Some of the urban neighborhoods singled out as the most violent places in the country are mislabeled, says a former senior Department of Justice official.
According to Thomas Abt, a former chief of staff for the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs who is now a Senior Research Fellow with the Center for International Development at Harvard University, a better description of them would be peaceful places plagued by a “few hot spots.”
Redefining them in that way can help shape more effective programs to reduce violent crime—and especially gun violence— in America, Abt told participants Wednesday, at a panel in the second and final day of the “Smart on Crime” conference at John Jay College.
“The most effective strategies are the specific ones,” said Abt, who is also a former deputy secretary for public safety for New York State. “(These) engage the highest risk places and people.”
Experts who advocate focusing on issues like poverty, guns or “cultural values,” are in effect concentrating on “everything besides the problem, which is that violence concentrates in hot spots,” he said.
Other members of the panel, entitled “Reducing Crime and Violence,” agreed.
“We can reduce crime with less law enforcement,” said David Kennedy, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College and director of the National Network for Safe Communities.
“Most murderers are not serial killers—locking up one does not affect the next one,” said Kennedy, who moderated the panel.
He added that there were now many examples of anti-violence programs that work, where “ordinary people can make a difference.”
Violence in a few at-risk neighborhoods probably accounted for the startling 60% increase in Chicago’s homicide rate between 2015 and 2016, suggested Roseanna Ander, Executive Director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
“When you have three million people in the city, 60% is a lot of people—it was a historical event (in which) the increase in homicide each month was higher than the homicide rate for the same month the year before.”
Policymakers’ failure to fund local community intervention programs might also have accounted for the increase, she said.
“In the state of Illinois, we had two years of not passing a budget,” Anders said. “The institutions set up in neighborhoods that work with highest risk population were decimated by the budget crisis.”
Devone Boggan, Founding Director of Advance Peace also noted the lack of programs and institutions in place to prevent gun violence in many cities.
Advance Peace works with “a targeted group of individuals at the core of gun hostilities, and bridges the gap between anti-violence programming and a hard-to-reach population at the center of violence in urban areas,” he said.
“What I found out trying to locate the right people is that we didn’t have any place to take them,” said Boggan. “What became real for us was…the options we had weren’t attractive, legitimate, or credible to the population.”
Boggan and his team then decided to meet face to face with active firearm offenders and ask, “what can work?”
“What we found is these active firearm offenders are waiting for us to show up with something, they wanted to be engaged every day,” he said. “They wanted to trust social services, but found it difficult to. They needed to be taken to those social services.”
“They needed to be walked through that door and stayed with until they said, ‘I’m ready to do this on my own.’”
It can be difficult for those in the criminal justice system to trust social service providers, as well as the police officers in their community.
In communities where gun violence is prominent, most community members know who the violent offenders are, and they expect their local policemen to know as well.
“We keep officers in the same area to gain the trust of the community” said Robert Tracy, Police Chief of the Wilmington, Del. Police Department. “We are not about arresting everyone, just the most violent individuals.
“Lowering crime, reducing murders, and arresting less people. Isn’t that the goal?”
Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.