Violence reduction in America

DC Public Safety Radio

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See the radio program at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2016/04/reducing-violence-america/

Leonard: From the nation’s capital, this is D.C. Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, we are honored to have Thomas Abt discussing violence reduction in America. Thomas Abt is a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where he teaches, studies, and consults on the use of evidence-based approaches to violence reduction among other topics. Previously he served as deputy secretary for public safety to Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York, as well as chief of staff to the office of justice programs U.S. Department of Justice where I first met Thomas. Thomas, welcome to D.C. Public Safety.

Thomas: It’s a pleasure to be on.

Leonard: Thomas, I’m really happy to have you. You bring hard experience. You were one of the founders of the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention for the Department of Justice and you’ve been instrumental in guiding the entire State of New York in terms of an innovative program. Violence is part of your forte, correct?

Thomas: Yes. It’s something that I’ve had the privilege to work on in a number of different settings.

Leonard: Okay. First of all, I want to talk about addressing violence across the board and how to address because the country has been involved in, I guess you could say, a discussion over the course of the last six, seven, to eight months we’ve had violence in Ferguson, we’ve had violence in Chicago, we’ve had violence in Baltimore. We’ve had this national discussion on violence prevention. As you well know, I call people before the program. I ask them and I’ve called four people from the law enforcement community, and they express confusion over what the public now wants us to do. Can you put all of these in terms of the focus on addressing violence in communities in the country?

Thomas: Sure. I can try. I think it is a very difficult conversation to have and we’re trying to have it as best we can, but the way the conversation about violence in the United States is currently being framed may be a barrier to making more progress. The current conversation that we’re having is very much and either/or conversation. Either you’re taking about police reform and the issues of police use of force, police lethality, those types of issues, or you’re talking about “black on black crime”, which I actually think is a problematic way of discussing it, but you’re talking about the issue of crime and violence in the community.

That’s a difficult framework that really pits anti-establishment voices which have some very valid concerns with more conservative, possibly pro-establishment voices. Instead of an either/or conversation, we need to have a both/and conversation. We can’t separate our concerns about crime control from our concerns about crime itself. The two go together. We need to think about both what the police are doing in terms of how they attempt to control crime and violence in a community in addition to the nature of the crime itself.

I think that if we can reframe this conversation, we can have a much more productive conversation that can give more guidance overtime keep our police professionals in the community who both want to change the way they do business and improve it, but they also have a job to do and they want to make sure that they’re keeping communities safe.

Leonard: You wrote an article called Integrating Evidence to Stop Shootings: New York’s GIVE (Gun-Involved Violence Elimination) Initiative. Discuss that with me briefly and then let’s take the conversation back to the larger national conversation because in your article it was rather straightforward. It was a focus on people. It was a focus on places. It was a focus on hot spot policing. It was a focus on police initiative’s research using evidence-based practices, going in and having conversations with troublesome people in the community, gang members in the community.

On one side of this discussion is a straightforward evidence-based approach and the other side of it is, unfortunately, race, politics, and people’s perception of what could be and should be. Let’s start off with the simple. There are ways of reducing gun violence. There are ways of reducing shootings. You were part of that platform and still are in the State of New York. Give me an overview of the Gun-Involved Violence Elimination Initiative.

Thomas: Sure. I helped establish GIVE, which is the Gun-Involved Violence Elimination, while I was working for Governor Cuomo, but just to clarify, I am now with the Harvard Kennedy School and I’m no longer working in New York, but I am still very much familiar with the program that we started.

GIVE is really, I think, an unusual effort in that it tried very directly to incorporate the best information that we had about how to reduce violence both gathering evidence and research, and looking at data, and then trying to translate that for the law enforcement community and others to make that information really accessible and easy to implement.

We did a six-month policy development process where we reviewed statistics, data, research from all around the country and identified some core practices that we felt showed what was most effective in reducing violence and crime, particularly as related to gun violence. We translated these down into three core principles. The first principle was in order to be effective, you need to focus on specific people and specific places.

All the research shows that crime is not evenly distributed. Crime is sticky. It concentrates in places and it concentrates among people. In any give community, when we think of a community as unsafe, that’s really an over simplification. In any given community that we think of as having a problem with violence, there are often two, or three, or maybe more spots, we call them hot spots, where crime and violence are highly concentrated, but they’re not concentrated throughout the entire community.

