Myriad Ways to Reduce Violence Without Police: Report

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Mural in Astoria, N.Y. Photo by Roblalwol via Flickr

Several evidence-based strategies can reduce violence without the need to involve police, according to the John Jay Research and Evaluation Center.

Chief among them are improving the physical environment, strengthening anti-violence behavioral norms, and providing youth structure and opportunity, the Center reported in a wide-ranging review of research on programs and strategies known to reduce community violence without police involvement.

The review was conducted by members of the John Jay College Research Advisory Group on Preventing and Reducing Community Violence, and supported by a grant from Arnold Ventures.

Most previous studies of anti-violence programs are “heavily” skewed towards altering police behavior or practice, but that’s largely a reflection of government research priorities or funding, the authors observed.

“Studies of policing interventions (i.e., hotspots policing and focused deterrence) are strongly supported by public and private funding bodies,” they noted.

The members of the 12-person advisory group specialized in an array of fields, including behavioral sciences, public health, public policy, and epidemiology.

The authors found several so-called “place-based interventions” that are sustainable and cost-effective, and that have been proven to decrease violence.

Such interventions include adding green space (e.g., parks and trees) to vacant areas, improving the quality of houses and other buildings, and ensuring that public spaces are well-lit.

The advisory group based their recommendations on a burgeoning body of research known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, which suggests that the physical design of neighborhoods can promote the protection of communal spaces, informal social control, and pro-social behavior.

“Behavior responds to situational and environmental influences,” the review said.

“In addition to changing behavior one person at a time, communities should create physical environments that reduce violence with cost-effective, place-based interventions that are structural, scalable, and sustainable.”

The report also argued that individuals engage in violence because they were taught poor social norms by those around them.

Indeed, programs that strengthen anti-violence norms and peer relations have been proven to decrease violence in the community, the report suggested.

In these programs, community outreach workers form positive and supportive relationships with individuals at risk of becoming violent, connect them with resources and opportunities, and teach them nonviolent behaviors and coping mechanisms.

Outreach workers also utilize nonviolent strategies to mediate and reduce conflicts in the neighborhood.

The authors cited Cure Violence and Advance Peace as models of this type of work.

In addition to improving the physical environment and strengthening pro-social norms, the report recommended that – because youth are disproportionately the perpetrators of violence – nonviolence interventions must focus on providing structure for young people.

Structure and opportunity for youth come in a variety of forms – including employment, job training, educational supports, and behavioral therapy – and have demonstrably decreased violent crime rates among young people.

More specific strategies to support youth include offering them access to full-day schools, providing them with summer jobs, and teaching them positive and healthy social skills in school.

Additionally, the advisory group reviewed several studies showing that decreasing substance abuse correlated with lower rates of community violence.

In light of these studies, the authors suggested that communities do more to enforce age limits on alcohol purchasing, restrict the sale of alcohol to certain times and places, and make treatment for substance abuse more accessible.

In addition to the strategies mentioned above, the advisory group offered the following three recommendations to communities wishing to reduce their violent crime rates:

      • Reduce financial strain and negative income shocks by offering entry-level job opportunities, timely financial assistance, and increased social welfare;
      • Mitigate the deleterious effects of involvement with the criminal justice system by making the system more transparent, consistent, and amenable; and
      • Implement stricter gun laws that limit young people’s access to firearms, impose waiting periods, and increase firearm training requirements.

The report’s authors argue that the strategies described above are backed by the “most persuasive research evidence” on reducing violence without the use of law enforcement.

Adoption of those strategies could profoundly change how communities and police interact, suggested one member of the advisory group.

“As citizens, we want to be able to call for help when we need it,” wrote Anna Harvey of the New York University Department of Politics and Public Safety Lab in one of the observations published in the review.

“The way things are set up now, there’s really only two kinds of agencies on the other end of that call. One is an ambulance and the other is the police. So, unless you’ve got a medical emergency, you’ll get the police—no matter what the situation is.

“It doesn’t have to be like this. We can imagine different kinds of responders and different kinds of interventions that could be available when we call for help.”

The authors concluded by saying that whatever strategy organizations adopt, they should seek community input at every stage of their work.

The advisory group’s full report and a list of its members can be downloaded here.

More of the Research and Evaluation Center’s publications can be accessed here.

Editor’s Note: For additional information on policing and police reform, please see The Crime Report’s resource pages on “Policing” and “Reforming the System.”

See also: “Local Groups to Decide Punishments in WA Experiment,” by Crime and Justice News, The Crime Report, November 19, 2020

Michael Gelb is a Contributing Writer to The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. 

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