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Law enforcement and community partnership key to the success of a Group Violence Initiative

An initial hurdle to program implementation revolved around community members believing it was just another “get tough on crime” scheme


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By Troy Bankert

In 2015, the York City (Pennsylvania) Police Department had just completed a six-month federal trial for the Southside Gang Federal Racketeering Case along with the U.S. Department of Justice through the Middle District of Pennsylvania. This trial was as laborious as the 3-year investigation and we hoped there would be a return to typical duties after getting 11 convictions (the trial was held simultaneously, dealing with 11 different defense attorneys) with hundreds of years in sentencing.

Our hopes were crushed when soon after the sentencing we went 50 days with 50 shootings, which accelerated our mayor and chief to fund and implement a program to address the violence through the Group Violence Initiative (GVI) developed by the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC), based out of John Jay College.

The GVI philosophy focuses on the application of the tenets of deterrence theory. These tenets are certainty, severity and swiftness. Although this was the primary criminological theory of the initiative, it also involved the use of peer pressure, rational choice and differential association theory:

  • If not swift with arrest = No deterrence
  • If not severe in punishment = No deterrence
  • If not certain of arrest = No deterrence

The problem

An initial hurdle to program implementation revolved around community members believing it was just another “get tough on crime” scheme. Media messaging was negative, suggesting that their tax dollars were being misused while ignoring our statements that zero tax dollars were used for GVI because it was completely funded through grants.

Once it was clear we could not rely on local newspapers to accurately message about the program, community leaders essentially went door to door to explain GVI, which was inefficient and inadequate despite the genuine and competent efforts of our community leaders. These community leaders ended up being part of the solution, although our initial efforts with messaging through them did not produce the desired results.


I approached the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District, explaining my concerns about our messaging to the public about GVI. We had an outstanding relationship with our U.S. Attorney who was involved in many aspects of GVI and understood the problems we faced in explaining our implementation of the violence reduction initiative.

My idea was to have a professionally produced video explaining the GVI implementation and its successes in a documentary format, involving stakeholders from the community and outside law enforcement agencies. This resulted in a mini-documentary filmed in about three days. A peripheral benefit of creating the documentary was that it allowed the stakeholders to come together and discuss how they can further assist in the ongoing success of the GVI program.

To capitalize on that enthusiasm, I expanded an internal process of sharing GVI-specific intelligence through a weekly shooting review. The approach to the shooting review was to have all decision-making operators from local, county and federal agencies in one room, to talk about GVI implementation and use fresh intelligence to develop immediately actionable strategies. The immediately actionable portion relates directly to the deterrence factor outlined above as to the swiftness of the theory and invokes the other two portions of the theory that are certainty of detection and severity of punishment to deter future events.

The creation and implementation of the shooting review enhanced our efficiency and relationships with other agencies. This enhanced relationship assisted in other cooperative investigations and expanded our resources. The approach to the review I think is what made it such a success. It was at the same time every week and we never failed to have a productive meeting. I served as a facilitator of the exchange of information and on making immediate decisions on how to use it. Additionally, the facilitation approach allowed for a room of experienced police operators to feel comfortable sharing their information and resources while maintaining their independence.

Addressing retaliatory shootings, in theory, reduces the total number of shootings, which worked in our case with a 50% reduction in the first year. To summarize this approach, we gave what I referred to as “fair warning.” We let it be known that for those involved in gun violence that social services were available to remove the excuses of gun violence, such as jobs and assistance with other familial issues such as daycare and medical needs. This social concept is not popular with police officers, and I sold it to both the public and officers by stating that GVI gives every opportunity for individuals to remove themselves from the cycle of violence and when that does not work, enforcement becomes the only viable method of resolution. In other words, by giving opportunities on the front end, we removed the argument that law enforcement was too aggressive.

When we made an arrest, we had documentation that services were offered and we gave fair warning that if it continued, law enforcement would be our solution, as a community, not from the government. The catchphrase we used to explain this concept was, “We want you safe, alive and out of prison, but if you force us, we will put you there.” This approach was attractive to police officers because it was a legalistic approach but also attracted community leaders because they had the opportunity to physically meet these individuals who we believe were active in shootings. Therefore, when we arrested those same people that the community attempted to help, the community backed law enforcement in our actions.

The success of getting “buy-in” from the community and other law enforcement agencies gave me evidence that the program was sustainable operationally and therefore allowed us to successfully request ongoing funding for its future. Additionally, our measurement practices allowed me to explain the results. I used both qualitative and quantitative measurements. The quantitative measurements were the easy part by establishing definitions of terms such as what is defined as a shooting, but the qualitative measurements were a bit more challenging. I believe the qualitative successes were far more valuable than the reduction of shootings because the relationships we built were used for other problems.

Messaging success

Despite the hurdles, shootings were reduced by over 50% within the first year of the program’s implementation. Officers were satisfied with the balance of outreach and enforcement and our community leaders were happy with the approach toward chronic offenders through outreach first, then law enforcement action.

However, I still faced questions from the public that demonstrated a lack of understanding about the program. I realized a proactive approach was needed, which resulted in a one-day training event for officers and a 3-day community training event about the GVI program. I received considerable help from our supportive mayor and David Kennedy, Director of the National Network for Safe Communities and creator of GVI. Both attended and spoke on the GVI approach, general theory, application and success. I also took this opportunity to spread the concept of outreach first, then enforcement to the patrol division, essentially creating a common approach for officers and the community to create an environment of collective measurable goals and clear approach to the theory. I discovered that we all began speaking the same language, while understanding restrictions of approaches, and the community become a part of the police department instead of being apart from the police department.

Lessons identified

A lot was learned from the implementation of GVI on two levels, law enforcement and community. Both need to feel they have a level of control. Both had a role to play and understood to stay within that role. Both needed to feel valued during the process. But most importantly, the biggest lesson learned from this experience was to promote emotional intelligence within both groups to the degree that we would admit missteps for the purpose of fixing them to improve the initiative. The second was to have reasonable expectations. A final lesson has been a pet peeve of mine, where law enforcement often oversells their capabilities to the degree that leads to expectations that are not attainable.

When law enforcement portrays itself as the sole solution, it removes responsibility from the community and eliminates the community as a tool to attain goals. As capable as I believe we were, without a collective goal and responsibilities with the community, we could only reasonably reach a certain level of success. This becomes evident when law enforcement tries to work alone, then complain about the community interfering with the process by filing complaints and challenging the concepts in public, which only takes away resources from goal attainment, therefore creating a disjointed overall community that bickers over methods and results. In the end, to involve the community must go beyond just informing them of what you are doing but making them responsible for a part of what you are doing, placing another tool in the toolbox while eliminating the distractions of complaints and misunderstandings.

About the author

Troy M. Bankert is a retired police chief from York, Pennsylvania, who relocated to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where he instructs cadets at the Broward College Institute for Public Safety and is an adjunct professor for Miami – Dade College.