Given the rise in crime, and the resulting alarm – “Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many Cities: Years of Decline End,” (New York Times headline, 9/1/15) – it is time to put this in perspective. Rhetoric could scuttle significant reforms, scrap promising efforts and resuscitate old draconian policies, namely, an overreliance on arrests and incarceration. Yet the rise in violent crime is real. An alarming number of people have been killed. We must respond. But how?
In contradistinction to the New York Times lead, Charles Lane, writing just a few days later in the Washington Post (9/4/15) noted that, “Horrific as this summer’s surge in homicide is, it’s a far cry from the bad old days.” He points out that the homicide rate in 2013 was 4.5 per 100,000 “among the lowest in the post-war era” compared to 9.5 in 1993. We would have had 30,067 murders in 2013, not 14,196, had the 1993 rate persisted. While the 14,000 is awful, a national shame, the highest in the developed world, and as fragile neighborhoods awash in guns is an equal shame, the recent spike in some cities must not take us away either from that which is promising or trying to find out why it dropped in other cities.
Spurred by recent headlines, I interviewed five violence prevention/community safety leaders from across the nation. In two cities violent crime had risen; in two it had dropped and in one it had remained roughly the same. The two, whose crime rates had risen cited the need for more (or different) enforcement, changes in police practice and an increased focus on the most volatile, but all within the context of a citywide commitment to blend prevention, intervention, enforcement and reentry – “moving on all fronts,” a strategy led by mayors, police chiefs, school superintendents and public health officials in cooperation with community service providers and the faith community. In no city did worries about today vitiate concern about developing a better tomorrow.
Those who shoot others and render neighborhoods unviable must be off the street and off fast. But focused and uncompromising enforcement must occur within a larger context of prevention, such as support for families and early childhood education and intervention such as afterschool programs, mentoring and apprenticeship programs and support for returning offenders. As D.C. police chief Cathy Lanier notes, paying close attention to the most volatile – those returning from prison with easy access to guns – is a must. In addition, every effort must be made to develop police/community trust.
Providing services and stopping illegal activity are not antithetical concepts. They are inextricably interwoven. It is parental: we set limits and we nurture. Depending on the situation, the proportion changes. But we are required to do both. If we don’t we are neither good parents nor good public servants (or for that matter, citizens).
All of the five with whom I spoke are overseeing and implementing comprehensive plans that include dozens and dozens of activities embedded in an overall strategy. Although certainly not a formal research project or poll, I tried to find out their thoughts on the reasons for the drop in violent crime or, if high, what they thought would bring it down.
Louisville’s response to its spike in violent crime has been swift and specific, all within the context of a comprehensive plan aimed at breaking the cyclical rises in crime. Anthony Smith, Director for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods for Louisville Metro Government, points to recent changes, which include: hiring of two case managers, who will link 18-24 –year olds, who have criminal backgrounds and live in the city’s two most violent neighborhoods, to education and jobs; hiring street workers to serve as “violence interrupters;” establishing a coordinated law enforcement task force (FBI, US Marshall, US Attorney, ATF and city police) that would focus on hot spots; creating a community crisis response team that would deploy following a violent incident (“We used to arrest and get out,” notes Smith. “We may arrest, but then we try to follow up with services for needy families and frightened neighbors”); constant communication with the community via “summits,” and community walks, and a “Youth Implementation Team” that will help provide input to city plans and better connect the city to its youth population. “We’re responding aggressively to the spike,” says Smith. “But old policies just mean arrest and lock up, and then we’re back with the next generation of offenders.” While the city has “stepped up” enforcement, its commitment to a full bore comprehensive approach is unwavering.
Like Smith, Mario Maciel, Director of the San Jose’s Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force, put the city’s response to a rise in violent crime within the context of “breaking the cycle…getting upstream.” Late night gyms, street workers, violence interveners, school retention strategies and more have kept crime rates low – some of the lowest in America – in this city, one of the nation’s largest at 1.1 million. Smith and Maciel each underscore three points: the necessity of support from top city and county leaders, a comprehensive plan, and “annual flexibility,” i.e. plan alterations based on shifting demographic, economic and crime patterns. Yet, because of the spike, the city has made changes: the police and the district attorney have partnered to provide targeted enforcement, and the city has supported Gun Buy-Back events. Responding to an increase in the number of adjudicated females, the city has launched a gender specific program, and to curb retaliation, it has implemented its first Hospital Bedside Response Program (Tragedy to Triumph). “Yes, we have made changes, but we’ll never drop our focus on the other work,” said Maciel. “The changes are part of a whole, and our city totally supports that.”
Minneapolis’ violent crime rate has stayed relatively flat. What’s keeping it there? Sasha Cotton, Minneapolis’ Youth Violence Prevention Coordinator, who manages the City’s comprehensive violence prevention “Blueprint,” cited “changes in climate, in vibes” between police and citizens based on a number of police/community trust initiatives. Police help provide kids with free bike helmets. Kids can accumulate points for a free bike. For back to school week, police shopped with kids in neighborhood hot spots. One youth said she’d never be seen near “that bitch cop,” but thanked her profusely after shopping with her. Police have opened a series of dialogues with the Somali community, the largest such community outside of Somalia. One promising youth who actually had a record was hired by the police as a liaison to the youth community. Other efforts such as mentoring, school retention strategies, “Pop Up Parks” (mobile parks with video games, basketball, dance competition and life-sized checkers) “pop up” in areas with little recreation opportunities have helped. Again the prime point: Mayor Betsy Hodges is a “huge supporter of our work. There has been no community outcry.”
Brona Pinnolis, Project Coordinator for the Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission, notes recent declines in violent crime. Within the context of “collaboration and a comprehensive plan,” she cites several factors:
- Cooperation among law enforcement agencies through the multi-agency gang units
- Data-driven policing, i.e. concentrating on hot spots, even individuals
- Gang injunctions in three hot gang areas
- GRASSY – Gang Reduction Assistance for Saving Society’s Youth – that provides intense, school-based, job apprenticeship services for gang involved youth and youth at risk of gang involvement
- Hope Academy where “serious players” and youthful offenders receive a public school education in a detention center. Juvenile recidivism rates among this population are lower than their peers who don’t receive the education
- A commitment to building police/community trust. Trust had been tested on both sides: a youth was killed by an officer, and a policeman was killed by an offender. Director Toney Armstrong has deployed his staff to the “hot” areas and he and his staff have and continue to attend community meetings in areas where mistrust is highest.
In Boston, homicides are down about 35%, “but non-fatal shootings are up,” reports Jen Maconochie, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Boston Police Department. “Maybe we’ve been lucky. ¼ inch either way and the numbers could have been very different.” She says that shooters are younger, have easy access to guns and “lack family connections and positive adult role models.” Within the context of an overall effort led by the mayor, commissioner, public health department and school officials, Jen gave her take on reasons for the drop in violent crime numbers. Most salient for Maconochie are the Boston Regional Intelligence Center and Youth Violence Strike Force that “use real time data and intelligence, along with relationships with impact players to determine what’s going on so we can focus resources on the areas, people and groups that need it. The city has an intense street worker program that enables us to cool things…keep retaliation down…” There is a strong focus on gun crimes (arrest, confiscation, gun buyback and a replica gun ordinance) as well as “an abundance of resources that many cities don’t have – mentoring, after school programs, jobs, and more.” And, “since Ferguson,” she reports that Commissioner Evans has redoubled his focus on police community trust, “community interactions/relations” as an everyday focus, which means police getting out of cars, attending community meetings, reading to kids in elementary schools, helping with youth sports and neighborhood cookouts. She says that the commissioner, showing proactive leadership, regularly goes on “neighborhood walks” with community partners. She noted that police also go into troubled neighborhoods with an ice cream truck. “You’d better believe that kids love cops who give them ice cream,” Jen said with a chuckle.