The Program that Stops Gun Homicides

Today I am mostly going to link to a piece and and quote the specific parts that stand out. It’s good enough to stand on its own, and worth reading in full. In any case, it’s an article in The New Republic, and you can find it here.

Now, excerpts:

Many people viewed inner-city shootings as an intractable problem. But for two years, McBride had been spreading awareness about Ceasefire, a nearly two-decades-old strategy that had upended how police departments dealt with gang violence Under Ceasefire, police teamed up with community leaders to identify the young men most at risk of shooting someone or being shot, talked to them directly about the risks they faced, offered them support, and promised a tough crackdown on the groups that continued shooting In Boston, the city that developed Ceasefire, the average monthly number of youth homicides dropped by 63 percent in the two years after it was launched. The U.S. Department of Justice’s “what works” website for crime policy had a green check mark next to Ceasefire, labeling it “effective”—the highest rating and one few programs received.

McBride wanted President Obama to make Ceasefire and similar programs part of his post-Newtown push to reduce gun violence. He had brought a short memo to give to White House staffers, outlining a plan to devote $500 million over five years to scaling such programs nationwide. His pitch to Biden that day was even simpler: Don’t ignore that black children are dying too. 

In response, the vice president agreed urban violence was very important, McBride said. But it was clear that “there was not a lot of appetite for that conversation by folks in the meeting,” McBride recalled.

Later, other ministers who worked with McBride would get an even blunter assessment from a White House staffer: There was no political will in the country to address inner-city violence.

Twenty years of government-funded research has shown there are several promising strategies to prevent murders of black men, including Ceasefire. They don’t require passing new gun laws, or an epic fight with the National Rifle Association. What they need—and often struggle to get—is political support and a bit of money.

Almost two-thirds of America’s more than 30,000 annual gun deaths are suicides, most of them committed by white men. In 2009, the gun homicide rate for white Americans was 2 per 100,000—about seven times as high as the rate for residents of Denmark, but a fraction of the rate for black Americans. In 2009, black Americans faced a gun homicide rate of nearly 15 per 100,000. That’s higher than the gun homicide rate in Mexico.

Lost in the debate is that even in high-crime cities, the risk of gun violence is mostly concentrated among a small number of men. In Oakland, for instance, crime experts working with the police department a few years ago found that about 1,000 active members of a few dozen street groups drove most homicides. That’s .3 percent of Oakland’s population. And even within this subgroup, risk fluctuated according to feuds and other beefs. In practical terms, the experts found that over a given stretch of several months only about 50 to 100 men are at the highest risk of shooting someone or getting shot.

Most of these men have criminal records. But it’s not drug deals or turf wars that drives most of the shootings.

Instead, the violence often starts with what seems to outsiders like trivial stuff—“a fight over a girlfriend, a couple of words, a dispute over a dice game,” said Vaughn Crandall, a senior strategist at the California Partnership for Safe Communities, which did the homicide analysis for Oakland.

Somebody gets shot. These are men who do not trust the police to keep them safe, so “they take matters into their own hands,” he said. It’s long-running feuds, Crandall said, that drive most murders in Oakland.

Other cities have tried Ceasefire, or half-tried it, and then abandoned it. The strategy requires resources, political buy-in, and ongoing trust between unlikely partners. The effort in Boston had “black and Latin and Cape Verdean clergy working with white Irish Catholic cops in a city that had a history of race relations leading up to that point that was abysmal,” Brown said. “It was really a shift in behavior, in the way we did business.”

Part of what seems to make Ceasefire effective is that it treats the men it targets as both dangerous and also in need of help. Such initiatives, however, fit into no political camp and thus have few powerful champions.

“It has no natural constituency,” said Thomas Abt, a Harvard Kennedy School researcher who has worked on crime policy at the Justice Department. “To vastly oversimplify, progressives want more prevention and conservatives want more enforcement. Focused deterrence”—what academics call Ceasefire and similar approaches—“challenges the orthodoxy on both sides. It makes everybody uncomfortable.”

In 2012, Oakland recommitted itself to Ceasefire. It hired a full-time manager for the program, using both city dollars and part of a 2013 Justice Department grant. The city also dedicated funds to work with a team of experts who had helped other cities implement Ceasefire. The experts  helped Oakland do a detailed data analysis homing in on the men who needed to be called in. There were only 20 guys at the first relaunched call-in—“but they were 20 of the right guys,” said Armstrong.

Murders dropped from 126 in 2012 to 90 in 2013, according to police department data. Last year, Oakland had 80 murders.

The national groups that spend the most money and do the most advocacy related to gun violence have concentrated almost exclusively on passing stricter gun control laws. Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said he’s “very supportive” of strategies like Ceasefire, but “it’s not our lane.”

A spokeswoman for Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety said much the same. “We’re focused on what we know, which is how to improve the laws,” said Erika Soto Lamb.

Declines in violent crime over the last two decades have made it harder to galvanize support for gun violence prevention. The number of Americans murdered by guns peaked in 1993, then dropped sharply until 2000 for reasons that are still not fully understood. Since then, the number of Americans killed in gun homicides has remained remarkably consistent, about 11,000 to 12,000 a year.

Though Justice Department grants for community violence prevention weren’t part of the post-Sandy Hook platform, a staffer said “we were watching the fiscal year 2014 budget process and making sure we were continuing to push for those resources at DOJ.” Bruce Reed, Biden’s chief of staff at the time, said budget concerns likely kept funding for innovative local efforts out of the package.

“We didn’t want to turn this into an appropriations bill, because that would be … ” he said, shrugging. “That would cost us whatever Republicans we had hoped for.”

“The appropriations climate was, if possible, more divisive than the gun debate,” Reed added later. “We were always between shutdowns.”

Former administration officials said they thought it was tragic that the everyday killings of black children did not get more political attention. “I totally agree with their frustrations,” a former official said. “At the same time, when the nation listens, you’ve got to speak, and you don’t get to pick when the nation listens.”

It would turn out there was little political will to realize the administration’s gun-violence proposals either. Measures to expand background checks and ban assault weapons died on April 17, 2013, when they couldn’t muster the votes necessary to advance in the Senate.

New Orleans and Kansas City both saw drops in violence that researchers have credited to their new Ceasefire programs. Chicago has been rolling out call-ins to an increasing number of police districts. Gary, Indiana, and Birmingham, Alabama, both launched new Ceasefire programs this year. Cities have often paid for the programs using money from a variety of sources: federal dollars, local governments, and, increasingly, local foundations.

Obama has launched an initiative to support young men and boys of color. One of its stated goals of My Brother’s Keeper, which kicked off last year, is reducing violence. The initiative is backed by more than $500 million in corporate and philanthropic commitments. But most of that money has been devoted to mentoring and education programs.

When Jeff Brown was at the White House recently for an initiative on extremism, he ran into Biden.

“The vice president walked up to me and said, ‘Reverend Brown, good to see you,’” Brown said. Biden said he remembered meeting Brown back in the ‘90s, when he visited Boston to hear more about Operation Ceasefire and the Boston Miracle.

“I hope we can bring back some of what we did in Boston,” Brown said he told the vice president.

“I hope so, too,” Biden replied.

Brown laughed at the memory. “You’re the vice president—can’t you do something about it?”

Photo by Rod Waddington

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James
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The Program that Stops Gun Homicides

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