Cities that have witnessed reductions in gang and youth violence and improved quality of life have taken most or all of seven critical steps. Paramount among them are public leadership by the mayor and chief of police, a comprehensive city-wide plan that blends prevention, intervention, enforcement and reentry, and an entity, e.g. task force, commission, that coordinates the work, and tracks the plan’s implementation and progress. The overall goal is to stop violence AND help build healthy, supportive communities that do not produce crime.
Step 1: The mayor and chief must lead together and lead in three areas:
Moral – “Mynisha Crenshaw, an eight-year old girl was killed by a stray bullet while eating her Thanksgiving Day dinner. This is an outrage. My city will not tolerate this. It will stop.” – Mayor Patrick Morris, San Bernardino, California
Conceptual – Namely full participation in the planning and implementation process.
Bureaucratic – A willingness to change how a city does business.
Step 2: Creating a plan that blends prevention (family support, early childhood education, neighborhood beautification), intervention (mentoring, recreation, after school programs, enforcement) and reentry (reintegrating returning offenders to the community). All key civic entities must make specific commitments, including but not limited to city and county government, business, schools, the faith community and neighborhood activists. Specific commitments must be made by each sector, their efforts coordinated and tracked over time.
Step 3: A mechanism, an entity, something that keeps an eye on the plan – a Gang Commission, a Mayor’s Task Force on Preventing Youth Violence, a Community Alliance for Safety and Peace (Salinas, CA) or “Operation Safe Community” (Memphis, TN). Such entities track and monitor the work. If law enforcement has pledged to target the city’s most chronic 100 offenders, and the faith community has committed to tutoring 200 third graders who are beginning to pull away from school, the task force or commission holds the pledging entities accountable.
Step 4: The human services community and law enforcement must see each other as essential partners. Everyone can and must play a part. Abraham Heschel, one of the 20th century’s most prominent theologians wrote in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, “In regard to cruelties committed in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” The blame game is the cheapest game. It’s a way of avoiding responsibility, of avoiding hard work. All have roles to play. Roles do differ, but the undergirding community values should not. Cops patrol and arrest; but they can and do argue passionately for prevention and intervention programs. And those running prevention and intervention programs should refuse to tolerate such unacceptable behavior as kids packing guns, or kids on the street at 11:00 at night. Enforcement and service provision must not be seen as antithetical concepts. As parents we set limits and we nurture. Where it doesn’t work is when mutual caricature is in play, law enforcement seeing the service community as “bleeding hearts” or “soft-headed,” and the service community viewing law enforcement as uncaring hard hats who enjoy arresting kids.
Step 5: The plan must hire a staffer to help oversee the planning, data collection, and tracking the work.
Step 6: Access to and use of a variety of data sources. If we utilize criminal justice data alone, the resulting plan will tilt toward enforce. Data from schools, child welfare, housing, employment and other sources must be interwoven. In some cities the coordinating entity, task force, etc., is often divided into two parts, a policy committee (mayor, chief, school superintendent, etc.) and a technical or worker bee committee. The “Technical Committee” provides the context for relationship building and informal sharing of data, a context where a teacher is comfortable sharing her worries about a child or a cop alerting the team about a particularly troublesome family. Information is shared, coordination improves.
Step 7: A willingness to go into the heart of darkness, to be with, to try to forge a relationship with youth who are dying for relationships. Yet these youth will push you away, keep you at arm’s length because he or she fears that if you get close enough, you will see garbage and like everybody else in his life, you will reject him. His gang won’t, his “homies,” his family. I served as Commissioner of Youth Services in Massachusetts, and I’ll never forget what a young murderer said to me: “Commissioner Calhoun, I’d rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all.” Intimacy, relationship-building is brutally difficult work, and is often overlooked when we institute our many “programs.” This is core work. We all need to be needed, loved, and this is an essential part of the work. Many cities have employed street workers, “Peace-Keepers,” who work the streets late at night. And many of these individuals who have been rigorously screened and trained, are ex-inmates who are passionate about keeping their “little brothers and sisters” from taking the path they took.