Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Evidence shows that investing in community interventions, not more “tough on crime” law enforcement approaches, is key to effective and sustainable anti-violence work.
Gun violence is reportedly happening at levels many cities have not seen in decades. In New York City, police reported a 16% rise in shooting incidents between March 2021 and March 2022. But in response to these reports of rising gun violence, many city leaders are turning to “tough on crime” approaches that evidence shows can be counterproductive to creating stable, long-term community safety.
The Urban Institute’s recent work on the state of youth gun violence interventions found that in the face of rising violence, investment is critical at two levels: supporting community-led safety solutions at the ground level, and building the government infrastructure to ensure that high-quality anti-violence work is done consistently and sustainably.
The following five evidence-supported strategies are necessary for cities to reduce gun violence and support successful anti-violence work.
1. Focus on the relatively small number of people at the center of gun violence. Local leaders can use community gun violence problem analysis to identify the people who are at the highest risk of shooting and being shot. Those individuals are often less than one half of 1% of a city’s population. Focusing on this group allows for a more proactive approach that creates the opportunity to reach out to this small group of people, interrupt and mediate conflicts among them and connect them with protective social and economic services. These outreach efforts need to be delivered by credible messengers whose knowledge of local community context and lived experiences create the trusting relationships necessary to start and sustain engagement with anti-violence interventions.
2. Provide direct investment to law enforcement for practical, community-engaged approaches. Unfocused policing strategies that increase police contact with entire neighborhoods can harm community trust and ultimately lead to more violence. Research shows that police agencies are more effective in reducing shootings, homicides and arrests under a focused deterrence model, in which police work in close partnership with community leaders and intervention practitioners. Together, these partners engage people at the highest risk of being shot with direct, respectful communication about that risk, services and support to address it, and the promise of focused enforcement against people who continue to engage in gun violence.
Other evidence also shows that when police departments make an organizational commitment to significantly increase clearance rates on homicide and shooting cases, they succeed in doing so. Such approaches allow cities to better leverage law enforcement to focus on their core contributions to reducing violence while partnering with affected communities. But there are significant limits to law enforcement’s ability to resolve violence.
3. Invest in community-based anti-violence work. Cities can’t solve gun violence without authentically listening to those who are at the center of it. Additional investment in law enforcement-only approaches won’t suffice: violence travels too quickly and escalates too fast, especially with firearms so accessible and powerful. For cities to solve gun violence, they need to make investments in building, empowering and equipping communities and their leaders.
Local gun violence reduction strategies have grown well beyond traditional enforcement approaches. There is widespread support and potential for serious federal investment in community violence interventions (CVIs) that focus on relational work with people most likely to be involved in gun violence. Investing more in hiring conflict mediators or violence interrupters can prevent conflicts from escalating into violence.
Complementing these crisis response components is an emerging body of work around decision making interventions for the highest risk population. While research on CVIs is promising, it’s also mixed, and more work is needed to help all CVIs succeed. CVIs are complex, highly variable, and rely on investments in social support, trauma-responsive community resources, and consistent guidance and mentorship. Specifically, CVIs need investments in training, professional development and skill-building for community leaders and organizations.
4. Take a sustained, long-term approach to addressing gun violence. To make progress in reducing gun violence, cities need to change the way they view and respond to the problem. Reducing gun violence requires specific kinds of political governance that supports building devoted infrastructure and the use of rigorous management practices to ensure anti-violence work is done consistently and at a high level. These broad, strategic aspects require sustained government-level coordination, attention and funding. Without that local government role, anti-violence initiative partners are on their own, and the work suffers.
5. Make organizational changes to ensure reducing gun violence is a priority. Local political leaders should commit to reducing gun violence in their policy priorities. Additionally, local leaders should designate a specific—like Offices of Violence Prevention—and give it a clear mandate to reduce shootings and homicides. These offices need to be equipped with adequate staffing, resources and data infrastructure to coordinate complex crisis intervention and direct service programs. Without such a commitment, the organizational changes necessary to implement effective CVI strategies are nearly impossible to achieve.
A long history of inequity in opportunity and protection underlies the concentration of gun violence. For this reason alone, city leaders owe the people in these places their best effort to create safer communities. Support for community-driven approaches to reducing gun violence has never been more widespread, and it is critical for local leaders to ensure these approaches are as strong as possible to meet this moment of crisis.
The keys to successful CVIs are to show consistency and follow through with people involved in gun violence. CVI strategies need ongoing and active political support from elected officials and community stakeholders to deliver this consistency. Many cities are making greater and more community-focused commitments to effective anti-violence work than ever before, but success requires a solid foundation to follow through, right now and for years to come.
Jesse Jannetta is a senior policy fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Vaughn Crandall is executive director of the California Partnership for Safe Communities. Shani Buggs is an assistant professor with the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California Davis.