The same is true with people. A very small percentage of people, even in a neighborhood that we think of is an unsafe, are responsible for a significant majority of the crime and violence in those places. It’s very important when you’re working in an “unsafe” or high crime neighborhood to remember that the problem, even in that neighborhood, is not everywhere, and it’s not involving everyone. That’s the first principle. You have to focus on specific people and specific places.

Leonard: It’s not a community but specific places within that community.

Thomas: Exactly, and specific people. For instance, you have a very small perentage of your young people in a community. It is true that young men are much more likely to offend and be violent than young women, and it’s true that age range of maybe 14 to 24 is a particularly difficult and risky age range. It’s very important for members of the law enforcement and the community generally to understand that that doesn’t mean that every young man in a particular community that’s regarded as unsafe is going to be a public safety problem. In fact, it is going to be a very, very small number of young men. That really [counsels 00:09:01] against over broad mass arrest, zero tolerance approaches to law enforcement. It means you need to get much more targeted and you need to be much more specific.

Leonard: That addresses the larger issue that’s been going on throughout the country, but I take a look at your article and there’s been an 88% reduction in homicides and shootings in New York City. Everybody is taking their cue from the New York City Miracle. An 88% reduction in homicide, an 88% reduction in shootings where it rose 8% in the rest of the State of New York. People are saying to themselves, “Aggressive law enforcement in New York City is what created those reductions. Isn’t that a good thing for everybody?” That’s why law enforcement they’re saying, “Fine. It’s places, it’s people. We should be focused on specific areas, specific people,” but look what happened to New York City.

Thomas: Right. New York City is a very interesting example of how various kinds of legitimacy work together and how one type of legitimacy is not enough to have a successful crime reduction effort. There were, at least, three strands when we think about legitimacy that we need to break it down.

There’s legitimacy of effectiveness. Meaning do you do your fundamental job of driving crime down and violence down, and protecting the community? There is legitimacy as to lawfulness. Meaning when you’re doing that job, are you obeying the law and not placing yourself above the law or violating the law? Then there’s legitimacy of fairness and this is really a concept that’s been championed by Tracy Meares and Tom Tyler, they call it procedural justice. Does the community, even if you’re being effective and even if you’re being lawful, do they view you as being fair, and benevolent, and working in collaboration with them?

What we are seeing from the research is that you really need all three. In New York, you have the police being highly legitimate as a matter of effectiveness. They are arguably legitimate as a matter of lawfulness, although this has been disputed in the courts, but let’s assume for the purposes of this argument that they are.

That last strain of legitimacy, legitimacy as a matter of fairness, the perception is is that NYPD has not been acting in a fair and neutral manner. That’s a critical omission and that’s one of the real challenges that NYPD and, I think, that police are looking at. The NYPD is, I assume, I think, very surprised by this. They’re saying, “We’re doing a good job in terms of reducing crime and we’re doing it within the law,” as they perceive it, “What is the problem?”

The problem is is that they really haven’t listened to the community and really engaged on that fairness component of legitimacy and part of the issue is going back to people and places. The New York Police Department is very good about focusing resources in specific places. If there’s a lot of shootings in a particular area before this new era with Bratton coming in, so it was Ray Kelly era of a few years ago, they would flood those areas with police officers and do lots of what’s called stop and frisks, and people are probably very familiar with that term.

When there was resistance to this strategy and the community said, “Why are you stopping all of these people in our neighborhoods,” the answer from the NYPD was, “Well, this is where the crime is, and so we’re following the data, and so there should be no problem.” The problem was that as to place, but it wasn’t specific as to people. What they didn’t really appreciate is that even in an area that has a lot of crime and a lot of violence, most of the people living in that area are not involved. If you go into a neighborhood and treat everyone the same or, more accurately, every young man of color the same, you catch up in that broad net a lot of people who are not involved in crime and violence.

It’s really important to listen to the community. You have a lot of advocates, basically, pushing back on all types of police activity, but if you listen to communities what they’re saying is, “Look, there’s a small number of people in this community we want you to be very aggressive with, and we don’t care if stop and frisk them every 10 or 15 feet, but you need to understand our community better to know that one young man wearing baggy pants may be an active gang member and someone that law enforcement really needs to focus on. Another young man in baggy pants may be on his way to a job, may be on his way to Catholic school, may be on his way somewhere else. We want you to know our community and stay in your community enough so that you can make those critical distinctions.”

Leonard: Thomas Abt, before we go to the break, let me ask you a series of very quick questions and then we get into the larger conversation of what’s happening throughout the country. In essence, to all the people who are concerned about violence and violence reduction, we pretty much know from the law enforcement, criminal justice, parole and probation side. Correct or incorrect?

