Why Tackling Urban Violence Should Be First on America’s Domestic Agenda

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“Agree or disagree with him, but by all means read him.”

That’s The New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb’s take on Thomas Abt, whose just-published book, “Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence—And a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets,” offers a blueprint to cut homicides in half in the United States in just eight years.

Abt, a senior research fellow at the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a former Deputy Secretary for Public Safety to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and a former Obama-era Department of Justice administrator and Manhattan prosecutor, flips liberal conventional wisdom about the relationship between violence and entrenched poverty on its head.

He argues that urban violence is often a driver, rather than an outgrowth, of structural disadvantage. He does this while shutting down racist cultural finger-pointing from the right.

Whereas strong emotion has tended to dominate the public dialogue on criminal justice, Abt’s book leans into impact evaluations, interviews, and systematic reviews to build a framework for violence reduction that is at once non-ideological and internally coherent.

Given the swirling debates among politicians, criminal justice practitioners, advocates, and the public about the appropriate role and size of the justice system, Abt’s work is a thoughtful, research-driven examination of some of the thorniest, most painful issues in American public and private life.

The Crime Report sat down with him at the National Network for Safe Communities 5th biennial conference on violence prevention at John Jay College last week to discuss the substance of his book and its place in the broader national criminal justice reform movement.

Below is the transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for clarity and lightly abridged.

The Crime Report: America’s urban landscape is seeing transformational, generationally significant changes. Yet many have come to view urban violence as intractable. In your book, you identify violence as the urban problem with the most urgency, placing it ahead of other problems such as housing unaffordability and homelessness or educational equity. Why is urban violence the most urgent of these issues?

Thomas Abt: That is a very important question, and it’s important to get right. I’m not arguing that affordable housing, quality education, or any other structural challenge facing America’s poorest communities is less important than urban violence. I’m just making an argument about the order in which you might address them. I’m not arguing that urban violence is the only way to address issues of economic and social equity. I’m not even arguing that it’s the most important way.

Thomas Abt

Thomas Abt

I’m simply arguing that, as a matter of sequence, if you tackle urban violence first, or at least alongside these other issues, it will make all those struggles easier, and it will make those other important equity outcomes more achievable.

I’m committed to pursuing economic and social justice. I wouldn’t be happy with an America that is poor and unequal but safe. That said, in terms of how we get there, I don’t think we’re fully accounting for the salience and urgency of urban violence.

TCR: You also state that by addressing the problem of urban violence, you are also unlocking the ability to address these other problems. Say, when you address urban violence specifically, you then pave the way for economic mobility. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

Abt: Yes. When you look at concentrated poverty, i.e. the intersection of poor-quality education and housing, environmental health hazards, food deserts, and so on, one of the key forces holding these things together and [that] keeps them in place are high levels of serious and potentially lethal violence. If concentrated poverty is a knot and all these different problems are threads, then urban violence is the hand that pulls the strings tighter, making them harder to tease out.

When I was in the Obama administration, I was one of the founding members of the Neighborhood Revitalization Working Group, a multi-agency group working on ways to transform the nation’s most distressed communities. As the Department of Justice representative, I would argue that public safety can and should do some of the essential blocking and tackling for other revitalization efforts in order to make them more successful.

It’s important to understand that all these outcomes are linked and that public safety should not be placed in competition with these other outcomes. Having a more peaceful community is going to make our other goals easier to accomplish.

TCR: When looking to address urban violence, we must first define what we count as violence. You’re not including structural violence, such as the collateral or direct harm caused by economic systems or institutions, but that aren’t the same as the tip of a blade or the barrel of a gun. You’re not denying that these harms exist, but that we should tailor our approach to this one, somewhat narrow, definition of violence. Is that right?

Abt: Yes. I didn’t set out to write a book about American social and economic justice and then conclude that the only thing we needed to do was reduce homicides. I intended to write a book about reducing homicide and learned along the way that preventing murders has many other important benefits. Reducing homicide is one of the most important, direct, and obvious ways to help our poorest and least powerful fellow citizens. I’m not making an argument against broader political, economic and social movements. I’m just saying they’re not substitutes for targeted anti-violence policies.

In terms of definitions, the book focuses on physical violence, and then I narrow that definition further because I’m not focusing on family violence or violence committed by organized crime. It’s only one book, so you have to be selective and write what you know.

 ‘Hot Spots’

 TCR: You point to ample research suggesting that violence is clustered around “sticky” people, places, and things. You argue that we should focus not on those things specifically, but on the violent behaviors that flow from them. Can you elaborate?

Abt: I use the framing of people, places, and things because it is easy for people to quickly understand. That said, in terms of policy, when talking about people, I am referring to social networks of the highest-risk potential perpetrators and victims. By places, I am referring to micro-concentrations of crime known as hot spots. And by things, I am referring to certain behaviors that are closely associated with violence.

For example, to reduce urban violence, you don’t need to focus on all guns, although that can be helpful in preventing other forms of gun violence. You should focus on illegal gun-carrying by hot people in hot spots. Similarly, with gangs, you don’t need to focus on gangs generally; you should focus on group conflicts among hot people in hot spots.

