Crime programs reduce violence by focusing on what works
Residents of Avondale, a poor neighborhood in Cincinnati, have long accepted nightly gunfire and the distinction of having one of the highest homicide rates in the city. This year, however, they are keeping their fingers crossed because something remarkable appears to be happening. Not a single murder has been reported in 2012. If the turnabout holds, give credit to a groundbreaking police-community program that uses research-based strategies to combat violent behavior.
The St. Louis Police Department has experimented with research-based anti-violence strategies, too. It recently devoted more manpower to various hot spot locations during a 30-day period, a move that reduced violent crime in those areas. But the Cincinnati project, called Moral Voice, is part of much broader evidence-based initiatives involving lots of police and communities across the nation.
Such programs come as violence is regarded increasingly as a public health problem and the focus is on the role of public-health professionals in preventing it. Those issues will be discussed during a free conference Tuesday afternoon at Washington University Institute for Public Health. The main speaker will be Dr. James S. Marks, senior vice president and director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The Cincinnati project wouldn’t exist were it not for Operation Ceasefire, which began in Boston during the 1990s. The program caught the public’s eye at the time because it was credited with a 60 percent drop in homicides among victims age 24 and under.
Officials say Ceasefire made a difference in part because the research behind it helped police and the public better understand gang violence and devise better strategies to address it. The research showed that while gangs were thought to be responsible for more than 60 percent of homicides in Boston, those behind the killings turned out to make up a relatively small percentage of gang members. Many gang members had never fired a weapon, let alone killed someone. That finding helped researchers refine which members required extra attention from law enforcement.
The program also included some pretty simple and blunt advice for all members of gangs. They were brought into the open for separate formal meetings or “call-ins” with various community and law enforcement partners. The basic message was that violence was not acceptable and would not be tolerated. They were offered a carrot: Churches, youth workers, probation and parole officers and others would help them get services to turn their lives around. But at every step of the way was the underlying message that those refusing to change their violent behavior would face stiffer responses from the criminal justice system.
The strategy has paid off, says Maria Cheevers, director of research for the Boston Police Deprtment. She concedes that Boston still experiences gang violence but she say it occurs less frequently. The basic Ceasefire mission hasn’t changed over the years, she says, except to improve its “tactics and strategies to get a kid to start doing something more productive” instead of engaging in bad behavior and getting locked up.
She believes Ceasefire could work in St. Louis and most other cities as long as city leaders understand the intense work that goes into making a ceasefire effective. Among other things, she says it requires an unusually high level of cooperation and collaboration among district attorneys, probation and parole officers, youth services groups and others to build communications about issues such as “who to watch, who’s going into lockup, who’s coming out, who shot who, and who’s going to retaliate and try to shoot someone else.”
David M. Kennedy, who is credited with developing the program that sharply reduced youth homicide, is now director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He’s also author of "Don’t Shoot," a combination memoir and discussion of Ceasefire and other evidence-based programs. He writes that the research showed how misguided some public assumptions had been about gang culture and violence. The public might assume that the killings are overwhelmingly about money, drugs, territory and other issues.
Instead, Kennedy writes, “Over and over and over,” the violence was about “beefs – standing vendettas between the groups. It cemented the realization that our old ‘juvenile gun homicide’ framing had been entirely wrong.”
That comment about vendettas reinforces Cheevers’ point about the need to include retaliatory shootings in the mix of strategies in a successful ceasefire program because it can help police anticipate some revenge homicides by targeting those who might commit them.
Cincinnati’s Moral Voice program is affiliated with another Kennedy-affiliated group called the National Network for Safe Communities. The network operates in 21 states, including Illinois, and covers about 50 cities, none in Missouri. Many of the cities have set up ceasefire programs similar to Boston’s, and that follow the network’s 12-step process for reducing gun violence.
There are plenty of other evidence-based approaches to reducing violence. One in the state of Washington is called Aggression Replacement Training or ART. It focuses not only on whether a program is effective but whether its costs justify the investment.
Under ART, a selected number of people entering probation is screened for participation in the 10-week program to improve their social skills, confidence, moral reasoning and ways to reduce anger and aggressive behavior, says Elizabeth Drake, senior research associate at the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. It is a nonpartisan research organization funded mainly through state money and charged with evaluating state investments in programs such as ART.
“We’ve found that there are all sorts of intervention programs that are effective in reducing crime,” she says. “Even incarceration does that. But the approach in Washington state is to find out how can we control incarceration rates and still reduce crime while controlling taxpayer spending.”
Drake says ART accommodates 1,500 participants a year, at a cost of slightly more than $1,540 each. The savings are remarkable. She says the cost-benefit ratio is $10.70 for each $1 invested in the program. This is based on savings in criminal justice costs and victimization expenses as a result of the $1,540 investment in each participant to help divert them from more crime and jail.