Thomas: I think it’s risky to say that we know anything with absolute certainty. All of this work is studied by social science and social science has limitations. I can tell you what we know best, but our information will evolve over time. I’d say there’s five core principles to reducing violence based on the best evidence we have today. In 10 years, this may evolve.

The first thing we know is that in order to reduce violence you need to be comprehensive. The police are a critical component of violence reduction, but they’re not the only people and that you need more than one program, more than one strategy, and you need more than one type of people involved.

The second thing we know is that if you have multiple players working together and multiple programs working together, it’s not surprise, they need to be aligned. The third thing that you need to do is be specific and that is that conversation that we just had about focusing on specific places and specific people.

The fourth thing you need to do is be proactive. You cannot wait until crime and violence occurs and then simply solve it by arresting, and prosecuting, and incarcerating your way out of it. You have to try to get ahead of the problem. Deter the crime before it occurs. Work with kids who are at risk for violence, and try to get them engaging in pro-social activities, and get them away from gangs, away from crews, and away from risky behavior. You need to get ahead of the problem.

Lastly, you need to focus on this concept of legitimacy. Legitimacy is not just about being effective but it’s also about being lawful and about being fair. Explaining why you’re in a particular community, what your strategy is, and really engaging with the community and other stakeholders so they know not just what you’re doing but why you’re doing it.

Leonard: We’re more than halfway through the program. We’re talking today to Thomas Abt. He is a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where he teaches, studies, and consults on the use of evidence-based approaches to violence reduction. Thomas, I’m going to summarize.

You gave a nice five-step summation of violence prevention. In essence, I hear two words coming out of this. One is fairness, one is quality. It’s not necessarily mass arrest, mass stops, but quality arrest, quality stops, and the perception on the part of the community as to whether or not they’re being treated fairly or not. Is it possible to break your discussion down into those two phrases?

Thomas: I think that’s a good overview. Obviously, if I was working on the ground consulting with a particular anti-violence task force, I might do that. It’s a fair overall summary.

Leonard: Okay. In essence, we have gone through the last 23 years of almost continuous reductions in crime. We have gone through, as we said in the article, an 88% reduction in homicides and shootings in New York City. Again, I go back to the conversations I had with people in law enforcement. They’re saying, “Well, you know, last year we were the heroes because we were sitting on top decades of reduction in crime. Now, we’re not. Now people are challenging the legitimacy of law enforcement and law enforcement tactics.” Is there anything that we can say to law enforcement officers who are terribly confused right now? It seems to me that your two concepts of fairness and equality seem to be the direction that we need to move in today.

Thomas: I think in terms of describing to the law enforcement community what happened, I consider myself a member of that community and I was surprised as well by the fervor that has really taken hold in the country. I think that one way to understand it is that we made a lot of public safety judgment calls in the late ’80s and early ’90s, in an era of high crime and increasing crime, and we thought incorrectly that crime rates were going to go up indefinitely. In the public safety community and in the broader public policy community, lots and lots of decisions and trade-offs were made in that context.

I think one of the things that’s exciting about this year and possibly years moving forward is we’re really starting a massive re-examination of all of those trade-offs, not just in terms of police using force but also incarnation and confinement rates, and lots of other questions. I think that’s a healthy thing because we are in a new era. Crime has been reduced 50%. Violence has been reduced 50% nationally. We talked about the tremendous success in New York City, but it’s happening around the country.

The first thing for us to realize in law enforcement is that times change and we need to change with them. We need to pay more attention not just to the legitimacy of effectiveness, but the legitimacy of lawfulness, and the legitimacy of fairness and realize, and this is very important, and it’s backed up by solid research, that all of these things are interconnected. If you’re perceived as fair, if you’re perceived as lawful, it will make your job catching bad guys easier.

It’s very important that we understand that this is not an either/or conversation as I said before. You don’t either make nice with the community or focus on catching the bad guys. The community is a key crime-fighting partner, and so the closer we work with them and the more effectively we work with them, the better we’ll be at catching bad guys.

Leonard: I had a conversation with a researcher from the Urban INStitute who stated emphatically, and it’s true, “We have never been safer. The United States has never seen such low rates of violent crime in our lifetimes.” In this year, we have never been safer in our lives. Thereby, you have people within the criminologic community, within the law enforcement community saying, “Wait a minute. We’ve given you the safest country in our lifetimes.” Suddenly, things have changed. What changed? What changed from the standpoint of the safest country, the safest decade, the safest year in our country’s last 25 years to this national discussion? What changed?

