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Deep inside President Joe Biden’s 11,700-word plan to revamp the nation’s infrastructure is one sentence that could transform the way America deals with gun violence.
It pledges $5 billion over eight years for “evidence based” community violence-prevention programs — or programs that treat gun violence as a public health crisis, rooted in economic insecurity and chronic trauma, rather than as a problem best solved by law enforcement. The projects would target economically distressed neighborhoods where Black and Latino people are disproportionately affected by gun violence.
The proposal represents an unprecedented investment in violence prevention. But it’s a long way off from becoming reality. Congress will have to approve the spending as part of a $2.1 trillion bill bankrolled by corporate tax hikes, which Republicans — and some centrist Democrats — say gives too much money to projects that have nothing to do with infrastructure.
And then there’s the question of which violence prevention programs deserve the money.
The Biden administration hasn’t offered many details. But researchers have identified several types of community-led programs they say help curb shootings sparked by arguments, drug rivalries and gang conflicts. All have one theme in common: the importance of identifying the people who are most at risk of shooting someone or becoming victims themselves and giving them intense help — from housing to employment to mental health services, including care for the psychological trauma that makes violence contagious.
Created in Boston in the 1990s, the model brings together police, prosecutors, outreach workers and service agencies, who identify the people most at risk of being affected by gun violence. The people are called into a meeting and are offered help — jobs, housing, health care — and warned that if they reject the help and are involved in violence, they’ll be targeted for law enforcement crackdowns.
Researchers have found that the method can dramatically reduce shootings. It has succeeded in Oakland, California, where it was credited with helping to cut homicides in half from 2012 to 2018. (As in many big cities, homicides increased in Oakland last year.) But community activists in some cities have argued against the use of focused deterrence because of its reliance on police, which they say can damage public trust.
Cities including Philadelphia and Baltimore dropped their programs years ago after funding and elected officials’ interest waned, though they have recently decided to try again in response to rising homicide rates. The cost of the programs in Philadelphia has been estimated at $750,000 a year, and about $600,000 in Baltimore.
“When done well, it can be an effective strategy, but it should never be done absent services,” said David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, which helped Oakland develop its program. “Enforcement should be a last resort.”
This method centers on outreach workers — people with street credibility, often people who have spent time in prison or who have past involvement in gun violence. Trained in crisis intervention, they develop relationships with high-risk people and keep an eye out for simmering disputes, stepping in to help people resolve them before someone fires a gun. The workers also try to steer people into social services.
Interrupter programs have been credited with reduced violence in several big cities, including parts of New York, where a version called Cure Violence, developed at the University of Chicago, helped cut shootings by 40 percent. But researchers say the model can falter if workers aren’t given enough training or technical assistance, or if officials don’t commit to it for the long term. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed last year to spend $10 million to expand Cure Violence into four high-crime areas.
Hospital-based anti-violence programs focus their attention on emergency rooms. While the victim is still receiving treatment, intervention specialists try to dissuade them from seeking retaliation. They also steer victims toward long-term help, not only with their wounds, but also with mental health care, substance abuse treatment, job placement and housing.
A study of one such program, at the R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, found participants less likely to commit crimes. The program also cut costs of incarceration and health care.
“Our programs are economic development programs,” said Fatimah Loren Dreier, executive director of The Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, a network of hospital-based intervention programs, including Shock Trauma. “We don’t call them that, but one of the core drivers of violence is the inability to meet one’s economic needs.”
Cognitive behavioral therapy
The cyclical nature of gun violence — beefs that boil over into shootings, which spark retaliatory attacks — is driven by chronic trauma that makes people constantly fear for their lives and use firearms to solve problems, experts say. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches people to come to terms with their trauma and reject violence as a way of resolving disputes. Outreach workers act as life coaches and mentors, maintaining close contact over months or years.
One version, called Advance Peace, pays clients for reaching certain goals. A recent study found it helped drive down gun violence in several California cities, costing them from $375,000 to $450,000 a year. Another version, READI Chicago, has shown promising early results in keeping clients engaged and out of trouble.
“The people I am trying to highlight, the people being shot, no one gives a s--- about them because they’re Black or they talk funny or their pants are saggy or they’ve been in prison,” Eddie Bocanegra, senior director at READI Chicago, said. “The $5 billion presents an opportunity to provide services to them, ways to help them heal.”
Biden’s plan comes at a time when homicides and shootings have surged in America, in part because of pandemic-related economic distress and the fallout from the May 25 killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. Many community-based anti-violence programs, which depend on maintaining close watch over at-risk people, have been slowed by Covid-19 restrictions on social interactions.
The proposal fits in with a larger movement to reduce America’s reliance on police and to make the criminal justice system more equitable, advocates say. Gun violence is the leading cause of death of young Black men and the second leading killer of young Latino men, according to researchers.
"This is an opportunity to redefine what public safety means,” said Anthony Smith, executive director of Cities United, a Louisville, Kentucky-based nonprofit that helps mayors develop public safety initiatives. “This country has been used to working one way, which works for white people and not for Black people, for wealthy people and not for poor folks. So, we need to put resources behind strategies and solutions we know will work for everyone.”
For Biden, a longtime proponent of tighter regulations on firearms and police crackdowns on gun crimes, the plan is a response to Black leaders’ demands that the violence in their communities receive the same attention as mass shootings, and that residents of their communities have more say in how to make them safer. While he was running for president, Biden pledged $900 million for community violence programs over eight years. When he won, he included local anti-violence advocates on his transition team, where they developed ideas for a more ambitious plan.
After Biden took office, a coalition of Black and Latino advocates published an open letter asking that he pledge $5.3 billion for community-led anti-violence programs and prioritize them in the awarding of federal grants. Biden fulfilled the first request in his American Jobs Plan, announced March 31. He responded to the second last week, when he announced other ways he’d invest in the programs.
Biden and anti-violence advocates say the $5 billion is a relatively small down payment against the estimated $280 billion that gun violence costs America each year, and the disproportionate damage inflicted on Black and brown people.
“It’s exciting because we know the solution to ending gun violence is investing in people,” said Gregory Jackson, advocacy director at the Community Justice Action Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for anti-violence programs. “That’s how you prevent violence. Not by reacting to it.”