing. But CIRV has already had a demonstrable life-changing impact on some young people who were once considered dangerous and unredeemable.

At this week's conference, Cincinnati's Chief Streicher pointed to two men in the audience and asked them to stand up. Neatly dressed in dark suits, both stood, heads held high, to face the inquisitive audience. Streicher named the men as Dante Ingram and Clarence Williams, now part of the city's street advocate team. “That is why I get up in the morning,” said Streicher.

Both men, he continued, were among the first to participate in CIRV's call-in meetings with police and community leaders. They once had been considered by police as part of a hostile force endangering the peace of their neighborhoods; but today, he said, “We stand shoulder to shoulder.”

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