Ten ‘Essential Actions’ to Curb American Violence

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photo by Charles Edward Miller via Flickr

Everyone has seen the headlines.  According to FBI data, U.S. homicides rates increased by 30 percent in 2020, the largest increase ever recorded since national record-keeping began in 1960, and jumped another 7 percent in 2021, with more than 10 major cities setting new records for annual homicides that year.

But aggressive policing won’t solve the problem, says the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ).

In its latest report issued this week, the CCJ’s Violent Crime Working Group says a key to the solution is giving individuals who live in the most violence-riddled neighborhoods more of a role in determining public safety—in partnership with police.

“Everything we understand about this crime increase is that it’s being driven primarily by community gun violence,” Thomas Abt, senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and chair of the Council’s Violent Crime Working Group, told a recent webinar hosted by the CCJ to discuss the findings of the report.

“This is the violence that has always accounted for the majority of homicides in the United States, but it’s especially so over these past two years.”

Abt was joined at the webinar by fellow working group members Paul Carillo, Director of the Community Violence Initiative at Giffords Law Center; Alex Piquero, Chair of the Dept. of Sociology at the University of Miami; and Jason Potts, a captain of the Vallejo Police Department in California.

 Partnerships for Peace

 The group’s report, Saving Lives: Ten Essential Actions Cities Can Take to Reduce Violence Now, highlights short term actions that they consider most likely to make the greatest immediate impact on the ongoing community gun violence in this country.

The strategies all depend on partnerships between law enforcement and community leaders to succeed.

“What has worked and is working in various cities around the country are strategies that employ policing efforts in combination with non-policing efforts, and that not only have the community at the table, but also involved in the decision-making,” said Piquero.

“Strategies such as Oakland’s Ceasefire Initiative is a successful framework for this kind of engagement.”

A data-driven violence-reduction strategy created in 2012 and coordinating law enforcement, social services, and the community with the major goal being to reduce gang/group-related homicides and shootings through focused intervention and deterrence, the Ceasefire program was associated in 2019 with a 20 percent decline in yearly total shootings.

“Outreach workers in these programs, typically credible messengers who turned their lives around, engage with people most likely to be involved in gun violence, work to de escalate disputes before crises or violence erupt in their neighborhoods, and connect high risk people to extensive networks providing job training, employment opportunities, mental health services and legal services to increase the likelihood of long term violence reduction,” said Piquero.

“You engage the individuals and groups with the highest risk of violence with a dual message of empathy and accountability and place them on notice that they are in great danger of being injured, killed, arrested, and/or incarcerated.”

For Capt. Jason Potts, who currently leads the Vallejo Police Department’s Operations Bureau, this kind of focused deterrence and intervention are necessary for aiding police departments whose methods are too often confined to response-based action.

“Traditional models of policing are typically random patrol, rapid response, and reactive investigations, which don’t always lend themselves to effective and focused approaches,” said Potts.

“Therefore, these kinds of focused, innovative, and evidence-informed strategies are more important than ever.”

By utilizing these strategies in the event of a homicide, and working with communities to implement them, police can identify everyone the victim was criminally connected to, proceed to the next victim and repeat the process to generate a report for those with the highest risk of violence and, as a result, potentially disrupt or intersect those criminal networks with credible street messengers.

“Police leaders must anticipate and strive to be forward thinking and use the best available data, science, and research to improve our strategies to combat violent crime, in particular gun violence,” added Potts.

However, police leaders and departments around the country are facing staff hiring and retention concerns, and the last two years have put individuals at the highest risk for community gun violence under enormous pressure, hamstringing many of the institutions that are responsible for responding to them and impeding the kind of proactive policing they can create.

“The social unrest of 2020 moving into 2021 has created a divide between communities and the police that is really causing more violence to rise and last as a result of what we call delegitimizing and de-policing,” said Abt.

“Delegitimizing means that when the police do something that abuses community trust, the community withdraws from the police: they don’t report crimes, they don’t cooperate and provide information and all of that makes the work of the police harder.

“In terms of de-policing, what we’ve seen is enormous criticism and scrutiny of the police and some police responding by reducing their discretionary enforcement and what they do voluntarily in terms of proactive policing.”

For Paul Carillo, rectifying this situation, and improving and supporting community anti-violence efforts, has to be addressed from the top down.

“Within law enforcement agencies, chiefs and top leaders must demand a consistent focus on preventing violence, not just making arrests, and also emphasize the importance of working with citizens and community partners and rewarding officers for outcomes like reduced victimization, rather than outputs like the number of pedestrian or car stops being made,” said Carillo.

“And every city with high rates of violent crime should have a permanent office dedicated to violence reduction.”

Some of the jobs of this office, typically called an Office of Violence Prevention (OVP), are oversight and accountability of the violence reduction strategy being utilized by the city and the police department, and the people involved in it, advocacy for and support of the efforts on the ground, providing resources and funding for the agencies doing accountability, and conducting and overseeing research and evaluation efforts to make sure that what’s being done is working and the best ways of improving them further.

Examples of this sort of oversight and accountability body are the Los Angeles County Office of Violence Prevention, created by the county Board of Supervisors in 2021, which has since developed their Trauma Prevention Initiative (TPI) supporting a community-driven approach to public safety and is pursuing millions of dollars in potential funding for city-backed and community involved violence reduction initiatives, and the Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD).

“Without adequate leadership you have a bunch of siloed efforts in many cities across the nation where they have a bunch of resources but efforts are not being coordinated well,” said Carillo.

No Substitute for Long-Term Strategies

But, while efforts like these are effective, and the members of the Violent Crime Working Group emphasize that they can all be started within a year, all agree that none of them are a substitute for longer term strategies and investments that can address the underlying systemic causes of crime and violence.

And without the strongly needed state and federal support, continuity between changing administrations, and an emphasis on maintained evidence and science informed decision making, states and communities around the country will continue to be plagued by violence and death.

“It comes from the top and you need to have everybody on board and laser-focused on one thing,” said Piquero.

 Isidoro Rodriquez is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report.

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