What Do Effective Violence Reduction Programs Look Like? (1/2)

TRNN speaks to nationally recognized gun violence expert Daniel Webster about new models of homicide reduction programs and how they are breaking with the past

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

How do we make Baltimore a safer city? And what are some effective enforcement policies that can help us achieve that goal? That’s the question we’re going to be asking our esteemed guest today, Daniel Webster.

Daniel Webster is a professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He’s the director at the Center for Gun Policy Research there and the deputy director at the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence.

Thank you so much for don’t joining us today.

DANIEL WEBSTER, PROF. HEALTH POLICY, JOHNS HOPKINS BLOOMBERG SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: So, Professor Webster, there’s a number of different programs and policies being implemented in Baltimore that are a kind of new model going away from the traditional things, ideas, and programs we think of when we think of reducing violence and how those policies have been implemented during the war on drugs for the last several decades. Can you talk about some of these policies and these programs and just why they’re implemented and how they’re different from what’s been done in the past?

WEBSTER: Sure. Sure. Well, I think it’s useful that you point out, sort of as a reference point, a very important reference point for Baltimore, which is sort of the war-on-drugs approach. I’ve been working in Baltimore, studying and examining different efforts to reduce gun violence since 1992. And for most of that time period, the mindset with–particularly for law enforcement, was really that drugs are driving the problem of violence. Therefore the solution to lowering our problem with violence will be by addressing those drug markets, principally, individuals who are selling and profiting from drugs.

But that has not proven to be a particularly effective strategy–very costly strategy, incarcerating.

NOOR: And some would call it a failed strategy.

WEBSTER: Yes. I would call it a failed strategy as well, very, very costly in terms of how much it costs to incarcerate individuals, how it has really ruined lives, communities, families, with not much to speak for in terms of safer communities.

In more recent years there’s been a greater appreciation for–you can only take that so far. And under the prior police commissioner, Fred Bealefeld, his mantra was, we’re going to go after bad guys with guns and started to shift more of his resources in thinking that we were going to solve this more by focusing on guns and gun offenders than by drugs and drug offenders–not that they stopped enforcing all drug laws, of course, but the emphasis changed notably under his leadership, and based upon the data that I’ve examined, with good effect.

NOOR: And that was especially after the policy of zero tolerance or broken windows was ended, where it wasn’t just blanket enforcement.

WEBSTER: That’s correct. And so it was very interesting to see we had our biggest declines in homicides, not fatal shootings, at the time we were actually having far fewer drug arrests. So that, I think, is not a coincidence. I was a research partner with the Baltimore Police Department for something called a smart policing initiative, a federal program under the Bureau of Justice Assistance, in which we examined three approaches being used in Baltimore at that time, all with the same general idea that we’re going to focus on gun offenders.

One effort was led by what then was called the violent crime impact section. These were small teams of detectives deployed into what they call the hotspots, where the shootings happen most commonly. And while the strategies varied a little bit from unit to unit, the idea was they were going to focus on who in that area had histories of violence and gun violence, focus on illegal gun possession.

And by and large the research that I’ve conducted indicated that they did have a significant effect in lowering homicides and nonfatal shootings. And these were deployed in a number of the most dangerous areas.

Another strategy we examined was sort of a precursor to the ceasefire program currently in place, but I’ll talk about it in a little more detail. At that time it was called Project Exile, and it had the most familiar piece of that overall strategy, which is referred to as an offender call-in. So this is the common pieces of a strategy called focused deterrence, which is the more academic label that has been given to the program ceasefire currently in place. The most identifiable thing is they’re going to identify individuals with the greatest history of violence that seemed to be very important players in driving violence in defined areas within a city. They’re going to call them in, either as a group, and in some cases individuals, and in essence do two things. One is send a message that in essence we know who you are, you’re being watched, and if you engage in violence–and, importantly, your associates, almost always they are a part of a social network. It could be a crew, a larger gang. I don’t want to get caught up in labels, but it’s clearly there are important groups and social networks involved. And the idea behind focused deterrence is that you affect the individuals who are key players in groups and you expand your impact, your ability to impact the problem.

NOOR: And so the focus here is really on violent crime. It’s a step back from drug enforcement. That’s the key point.

WEBSTER: That is the theory. Yes. So, whether that’s always been carried out exactly in the best way in Baltimore and other places is a separate question. But the idea is that it’s very much focused on violent behavior, violent crime. In most cases, less so on drug laws. However, they will use drug laws when necessary if they think that–for example, it’s very difficult to get witnesses to testify against individuals who have committed violent crimes, particularly if they’re in violent gangs. There’s a lot of intimidation there, a disinclination to speak up, particularly in a court of law.

NOOR: And it can be dangerous at times.

WEBSTER: Very, very dangerous. So in some cases law enforcement has used drug laws to incarcerate violent criminals through a program of this nature.

But the message that’s delivered is stop the violence. And it’s part of deterrence with criminal justice saying, okay, we’re ready to come down on you. But there’s also the other side, the so-called carrot to the stick, which is–it’s really sort of two pieces to it, two pieces to this carrot. One we’re going to offer services. We’re going to maybe help you get a job. If you have a substance abuse problem, we’ll help you get that addressed. Whatever it is that is placing you, that’s makes you in a more violent or risky lifestyle, we want to change those things for you, and that will create a safer community.

The other piece of that carrot that I don’t think gets discussed nearly as much and I think is actually more important than those services, which is in addition to law enforcement sending that message, there are other individuals not in law enforcement that are sending that message at the same time. It could be influential people in the community that those individuals trust or respect. It could be family members. It could be a grandmother. It could be a girlfriend. It could be anybody who is identified as someone who the individual or individuals in question would respect and would want to honor, in essence, their request to stop the violence. And often a component of that is street outreach staff, individuals involved in that kind of work sending that message, not only in the call-ins, but after the call-ins, which is very important.

So back to this smart policing initiative, we looked at Project Exile call-ins that occurred. There were only three over a span of about four years.

NOOR: And what time period are we talking about here?

WEBSTER: We are talking about the period between 2007 and 2009.

NOOR: Okay.

WEBSTER: Yeah, I think that’s about it. We did not see any impact from those. My understanding was there wasn’t a full-fledged commitment to this on all those different parties in terms of law enforcement service and outreach and community all being together on this.

The final thing that we examined was the gun offender registry. We did find that the gun offender registry did appear to lower risks for recidivism for violent crime, particularly gun crime, in that group.

NOOR: And how’d that work?

WEBSTER: So the city passed an ordinance in 2008 that if you’re convicted of a crime involving a firearm, that maybe you serve some time in jail, but when you come back to the community, if you live in Baltimore City, you must register with the city’s gun offender registry unit, and they will monitor you. And it does not work like a sex offender registry, I feel important to note. It’s not the community can’t go to some website and say, okay, who are the gun offenders in my community? It doesn’t work like that, and it’s not supposed to work that. It’s mostly a tool for law enforcement for monitoring individuals, because the data indicate that there’s a pretty strong correlation between prior involvement with illegal gun possession and subsequent involvement in murder and other violent crimes. So it is with some good reason that this is a category of ex-offender that’s going to get more attention and oversight than other criminals that come out of prison.

TEXT ON SCREEN: This concludes part one of our conversation with Daniel Webster. For the full interview go to Therealnews.com.