Law enforcement strategies to reduce violence
The Council on Criminal Justice launched the Violent Crime Working Group to produce concrete guidance police leaders can use to curb violence
It’s no secret that many cities are scrambling to cope with a homicide increase in 2020 that stretched deep into 2021. In July, the Council on Criminal Justice launched the Violent Crime Working Group to produce concrete guidance that leaders can use to curb gun violence in their communities now.
I am one of several law enforcement professionals on the 15-member panel, which also includes representatives from public health, academia and violence-intervention organizations. While members may not see eye to eye on everything, our discussions are candid and productive, and we are finding common ground on a wide array of strategies. Above all, we are unified in our pursuit of a central goal: saving lives.
Since our launch, we’ve produced a series of bulletins summarizing our work. The newest report may serve as a playbook for cities and police agencies, outlining leading law-enforcement strategies for reducing community gun violence. The bulletin summarizes the evidence supporting each strategy, highlights key implementation actions, offers cautionary advice to help officials avoid missteps and provides information on resources. It also discusses the critical importance of police-community trust to our overall public safety efforts.
Here are some highlights:
Focused deterrence is a problem-oriented violence reduction strategy that mobilizes community residents, service providers and law enforcement officers in response to chronic crime conditions. Its most common application is known either as Group Violence Intervention (GVI) or Operation Ceasefire. The precise approach reduces gun violence by identifying high-risk people, communicating directly to them the commitment of the police and the community to stop such violence, providing special supports and services, and deploying targeted law enforcement sanctions as a last resort. This blend of support and sanctions is important because perpetrators of violence also have a higher likelihood of becoming victims themselves, a reality commonly described as the “victim/offender overlap.”
In most cases, the strategy is effective, but it must be carried out in collaboration with the community – not as an either/or proposition. In Boston, it reduced youth homicide by 63% and in Oakland, it cut gun homicides by 31% and group-involved shootings by 43%. But the strategy can be difficult to implement. To be successful requires close coordination across multiple partners, which can be hard to sustain in today’s hyperpolarized political environment.
How to accomplish this? “Always keep your promises” is a good place to start. Pledges of assistance must be kept with the prompt delivery of meaningful services and supports. Likewise, promises to hold people accountable for further violence must be followed up with swift and certain sanctions.
Another challenge is maintaining the right balance of sanctions and supports. In most cases, we can’t arrest our way out of a problem, and we can’t program our way out either. Our approaches must be focused and balanced.
Proactive policing is about preventing crime, not reacting to it. Police must anticipate crime and disorder before it happens using a detailed problem analysis to pinpoint crime patterns and the surprisingly small network of people and places responsible for most violence. Agencies should consider evidence emphasizing the effectiveness of patrolling proactively between 911 calls for service. Proactive policing embraces several different strategies, but the most widely implemented and evaluated are hot spots policing – which focuses patrols on the micro-locations where crime concentrates – and problem-oriented policing.
Like focused deterrence, problem-oriented strategies can be complex and difficult to carry out. As a result, police agencies using such strategies must be especially mindful in their implementation. This requires strong oversight from senior police leadership, as well as training for rank-and-file officers to ensure they develop a problem-solving and partnership-oriented mindset.
The bulletin’s advice on what to do in this area hits three points:
- Prioritize preventing violence, not just arrests.
- Don’t go it alone – work with partners inside and especially outside the criminal justice system, such as street outreach workers, community members and service providers. One crucial aspect of such partnerships is the sharing of information to coordinate the engagement of high-risk people and investment in high-risk places.
- Create a management framework. Police agencies are bureaucracies, and changes can be difficult to make and sustain. Agency leaders must closely manage the effort each step of the way. As is commonly said, what gets measured, gets managed, and what’s inspected gets expected. These are wise themes for police leaders today.
Illegal gun-carrying, a precursor to gun violence, is on the rise. According to FBI statistics and a recent CCJ report, the percentage of homicides involving firearms has increased over time, reaching a peak of 77% in 2020, compared to 73% in 2019. While some strategies to reduce illegal gun carrying focus on restricting the supply of guns generally, the working group focused on initiatives that can reduce illegal gun carrying and be implemented quickly without new legislation. Such measures generally involve encouraging officers to make pedestrian and car stops to search for illegal weapons, both to recover the weapons and for deterrence.
While targeting illegal guns can help reduce violence, the working group provided strong caution to agencies that pursue the approach:
- Focus enforcement on the highest risk people in the highest risk places. Police agencies should ensure that aggressive enforcement is precise and limited to those most closely associated with gun violence. To do otherwise creates a significant risk of misuse, sometimes with racially disparate impacts.
- Avoid overbroad and indiscriminate tactics that cast wide nets – be precise. General messages that simply instruct officers to “get the guns off the streets” may lead to breakdowns in police/community trust.
- Do not allow impunity for gun offenses. The carrying of an illegal firearm is a serious offense and should be treated as such. That said, the justice system’s emphasis should be on delivering swift and certain sanctions, not just severe ones. Focusing on “someday’” and “would-be” shooters before they commit a violent crime is much different than appropriately responding to predatory, serial shooters with stiff penalties.
Shooting clearance rates
Clearance rates in cases involving shootings are low and getting worse. Low clearance rates frustrate efforts to hold offenders accountable, provide victims with justice and disrupt cycles of violent retaliation.
According to FBI data and a recent CCJ report, homicide clearance rates declined significantly in 2020, continuing a longtime downward trend. The homicide clearance rate was 82% in 1976, 55% in 2019 and 50% in 2020. Meanwhile, a 2018 investigation by the Washington Post highlighted stark racial disparities in homicide clearance rates, finding that 63% of murder cases with white victims had been cleared, while for Black victims the rate was only 47%.
To address such disparities, police agencies should constantly reinforce the message – via words and actions – that all life is sacred and that every victim deserves justice. As one group member put it, “Every life matters no matter what. I don’t really care whether that person was a drug dealer or gang member. You approach that case like you would any other. And you treat the victims, the family members, the friends, just the same.” Officers must go beyond the yellow tape and work relentlessly to clear cases while treating all victims with compassion. Notify the family of the loved one immediately, prioritize medical care, and, when necessary, preserve the dignity of the victim’s body.
How to boost clearance rates? For many years, the prevailing view was that follow-up investigations provided little value in terms of crime reduction. Recent research indicates, however, that enhanced investigative resources, improved management structures and oversight processes can increase shooting clearance rates and improve the chances of arrest in even the most difficult cases.
Building community trust
Trust in the police is essential to a free and safe society. Without trust, citizens will not voluntarily cooperate with their government, and such collaboration is the lifeblood of effective public safety strategies. Cooperation takes many forms, including complying with laws, reporting crimes, providing information to police, serving as witnesses and jurors in court, and partnering with police on crime-prevention initiatives. But, in communities most impacted by violent crime, trust in law enforcement is low.
What should police agencies do? Get started and stay committed. A Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” While relationships between many law enforcement agencies and communities they serve are currently strained, the process of engaging must begin immediately. This engagement must be consistent, sustained over time, and include rank-and-file officers, not just leadership.
Finally, we should always strive to employ approaches that are specific, measurable, achievable and relevant.
The group's final report is available below: