Can We Lower Urban Violence Without Police?

In the last year, cities and communities across the country have experienced a dramatic increase in urban crime, violence and homicides. A recent report from the Council on Criminal Justice examining monthly crime rates for ten violent, property, and drug offenses in 34 U.S. cities found that homicide rates in 2020 were 30 percent higher than in 2019, an historic increase representing 1,268 more deaths in the sample of 34 cities than the year before.

However, while the common response to these issues once may have involved an increase in policing initiatives, today’s criminal justice professionals, activists, and advocates are turning to new community-based programs and practices that remove law enforcement from the center of the anti-violence conversation entirely, and seek to save lives and stop violence while also avoiding passing new laws or big budgets.

“Urban violence is not intractable, it’s not an impossible challenge,” said Thomas Abt, Senior Fellow at the CCJ and Director of the National Commision on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.

“We can reduce urban violence, we have on many different occasions, and these strategies are cost effective, they’re proven, they don’t require new legislation, and they don’t even require deep institutional reforms.”

In an online panel hosted by CCJ Thursday, Abt, an expert on urban violence reduction, moderated a conversation between leaders of community-based organizations who have been working on the frontlines of this issue since long before the coronavirus to introduce four of the strongest strategies today: focused deterrence, street outreach, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and hospital-based violence prevention.

Abt was joined by Paul Carrillo, Executive Director of Southern California Crossroads, a nonprofit organization providing young people with alternatives to gangs, drugs and violence; and Javon Gregoire, Deputy Director of READI Chicago, a nonprofit focused on decreasing shootings and homicides among those at highest risk of gun violence by providing opportunity and building community level infrastructure to support long term safety and change.

Also participating were David Muhammad, Executive Director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, which works to reduce incarceration and violence, improve the outcomes of system-involved youth and adults, and increase the capacity and expertise of the organizations that serve them; and Fernando Rejon, Executive Director of the Urban Peace Institute, which develops and implements innovative solutions to address community violence and engage in system reform.

Javon Gregoire, a former chief of staff for the Division of Family and Community Services within the Illinois Department of Human Services, emphasized the importance of a rigorous assessment of effectiveness when considering any of the four strategies.

“It’s very important to know what works, so we can do more of it, especially now during a time when we’re clamoring for innovative strategies to an ever evolving issue,” said Gregoire.

“It also allows for even the most well intended interventions to become more socially and culturally relevant and appropriate to the intended service population.”

This kind of assessment was crucial for READI Chicago and Gregoire when testing the effectiveness of their programs use of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) in reducing gun violence involvement among those with the highest risk.

“We wanted to measure three things: could we find the right person, could that person be engaged meaningfully, and could they ultimately overall reduce either their risk of participating in violent offenses or being a victim of violent offenses?” said Gregoire.

According to the American Psychological Association, CBT, a form of psychological treatment which helps people understand how they relate to their internal and external experiences with intense mental focus on thoughts and behaviors, is based on three core principles:

      • psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking;
      • psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior; and
      • people suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.

By assessing the data collected from a group of men who had not participated in READI Chicago’s program, who had 14-18 crime convictions, four to five of which were felony convictions, of which 46 percent had been a victim of gun violence, 34 percent had been shot at least once, and 84 percent had lost a close family member to gun violence, READI Chicago and Gregoire found that they were 55 percent more likely to be a victim of gun violence then people who participated in CBT.

“Cognitive behavioral therapy gives our individuals the tools to empower themselves to be their own voice,” said Gregoire.

“They can then alter their behaviors to healthier ones, rather than maladaptive ones, and say stop, don’t do it.”

In addition, Gregoire points out that while they had initially anticipated being only able to engage roughly 27 percent in the process, today the actual rate is nearly twice that.

“Our data is showing promising results in terms of reducing the likelihood of shootings and homicide victimization, and arrest, which we all know is the costliest of all violent crimes,” said Gregoire.

For Fernando Rejon and the Urban Peace Institute, the ability to test and achieve these kinds of results, and expand programs like READI Chicago further into the communities most affected by gun violence, depends on the utilization of street outreach programs to provide ambassadors with lived experiences who can shuttle diplomacy to those who are the most isolated and, thus, likely to think there’s no other option for settling disputes.

“Street outreach, gang intervention, violence interrupters, Violence Intervention workers, we call them peacemakers,” said Rejon, who has trained thousands of leaders nationally on the role of gang intervention in the development of non-traditional Community Safety strategies.

“Peacemakers come from the streets, are sometimes formerly incarcerated or involved in street violence, and they have what we call a license to operate, which is credibility in the community and in the neighborhoods where there’s high impacts of violence.”

According to data gathered by the National Institute of Justice, gun-related homicide is most prevalent among gangs and during the commission of felony crimes. The National Gang Center reports that from 2007-2011 gang-related homicides typically accounted for around 13 percent of all homicides annually and that in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, roughly half of all annual homicides are gang-related.

In neighborhoods where gangs have carved out their territory and, as a result, find themselves in constant conflict with each other, trained and experienced street outreach professionals like Rejon’s peacemakers can have conversations that provide alternatives to violence and come up with non-aggression agreements that keep everyone safe and alive.

In addition, they can provide a sort of informal case management for people who may be hesitant or untrusting of programs offering aid.

“You can talk with people, provide them options and, when they’re ready to change, they know that there’s somebody there who’s consistent and will be there for them,” said Rejon.

