‘A slap in the face’: crime rise warnings ignore years of work by local organizers
Unlike in previous decades, there are many successful US gun violence prevention groups with a record of saving lives
The last time homicide rates in Tinisch Hollins’s home town of San Francisco surged, she had few places to turn for support beside the police.
Homicide rates in the city hit triple digits in the mid-2000s. And at the time, Hollins said, resources for community organizers like herself who were advocating for crime survivors were far and few.
“We were talking about 15-year-olds doing drive-bys from bikes. So when you reach that level of desperation policing is the most accessible thing,” Hollins, who lost two brothers to gun violence, recalled.
Unlike decades before, however, the San Francisco Bay Area today boasts several violence prevention programs and services for crime victims that operate outside law enforcement, Hollins said. Hollins is now the executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, an advocacy group.
“We didn’t have funded violence prevention programs like we do now. We had to fight and organize for that,” she added.
As cities across the United States are recording significant increases in homicides this year, police departments and some politicians have pointed at criminal justice reforms, low morale in police departments and officer resignations to explain the surge. Pushes to defund police departments coupled with surging gun sales have led to lawlessness, they argue, and cities should bolster police budgets and hire more officers to combat the violence.
That analysis fails to fully explain the current dynamics of rising violence. It doesn’t factor in the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable communities and the disruption brought on by lockdowns to violence prevention strategies. Furthermore, research has shown that cities that increased police budgets were just as likely to see a rise in murders as cities that reduced them.
While Democrats and Republicans are invoking the murder of Black and brown people to make their political arguments, organizers from the most affected communities say their own voices and solutions are not being heard. Relying on arrests and prosecutions to reduce violent crime has helped fuel mass incarceration and has led to the overrepresentation of Black and Latinx people in the nation’s prisons and jails, organizers say, destabilizing many already underserved families and contributing to the cycle of gun violence in these communities. And the emphasis on arrests ignores the strides that have been made by grassroots violence prevention and victim advocacy groups in past years, efforts that have proven to save lives.
“It’s frustrating that this conversation is being leveraged and exploited to become a political conversation rather than one about the disparities that are now worse,” Hollins said. “It’s also a big slap in the face to the organizing that’s been done around violence.”
The recent conversations on crime and violence come at a time when non-police responses to gun violence have been gaining greater recognition from officials at every level. Joe Biden earmarked $5bn in his infrastructure plan for community-based intervention programs that target the small population of a city’s residents who are involved in the majority of violent incidents.
It’s frustrating this conversation is being exploited to become a political conversation rather than one about the disparities that are now worse
On 23 June, Biden also rolled out a plan to address increased gun crimes and other public safety concerns that would “crack down on rogue gun dealers” and provide additional funds for cities to hire more officers and pay their overtime. The plan also highlights the need for sustainable support to holistic violence prevention programs.
“They intervene before it’s too late, these interrupters,” Biden said. “They turn down the temperature, halt the cycle of retaliation and connect people to services. And it works. States should invest American Rescue Plan funds in those kinds of violent crime programs.”
The services and programs that have proved to help reduce shootings in past years are diverse, reaching people at different points in the gun violence cycle. Some work with police and some don’t. Some try to intervene before shootings occur. Others dispatch people in the aftermath to assist victims and prevent retaliation. Some programs provide financial assistance for burials and connections to counseling.
Research suggests that many of these programs in California have been very successful in saving lives and public funds. In 2012 the Department of Justice recommended that hospital-based violence intervention programs like Youth Alive! Oakland and the Wraparound Project in San Francisco should be developed across the US. Homicides in Oakland dropped by nearly half in the six years following the launch of an innovative police-community partnership called Operation Ceasefire in 2012. And in Stockton, California, a recent evaluation of Advance Peace, a violence interruption program, found it contributed to a 20% drop in gun homicides and assaults and saved the city between $42.3m and $110m in its first two years of existence while operating on less than $900,000 over that same period.
In Richmond, AP is credited with helping to reduce gun violence in the city by more than 60%. Despite an uptick in shootings in 2020, the decrease has sustained for more than over a decade. Since its launch in Richmond in 2010, the program has started operating in cities across California, including Sacramento and Fresno.
The pandemic has presented physical and economic challenges for these programs, exactly when gun violence is on the rise. While crimes like robbery have steadily decreased during the pandemic, 2020 will mark the biggest single-year jump in homicides since national crime statistics began to be released in the 1960s. Across the US, homicides increased an estimated 30% in 2020, according to the White House. Preliminary data suggests that the rise has not been evenly distributed across the US. Rather it remains concentrated in the underserved Black and Latinx communities that have struggled with violence for decades. These communities have also borne the brunt of mass incarceration and police violence, putting residents in an impossible situation of choosing between public and personal safety and a potential over-saturation of police.
“There are definitely people, even in the Black community, who feel completely unsafe and believe that a police presence will make them safer,” Hollins said. “Even though there’s more consensus that policing does not prevent crime, there’s still an immediate need to feel safe.”
DeVone Boggan, the founder of the successful violence prevention program Advance Peace, was at the White House announcement in June.
While he’s grateful that programs like his are finally being acknowledged as viable options for decreasing gun violence, Boggan remains wary about the Biden administration’s plan to give more funds to local police departments to hire more officers. “Even among so-called progressives policing seems to be all we know, it’s like a bad habit,” he said. “We have to do a better job, but I think we’re getting there.”
He also sees his inclusion at the White House as a sign that the tides are changing and he’s looking forward to a new group of credible messengers lending their voices to the conversation. “It’s going to take us continually putting these conversations into the environment and building an army of voices from these communities that are affected by gun violence, because no one can question whether they know what’s real or not,” Boggan added.
“If the active voices that are on the ground aren’t amplified, we’ll continue running back to familiar faces who have antiquated ideas, are out of touch, and can’t speak the language of the people who are involved in the violence,” echoed Pastor Carl Day, a North Philadelphia native who runs development programs for at-risk young men and connects them to employment in the city.
“There needs to be a balance of people at the table,” Day added. “A little bit of everyone needs to be there and credible messengers with connections to the community need to lead the way.”
Even amid the polarizing conversations and bad faith explanations for the uptick in gun crime, Hollins says she sees progress and is hopeful that voices like hers, Day’s and Boggan’s are breaking through and have the potential to rise above the fray.
“While there’s still a lot of politicizing and debate, there’s a lot more room and acceptance that police have never been the adequate response – Biden’s bill announcement speaks to that,” Hollins said of the president’s inclusion of violence interrupters in his violence reduction strategy.
“This is the first time ever that you’ve seen re-entry, victims services and violence preventers at the White House. That’s a direct result of our organizing and uplifting the stories of the people who have been directly impacted.”