Shootings involving young men in street gangs are not inevitable, they are preventable. BUT success requires our leaders to be smarter about getting results, particularly by re-balancing funding between smart policing and targeted social development.
Among the actions for legislators are to:
1. Invest now in the social agencies that are able to assist young men in problem places to choose a lifestyle free from handguns. One example is the proposed Youth Promise Act.
2. Encourage cities to take a leadership role in “public health” strategies that reduce inner-city violence such as demonstrated by Glasgow in Scotland.
3. Support the work of networks, such as the networks of cities in California organized by the National League of Cities and across the USA, linked to the Prevention Institute, known as UNITY, to share and implement best practices for comprehensive, evidence-based gun and street gang violence prevention.
4. Get the important crimesolutions.gov website to include examples of the successful prevention of street gang violence so that legislators can access the full spectrum of actions that stop crime – best practice from Minneapolis and Glasgow must be easily available on the web.
Street gang violence is not new. West Side Story even romanticized it in the 1960´s. What is new is that social science research and government statistics can identify both the hall marks of why young men drift into these gangs and strategies that have successfully reduced the problem.
We know that young men drift into loosely knit gangs that provide them with bonding and thrills. The gangs often involve violence that inflicts serious injuries or death on similarly situated young men in other gangs. The men often have histories of being victims and witnesses of violence in their homes. They may have already been difficult to manage in primary school and then dropped out of secondary school. The impact of the many negative life experiences are exacerbated, rather than helped, by contacts with police, governmental social agencies and incarceration.
Targeting social services to overcome these problems, for instance by reducing domestic violence, school failure or substance abuse and so on, reduces youth violence and street gang involvement. Today a wealth of under-used examples of effective programs are available at the click of a mouse.
In addition, Boston in the 1990´s demonstrated that shootings were preventable by first analyzing the problem and then applying the solution to smart policing and focused youth outreach. But unfortunately, the city did not have a permanent leadership center that is a key component of good practice to sustain the success. So the violence returned.
The US Department of Justice fostered the smart enforcement approach in multiple cities across the USA in the 2000´s with Project Safe Neighborhoods. Yes, some violence was averted but without the focused youth outreach, the reductions were usually modest.
In Chicago, the interrupters had proved by 2008 that it reduced shootings through the Cure Violence strategy. Its ability to foster conflict mediation correlated with fewer shootings in Baltimore in 2012.
But lack of realistic sustained funding in some of the vulnerable neighborhoods may have let the violence continue in Chicago. And the lack of investment in effective preventive strategies unfortunately allows headlines to come back again and again.
Across the Atlantic, the City of Glasgow used the knowledge about diagnosing the problem and engaging both police and social services to cut violence in their high priority neighborhoods by 50% within 3 years – an impressive success rate. They established a permanent leadership centre – the Violence Reduction Unit – and combined smart policing with investments in the range of social actions to tackle those negative life experiences.
Some cities in the US have picked up the baton, but we need many more and we need them as well funded on prevention as in reaction. The Prevention Institute has promoted project UNITY to build support for effective, sustainable efforts to prevent violence before it occurs so that urban youth can thrive. This engages more than a dozen major cities.
The National League of Cities is also in partnership with 13 major cities in California to combat gang violence by focusing on successful practices that braid prevention, intervention, enforcement, and a community’s “moral voice”.
There are also ways of using health emergencies and data much more effectively, including counselling in, and outreach from, emergency wards.
So What is Missing? To be effective, these programs must be sustained, targeted to where a diagnosis shows they are needed, and implemented by professionals whose jobs are as permanent and rewarded as in the enforcement aspects of public safety.
The US Department of Justice has talked of braiding its funding with other federal agencies to help the local communities, as these lack the sustained and adequate funding that is needed. It talks of being Smart on Crime. Cities face the crunch of police budgets. Governments stagger under the debt of mass incarceration.
My reading of the evidence is much stronger, and given the challenge, there is a need to be much bolder. An investment that grows each year by as little as one per cent of what is spent on reacting to violence could stop shootings and street violence by 50% within five years.
The numbers of young men killed every year, and the hope provided by the proven evidence, underline the need not just for smart on crime but bolder smarter crime control that stops victimization, avoids lives and taxes being wasted and is consistent with the right of potential victims to the best public safety consistent with current knowledge.