TCR: And more particularly, the most violent individuals of those gangs, rather than, say, loosely affiliated people who might know them.

Abt: Exactly. When you scratch the surface of actual gangs and speak to actual gang members, the diversity within gangs is vast. Even in a very dangerous gang, the idea that everyone is uniformly culpable and violent is just not the case, which means that these ‘Make America Scared Again’ anti-gang policies are not productive in terms of reducing violence. I’d actually prefer that we use the term “network” instead of “gang,” because that’s closer to what these problems look like in reality.

TCR: The focus on people, places, and things is one pillar, or fundamental, that you identify for violence reduction. But applied in isolation, you could get a situation like the Bronx 120 that many people have been talking about in New York, where the NYPD did a series of sweeping raids—the largest mass arrests in New York City history. The result was that many people were swept up based on their social connections. It was sloppy and not procedural, lacking balance or fairness—those are the next two pillars that you identify. How do they couple with the idea of focusing on people, places, and things?

Abt: I’m not all that familiar with that specific effort, so let’s take a different example in New York, which is stop-and-frisk. What you saw there was a massive hot-spot policing effort that went too far. Police were focused geographically on where crime and violence concentrated, but it still wasn’t focused enough. They should also have been focused in terms of people, not just places.

cover artYou can’t go to an area with a lot of shootings and killings and stop every young man in that neighborhood, which is roughly what happened.

Given that crime is so hyper-concentrated, stigmatizing entire groups of people or neighborhoods as uniformly violent is not only morally wrong, it’s factually inaccurate. Even in the most dangerous neighborhoods, most of the people there are not dangerous, and there are many parts of that neighborhood that are not dangerous.

Police should be more proactive in crime hot spots, but they need to still know the community and be looking out for specific people and behaviors. If hot spot policing is practiced with zero-tolerance, it’s not just unfocused, it’s unfair.

TCR: You use a carrot-and-stick analogy as a symbol or metaphor for balance in addressing people who might be more prone to acts of violence. Say more about that.

Abt: Yes. I’m not advocating for one silver-bullet strategy. I’m arguing for a small portfolio of strategies that, together, follow these three fundamental principles: focus, balance, and fairness. Within a portfolio, you need mechanisms to deter people from violent behavior, but also to support them and help them improve their lives. If you look at the most rigorous evidence and also talk to people in the community—because this book is about where science and the community come together—they say the same thing. We see anti-crime strategies that use aggressive enforcement that work. We also see anti-crime strategies deliver support, treatment, and assistance that work. And we see that no city has ever been successful just doing one or the other. You need a balance between the two.

This is one of the things that makes focused deterrence, or the Group Violence Reduction Strategy, successful. It gives people autonomy, telling them, “Look, we’re here to help you. If you won’t stop shooting, then we’re here to stop you. You choose.” It’s seen as fair because it’s not just the police and it explains consequences ahead of time. “We, the community—police, community, service providers—are telling you that violence is unacceptable. Here is your choice. You make the choice, and we will follow up.”

TCR: Your book sits at the intersection of many debates of the national criminal justice movement. There are advocates and activists, who tend to be more progressive, calling for sweeping abolition—whether of the prison system, or police, or I.C.E. in the immigration system. There are also those who do see a place for incremental change, but they want to bring that change from the community itself, cutting out criminal justice administrators.

Despite the deep-rooted cynicism that many harbor toward the criminal justice system because of the racism, classism, or other forms of discrimination embedded in the policy or outcomes, you say that abolition is a form of “extremism [that] hurts, not helps, poor communities of color.” Why do you say that?

Abt: The poorest and most disadvantaged rely heavily on the services that law enforcement provides. They need those services, but they also need them to be improved and more closely connected to their interests.

The most extreme advocates in this area do not acknowledge that people who live in areas plagued by high rates of violence are simultaneously overburdened and under-protected by law enforcement. In these communities, the state is both too aggressive and too unresponsive. Taking the police away only addresses half the equation.

Also, there’s simply no evidence for the idea that you can promote safety by pulling the police out of distressed communities. Bleeding Out is a book based on evidence of “what works” – hundreds of rigorous impact evaluations. When lives are on the line, I don’t believe in speculating. I am not going to embrace such a radical policy without first seeing some strong evidence.

Now, if abolitionists are simply using the term as a rhetorical technique to say, “We need radical change,” that might not be the language I would use, but we can certainly have the conversation. But if you are literally an abolitionist, and you are literally saying, “no police, no prisons,” then I simply don’t agree and that’s fine.

Race, Violence and Justice

TCR: How does systemic and historical racism factor into the framing of your work?

Abt: The issue of race is everywhere in this work. You have to acknowledge that, but some of the rhetoric around race is so inflammatory that I worry it will delay or prevent the reconciliation that needs to happen between impacted communities and the criminal justice system. I worry that when we demonize immigrants, Muslims, poor people of color, talking about “American carnage,” that we are preventing reconciliation.

I also worry when we call all cops and prosecutors racists, or say that this system is so infected with racial bias that it has to be discarded entirely, that those statements will also prevent reconciliation. To reform the system, I don’t believe you can reject it entirely.

I also wish progressives would recognize that these differences are really arguments about strategy. We all want the same things, but we may disagree about how to get there. I wish we were a bit more careful about questioning each other’s motives and creating litmus tests. In future conversations, I hope we can limit the scope of our disagreements.

TCR: You argue that to reduce violence we should avoid leaning on ideological or partisan tropes. When people do that, they selectively listen to community concerns, and then only take the points that suit their political agenda. It seems that you are trying to forge a non-aligned position. You explain that propelling change in the field of violence reduction will require a small but powerful and committed new constituency. What do you mean?

Abt: It’s common in books like these to identify a problem and then say that the way to solve it is to go big. ‘Give me all your attention, support, and resources, and I will solve this problem for you.” That’s not a realistic request to make of policymakers, or the public for that matter. Do I believe there should be a new narrative on urban violence in the United States? Absolutely, but I’m not waiting on that to happen before getting to work. In any city, the constituency needed to make these changes is not that big, as long as people stay disciplined and committed.

Look what’s happened in Oakland. That city reduced their homicides by 50 percent over five years. Rigorous research has connected the reduction back to Oakland Ceasefire, which uses the focused deterrence or GRVS strategy. Who brought that strategy to Oakland and demanded that it be done right? Community members. Michael and Ben McBride of Faith in Action and others pushed for this and insisted on it until finally the city agreed.

That’s the model that we need to look at. They didn’t wait until everybody in Oakland agreed; they got a few people with a very clear vision together and pushed. Oakland was a dangerous, violent city with lots of tension between politicians, police, and communities. It was not the easiest place to do this work, in other words. If it can happen in Oakland, it can happen in other places.

TCR: When cities conceive their programs, they have a wide toolbox to choose from. Returning to our earlier discussion about those are at the highest risk to perpetrate violence, you argue that there are some people we should “put away” through the prison system. There are others, particularly among progressives, pushing for an alternative model to incarceration emphasizing restorative justice over incarceration.

You did not mention restorative justice in the scope of your book. Should it be incorporated into this conversation?

Abt: Restorative justice is an important piece of the overall criminal justice reform puzzle, but it’s not a viable alternative to prison when it comes to murder. I’m also skeptical that it can be applied to the other serious violent offenses—attempted murder, firearm assault, etc. – that the book focuses on. It’s an important strategy, but to my knowledge nobody is suggesting that when one person kills or seriously hurts another that the remedy should be conversation rather than incarceration.

You need different tools for different problems. In many of the most violent communities, we are also dealing with a crisis relating to extremely low homicide clearance rates. In these communities, victims deserve justice just like they do anywhere else. And remember that for crimes like these, if the state doesn’t punish the perpetrator, someone else will. Solving more murders can also prevent retaliatory violence from people close to the victim.

TCR: The subtitle of your book describes your work as “a bold new plan for peace in the streets.” Much of the research you cite has been around for decades. Can you explain the novelty of your plan?

Abt: The plan is new and the evidence is certainly up to date. That said, a book based on rigorous evidence is, by definition, going to rely on strategies that have studied carefully, so it’s really the way the evidence is compiled and presented that is new. Nobody else has, to my knowledge, made such a comprehensive effort to gather all the evidence and then boiled it down to three fundamental anti-violence principles: focus, balance, and fairness.

Roman Gressier

Similarly, no one I know of has examined this massively complicated social phenomenon and broken it into three simple pieces: people, places, and behaviors. Finally, only a few people have told the public that they don’t need to wait for a revolution in society, the economy, or government to save lives in urban America. So that is what’s new, and what’s bold, in my opinion.

Roman Gressier is a TCR contributing writer and news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

One thought on “Why Tackling Urban Violence Should Be First on America’s Domestic Agenda

  1. This interview is as timely as ever.

    Here is the truth. The origins of urban violent crime lay principally in generations of discrimination and oppression of black people by white people in power. Abt himself acknowledges this connection in an interview with KERA news last August. After hundreds of years of this injustice, it is natural that a feedback loop has been established where oppression and racism created poverty, which contributes to crime, which contributes to more poverty and racism.

    But he is wrong that police abolition or defunding can’t work. As the WSJ reports just this week, on June 9, “Camden, N.J., a city of more than 70,000 residents, disbanded and restructured its police force in 2013, after the city struggled with its violent crime rate. The county took over law enforcement and adopted a new community-policing and de-escalation strategy. Since that year the city has seen a 79% reduction in murder and a 59% reduction in robbery, according to data provided by Camden County.”

    Can we tackle crime in a manner that Abt describes? Probably. But we absolutely have to address the racist history of policing and reverse generations of disinvestment from black communities. And we need to be honest with ourselves that we can dramatically restructure or shrink our police forces to accomplish this. After all, if Abt argues that reducing homicides requires a hyper-targeted approach, then massive police forces and budgets probably are not needed.

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