To stop the spike in urban violence, engage those most at risk

(Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post; iStock)

Thomas Abt is a senior fellow with the Council on Criminal Justice and the author of “Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence — and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets.”

2020 was a violent year.

In Washington, D.C., homicides hit a 16-year high, prompting the mayor to formally declare a public health emergency. In New York City, murders increased nearly 45 percent and shootings nearly doubled. In Los Angeles, violent deaths surged past 300 for the first time since 2009. As my colleague Richard Rosenfeld and I reported, homicide rates across U.S. cities were almost 30 percent higher in 2020 than in 2019, marking what looks like the largest single-year increase ever documented by official crime statistics.

To understand why homicide rates are rising, it’s essential to recognize that the vast majority of murders in the United States involve a surprisingly small number of people — mostly young men living in urban communities without many opportunities or much hope. Overwhelmingly, these young men victimize one another, caught up in cycles of violent retribution that can span years. Reach them and you can stem our nation’s problem with violent crime.

For this group of Americans, life is hard under the best of circumstances. They are among the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised in our society. Perhaps most important, they are traumatized — deeply wounded and haunted by the violence they have already experienced in life. Studies show higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among these men than among veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

The pandemic only made matters worse. Covid-19 has impacted us all,, but cases and deaths have concentrated in precisely the same neighborhoods where these young men live. The resulting physical, emotional and financial strains have hit them especially hard. According to both strain theory and common sense, when people are placed under pressure, they are more likely to act out angrily, even violently.

Then came the killing of George Floyd. For these young men, Floyd’s death reinforced their own negative experiences with law enforcement in communities with long collective memories of police mistreatment. Every highly publicized incident only reminds them that they are on their own. When they feel threatened, they sometimes take the law into their own hands because they do not trust law enforcement to help them. Criminologists call this legal cynicism, and where it exists, violence usually follows.

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Crime rises and falls for complex reasons. But almost every successful anti-violence strategy has one thing in common: face-to-face interaction with these desperate men. Street outreach workers take them out for pizza to counsel against retaliation. Service and treatment providers sit with them in cubicles and offer assistance. And police — yes, police — engage with them, too, sometimes threatening punishment but offering protection as well.

Tragically, these strategies weren’t supported nearly enough before the pandemic, but they were still working, tamping down the nation’s homicide problem. Then, suddenly, they stopped. Police, exhausted by the pandemic and protests, pulled back from discretionary law enforcement. Physical distancing mandates and slashed budgets prevented outreach workers and service providers from connecting with clients. To a much greater extent, the young men at the center of the nation’s violent crime crisis were left to fend for themselves. With the threat of arrest reduced and the promise of a better life foreclosed, simmering feuds boiled over.

Chicago is a compelling example. In June of last year, arrests by police declined by 55 percent, but homicides rose by 83 percent. At the same time, READI Chicago, an anti-violence initiative that offers employment and therapy to the highest-risk men in the city, was cut off from participants and forced to lay off employees. READI prides itself on its proven ability to save lives, but this summer five participants were shot and killed in just five weeks.

To reduce violence and save lives, we must immediately reconnect with the young men at the center of this crisis. Proven strategies such as Oakland Ceasefire feature “call-ins” where potential shooters are confronted with a double message of accountability and empathy, a tactic that has reduced shootings and homicides there by almost half. Los Angeles intervention workers engage gang members directly to defuse conflicts before they turn violent, reducing retaliations by 43 percent. Unfortunately, in city after city, approaches such as these have been upended either by the pandemic or by a toxic political atmosphere that sets law enforcement and residents against one another.

If we “covid-proof” these strategies with vaccinations, personal protective equipment and some other easy adjustments, anti-violence efforts can restart before the pandemic wanes. If we put politics aside and bring cops and communities together, we can get back to work as reforms are put into place.

President Biden has pledged $900 million to cities for proven anti-violence strategies, and one hopes that Congress will match his commitment. We know how to reduce violence — we have done it in city after city — but somehow we can’t find the will to sustain these efforts. The pandemic has shown us the damage done by pulling back, but we need to do much more than return to the status quo.

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