Cities across the U.S. are struggling with tragic increases in community violence, what can be done? Could a tough-on-crime task force stop the killing? How about mentorship and job programs for youth? A gun buyback program?
State and local policymakers are trying all of these approaches, despite a wide body of evidence demonstrating their ineffectiveness.
It’s easy for cities to fund programs that sound good on paper but work only temporarily, or don’t work at all. Meanwhile, they often miss out on investing in interventions that are proven to reduce violence.
That problem is what led Thomas Abt, a and researcher on community violence at the University of Maryland, to launch the new Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction, also known as the Violence Reduction Center (VRC), reports Arnold Ventures, which is helping fund the effort.
“We’re here to save lives by stopping violence,” Abt said. “The way we do that is by getting the best science on violence reduction and making it available, free of charge, to policymakers and practitioners.”
VRC's mission is twofold: to gather and share the most rigorous evidence on effective community violence interventions, and to help city leaders choose and apply the right combination of strategies to reduce violence locally. Abt and his colleagues work with both government officials and community representatives to improve community safety for the long term. The spike in violence has helped produced unprecedented new funding for anti-violence programs at every level of government. The 2022 federal Safer Communities Act made $250 million of federal funding available for local community violence intervention initiatives, and 15 states have pledged a total of $700 million for community safety and wellbeing programming.
Spending those funds well is key to saving lives. “So many cities are struggling to understand how to effectively reduce violence,” said Walter Katz of Arnold Ventures. “But they don’t necessarily have access to research about what works.”
On the research side, the new center is working on two major projects. One is a systematic meta-review of all anti-violence strategies, building on Abt’s previous research. The other is a systematic review of street outreach work, an intervention that employs community workers to intervene in conflicts and connect high-risk people with services. Both studies should be published next year.
Some strategies have been shown to reduce violence effectively. Focused deterrence — which brings law enforcement together with community members and social service providers to offer both a legal warning and community resources to high-risk people — has been linked to a 43 percent decline in homicides in Oakland and major violence reductions elsewhere.
“The common denominator,” Abt says, “is that these approaches focus on the highest-risk people and places, balance punishment with rewards, and forge connections with local communities so that they are perceived as fair and legitimate.”
Building legitimacy is especially important to reducing violence, says University of Maryland criminology Prof. Rod Brunson, who is advising Abt Strategies that use aggressive law enforcement tactics in neighborhoods of color often damage police legitimacy in the eyes of the community, making residents less likely to cooperate on solving violent crimes.
“Anti-violence strategies need to be implemented as part of broader public safety initiatives rooted in fairness, equity, and procedural justice,” Brunson said. “Police will be better equipped to help prevent and solve crime if the community sees them as having the moral authority to do so.”
The VRC is ramping up to work with a small number of cities using a training format called the “practicum.” Over a few days, VRC staff collaborates with senior city leadership, including the mayor, police executives, social workers, and community representatives, helping them put together a plan and then assisting as the city puts it into action. In December, VRC held its first practicum with leaders in Knoxville, Tn., which saw its highest homicide numbers on record in 2020 and 2021.
The VRC willbenefit from the participation of Bianca Bersani, a professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and Joseph Richardson, the university’s Joel and Kim Feller Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology.