Violence reduction needs policing

Murders and shootings are up, yet cities are reducing the number of officers responsible for investigating them

This essay is reprinted with permission from the Violence Reduction Project

New York City suffered an alarming spike in gun violence in 2020. The number of shooting victims increased by 103% compared to the previous year. In the summer, the city witnessed levels of gun violence that it hasn’t seen since the 1990s when shootings were at their historical peak. As we head in the winter, the shootings show no signs of returning to the “normal” levels we’ve come to expect over the past 25 years.

New York City is not alone in enduring this spike in violence. Cities large and small throughout the county are witnessing record increases in shootings and homicides. Local papers report about murder and shooting spikes in Roanoke, Wichita, D.C., Chicago and Philadelphia. In a survey of 28 U.S. cities, the Council on Criminal Justice reported net increases in homicides, aggravated assaults, and gun assaults across the country. In the top 60-plus cities, homicides are up by more than a third.

New York City witnessed levels of gun violence in the summer of 2020 that it hasn’t seen since the 1990s when shootings were at their historical peak.
New York City witnessed levels of gun violence in the summer of 2020 that it hasn’t seen since the 1990s when shootings were at their historical peak. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

The victim tally is far greater than the number of people shot. Gun violence creates fear throughout neighborhoods. People change their daily routines to reduce their risk. Violence closes off parks and playgrounds. Fear prevents families from engaging in outdoor civic life. Street violence proscribes all of the activities which create and define communities. People become de facto prisoners in their homes and their neighborhoods wither.

Impact of the #defund zeitgeist

Coinciding with this sharp rise in violence is a collapse of rational, urban policymaking. Yielding to the #defund zeitgeist, several cities have enacted capricious cuts in police services with no institutions or plans in place to respond to the increasing demands for public safety. Murders and shootings are up, yet cities are reducing the number of officers responsible for investigating them.

In New York City, quality of life calls for police have increased 50% this year, yet many city leaders want fewer officers to respond to them. We will not get more for less. Absent concrete plans to accommodate this demand, we will see service deteriorate with less faith in local government in tow. 

Conversations, debates and panels surrounding the “re-imagination” of public safety don’t provide relief to afflicted neighborhoods. They are not a substitute for the immediate action necessary to stop the violence. Advocates and academics have suggested an array of ideas to reimagine public safety, often with police conspicuously absent. This is like asking for a public health plan without doctors. Sure, you could… but why would you want to?

Understanding the proximate causes of violence

A common refrain is that “we cannot police our way out of this problem.” This argument, and these discussions, fail to consider proximate causes of violence. Someone doesn’t decide to point a gun at and shoot another person, owing to a sudden realization that he’s a victim of terrible prison reentry planning and workforce development. That person has an immediate motive, means, and opportunity to shoot another person. Smart policing strategy addresses these things. In our response, it makes no sense to omit the police, the institution best poised to confront violent crime at this level. 

Some of the alternative ideas are all but useless in being amorphous and ill-defined, for example, the recommendation to “invest in communities.” This is a vague prescription that lacks a starting point. With implementation, the devil is always in the details. Other proposals are more clear and specific, such as reduced mental health call response from police. These plans are actionable. We just need to be explicit about expected outcomes, costs, and the value-added of alternative responses.

Many of the recent proposals to mitigate gun violence omit policing and provide “holistic” plans to address “root causes” of violence. Society must explore and address the social conditions that give rise to violence, but these plans inevitably kick the can down the road. They promise a reduction in violence at some unspecified time in the future. They don’t satisfy the immediate need for safety. They don’t acknowledge the quick results law, police and policing can have. And perhaps most importantly they don’t reflect the urgency that we must have in dealing with violence. They are not a substitute for effective policing.

Concentration of violence

Violence is concentrated across a relatively small number of people and places. This creates challenges in mustering a response, for it escapes the attention of some of today’s more vocal city leaders. Violence occurs in places where they rarely go. Violence affects people that they don’t know. However, the concentration of violence also creates a leverage point for police strategy. It allows police to be precise and focused on their allocation of resources.  

Policing strategies need to be at the front and center of this crisis. The police respond to the 911 calls, investigate the shootings, and spend more time in afflicted neighborhoods than a lot of policymakers. A competent police force understands the people involved in violence, the specific conflicts underlying the violence, and can allocate resources to confront them. 

Good police strategy requires a proper analysis of the problems and conflicts undergirding the violence. This analysis requires a commitment to data collection. Police agencies should record shootings and shots-fired incidents, even when nobody gets hit. Dumb luck shouldn’t decide whether police investigate crimes. Detectives must also determine and track incident motives. Agencies need to keep track of all violence between criminal groups. This is needed to inform efficient resource allocation.

Developing a strategy

Here is what can be done.

First, police agencies should focus investigative resources on the people and criminal groups who are at the center of the violence. In New York City, we have identified 100 people who are connected to 3 or more incidents involving gunfire as offenders, witnesses, or victims over the past year. Once you map out the relationships between these incidents and people, it becomes clear how interconnected they are. Many of the shootings result from the escalation of ongoing conflicts. 

Police agencies should target the “trigger-pullers” by committing resources to the shooting investigations surrounding them and any of their associated criminal enterprises. Incarcerating these few people for their crimes will have effects throughout their social networks and disrupt conflicts. It will also signal that local government is committed to protecting its citizens from repeat violent offenders. 

Second, police departments need to deploy their limited patrol resources to places that suffer an inordinate amount of violence. In NYC, for example, there are 85 blocks with three or more shooting incidents over the past year. There are 10 blocks with five or more shooting incidents. Multiple housing developments have had multiple shootings on their grounds. There is a considerable evidence base that police deployment to “hotspots” is an effective approach to reducing crime.

Ideally, the approach to hotspot policing should be flexible and consistent with the tenets of problem-oriented policing, where officers diagnose and respond to the underlying conditions that contribute to the local violence. Cincinnati’s “place-based investigations into violent offender territories” (PIVOT) is a good example of a smart, effective approach to dealing with problem places. 

Most times, traditional tactics would be sufficient so long as they are targeted toward the hotspot. Agencies can deploy foot patrol to locations experiencing violence. Police can deploy narcotics units to places where illegal drug markets cause problems, as long as they don’t confuse the means with the ends. Arrests must not be a measure of success. Tactics will necessarily vary as police departments have different structures, authorizing environments, and capacities for collaboration with residents. The overarching mandate is that agencies focus and invest resources in these places.

Order maintenance tactics shouldn’t be ignored. Almost one-third of New York City’s shooting incidents in June were preceded by multiple 311 calls involving quality-of-life complaints in the immediate area. And, most of those shootings occurred on blocks with previous shootings. In several cases, the shootings were unequivocally connected to the complaints being made. 

Police must be responsive to these calls for help in those places burdened with violence. First, resolving persistent quality-of-life problems is a worthy end. A proper and effective response encourages residents to function as what Jane Jacobs called “eyes upon the street.” This will bolster the collective efficacy of the neighborhood and the legitimacy of police. These problems don’t require sanctions or low-level arrests, but they do require resolution. Residents who live on the blocks and the housing developments taxed by violence deserve the same level of service as the residents of New York’s Upper West Side. Three people shot on a block in one year are three too many. These problems demand an urgent response from the city.

Government must ensure the safety of all its citizens. When we abdicate this responsibility, when we damage the institution best positioned to do this, people will retreat to their own devices and settle scores on their own. To deal with gun violence, the government should “invest in communities” and promote community-based responses to violence. We can leave nothing off the table. None of this, however, is a substitute for quality policing – a community investment that people want more of. 

The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the New York City Police Department or the City of New York.

Click here to read more essays from the Violence Reduction Project

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