Providing that individual connection is essential for these kinds of reformative programs that target the most high risk people and seek to prevent them from engaging in violence and retaliation against one another. Coupled with gang injunctions, which prevent gang members from activities like consuming alcohol, carrying spray paint, being out after 10 p.m., or even simply being in the same place at the same time, street outreach programs demonstrate what is possible when you focus less on crime suppression and policing and more on building a public safety infrastructure based on understanding.

“In Los Angeles in particular we’ve seen a 41 percent reduction in retaliation,” said Rejon.

“And when law enforcement and gang intervention respond in their separate lanes, the likelihood of retaliation drops to below 1 percent.”

“That really shows that if you build it they will come, that people want services and they want to be supported,” said Gregoire.

And for certain victims of gun violence, especially gang members, that support can often only come after they’ve pulled the trigger and wound up injured and in the emergency room.

“If you’re working with active gang members, you’re probably never going to have their full attention short of being able to engage them in the hospital or in jail,” said Paul Carillo.

“The objective is to take advantage of that teachable moment.”

Awarded the 2013 Hospital Hero Award by the Hospital Association of Southern California for implementing hospital based violence prevention programs in Los Angeles County, Carillo points out that the key to the success of these programs is making sure that the solutions and people doing the work come from the communities affected most.

“Many organizations struggle to engage gang members, because they’re very difficult, but you can’t have outsiders come in and tell us what to do and how to do it,” said Carillo.

“Having team members from the community helps to be able to communicate with them and create those relationships.”

Responding in the trauma bay when a gunshot victim arrives, Carillo’s first job is to make sure that everyone, including the patient, their family, and the medical staff, is safe. This can be a balancing act when often two rival gang members arrive simultaneously. By consulting with the responding paramedics, Carillo can ascertain what occurred and then, by examining any tattoos the victim might have, figure out what gang or groups might have been involved. From there, finding the right connections is critical to deescalating the situation and finding the proper recourse towards a restorative solution that steers all parties away from further violence.

“I start texting and calling the street intervention workers, some of whom are my employees and some that work for other organizations, so that we can create a coordinated response,” said Carillo.

“The most important thing is the collaboration.”

In a 2015 study, a randomized, controlled trial of patients with 2 prior hospitalizations for assault injury and histories of probation and/or parole found that those involved in an HVIP had significantly lower reinjury rates (5 percent vs. 36 percent) and conviction rates for violent crimes (13 percent vs. 55 percent) and higher employment rates (82 percent vs. 20 percent). In addition, economic evaluations suggested that these programs could produce substantial cost savings for health care and criminal justice systems.

“Having trained professional violence interruption workers out there to engage with those who think there’s no other option is the tip of the spear when it comes to reducing violence,” said Rejon.

However, while each of these programs are effective in their own right, it is only by considering multiple strategies at the same time and making sure that they’re coordinated with one another through a triaged implementation, much like a hospital, that the best results can be achieved.

“It’s called focused deterrence or gun violence reduction strategy,” said David Muhammad.

“Reducing gun violence is a very specific goal and, therefore, the set of strategies or activities or programs are specifically designed to reduce gun violence in the near term.”

Through the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR), Muhammad provides leadership and technical assistance in implementing the CeaseFire gun violence reduction strategy in the California cities of Oakland and Stockton and in Portland, Oregon, and has helped numerous offices and organizations implement successful violence reduction strategies around the country.

He emphasized that the successful implementation of these strategies requires the agreement of an entire city to make reducing gun violence a priority.

“If we’re talking about reducing gun violence in the next six or 12 or 24 months, you have to have a focus on the individuals at the very highest risk of committing gun violence now,” said Muhammad.

“The mayors and the city managers need to be involved, have frequent meetings, and have specific goals and be managing those goals.”

According to an NICJR report, Oakland’s Gun Violence Reduction Strategy (Ceasefire) was launched in October 2012, toward the end of a violent year in the city. In 2012, there were 126 homicides and 556 non-fatal shootings in Oakland.

In 2017, the fifth year of the Oakland Strategy implementation, there were 72 homicides and 277 non-fatal shootings, a 46 percent reduction in homicides and 49 percent reduction in injury shootings. Reductions in crime due to the strategy also extended past shootings and homicides. In 2013, there were 2,764 armed robberies using a firearm.

In 2017, firearm robberies were down to 970, a 65 percent reduction.

In utilizing systems like this, Muhammad believes that progress can be made, but only so long as government leaders are held to the task by their communities to provide the resources necessary for programs like focused deterrence, street outreach, CBT, and hospital based violence prevention to not only work well, but work sustainably.

Unfortunately, according to an article by Vox, state governments have often refused federal incentives to adopt strategies that would put fewer people behind bars, a political Catch-22 for some. In addition, responsibility for paying for the criminal justice system can be strangely fractured, leaving many political leaders avoiding change because it saves them money. As a result, many restorative programs die before they can even experience a minute amount of success.

“We should not take the political leadership or elected leadership off the hook,” said Muhammad.

“Government is where the greatest resources are; they should be involved and it is their responsibility.”

“If the programmatic community can show that what it does works over a short period of time, the political leaders have to create an environment where that work can continue across political administrations and that really is the rub,” said Thomas Abt.

“Because it’s not ‘can we do something,’ it’s ‘can we do it consistently enough to really transform people’s lives.’”

Isidoro is a contributing writer to The Crime Report and editor of Justice Digest.

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