Thomas: President Obama actually talks, I think, quite well about this when he talks about progress in terms of racial equality. It’s important to recognize two things at the same time. Number one, in terms of public safety, that significant progress has been made; and number two, that we have a long way to go and that we’re not done. The fact that we’ve had significant progress in terms of making the country safer doesn’t mean that we don’t have more to do.

Also, it’s very important to remember that not everybody experiences public safety the same way. While listeners in suburban America may have one experience of public safety, listeners who are from or work in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage have a very different experience. For instance,  homicide for young white man and boys is the third leading cause of death, and that’s serious. For Latino young men and boys, it’s the second leading cause of death. For African-American young men and boys, it’s the leading cause of death and it causes more deaths than the nine other leading causes combined.

Leonard: In essence, what we need to do now is to come together for a conversation. We need to have an honest conversation where community members sit across the table with law enforcement officers to hammer out what it is that is susceptible in that community that until that power shift is very strong and very definitive, we’re not going to be able to solve this problem. We have a golden opportunity to solve it if we all agree to sit down at the same table, look each other in the eye, and have very honest maybe long delayed conversations that focus on your two main points, as far as I can tell, as far as I can see, fairness and equality.

Thomas: Yes. I think we also need to recognize that those conversations have been going on and there are lots of great examples of those conversations going well. Boston, in the 1900s, experienced the massive reduction in crime focusing the coming out of the Boston Gun Project with David Kennedy, Anthony Braga, and the Boston Police Department, but it was supported by the Boston TenPoint Coalition. A coalition of African-America community-based clergy, people like Jeff Brown, who were a critical element of that project and the overall effort to reduce violence success.

It’s not just about police, it’s not just about community. It’s about police, community, researchers, businesses, everyone coming together and working on the problem together. Again, it’s always about avoiding these either/or conversations. We can have a conversation that is just about police reform, but it’ll miss something. We can have a conversation that is just about crime in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage, but that will also miss something. For our law enforcement partners, we need to reinforce the idea that you will be judged on not just how well you effectively reduce crime, but also how well you engage with the community and explain what you’re doing, and do that in a legitimate and lawful way.

Leonard: You did put it in perspective, and I thought it was powerful, because when you talk to people in law enforcement they will say, “I’ve been to the community meetings and I get yelled at, screamed at. Get them off the corner. They’re bothering people in the community. They are destroying the fabric of life. They are endangering our children.” A lot of folks in law enforcement is saying, “We have been listening to the community and the community has told us to take aggressive action.”

You’re saying that it really is a matter of not everybody in the community. You’re talking about very specific people and places, and that’s where the focus should be. That answers the folks in law enforcement when they express confusion. “Hey, wait a minute. The community told us to be aggressive. You’re saying the community told us to be aggressive towards very specific people and very specific places.”

Thomas: Yes. I think a lot of police forces understand that and those police forces, like the police forces in Boston, the police forces in Los Angeles, like many others, are not having the same problems that we’re having in Baltimore or we’re having in Ferguson. It’s very important to realize that there are lot of successful, highly effective, highly lawful, highly fair police departments that are really already incorporated these lessons. You don’t hear a lot about them because the community is not outraged by them.

Leonard: Because they’ve been doing it well all along.

Thomas: Maybe not all along, but they’ve certainly been doing it well for a number of years.

Leonard: The last 10 years, yes.

Thomas: There’s a responsibility to have a public conversation that goes beyond the police. It’s not just about how the police respond to this. There’s also a responsibility for journalists and a responsibility for advocates. Just as we can’t paint disadvantaged communities with a broad brush, we shouldn’t paint police officers with a broad brush. I think that they have a responsibility as well to understand that while we should keep the pressure on to introduce meaningful reforms to improve policing, the idea is not to attack policing or undermine it all together. I think that we need to understand that police are extremely important, and valuable, and honorable part of our communities, and that doesn’t mean that we don’t hold them to a high standard.

Leonard: Thomas, we’re going to have to close there because we are running out of time, but I do appreciate this conversation and the focus does seem to be on legitimacy, the focus does seem to be in fairness, and the focus does seem to be on equality. Ladies and gentlemen, we have been talking to Thomas Abt today. Thomas Abt is a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where he teaches, studies, and consults on the use of evidence-based approaches violence reduction. Ladies and gentlemen, this is D.C. Public Safety. We appreciate your comments, we even appreciate your criticisms, and we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

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