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Rising gun deaths push cities to shore up police and services

As the coronavirus pandemic approaches its third year, it has worsened another deadly crisis for American cities: gun violence.

With a rise in homicides in more than a dozen major U.S. cities, local leaders and gun safety experts are renewing their efforts to strike a balance between relying on law enforcement and engaging others, such as social workers, to reduce violence in at-risk communities.

There’s a shift in focus from early in the pandemic, when racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd sparked calls across many cities to defund police departments by sharply reducing their budgets or even eliminating them. Wary that such debates could stall violence reduction efforts even as deaths spike, some local leaders are turning from the defund movement and pleading with state and federal officials to help them coordinate among law enforcement, health care agencies and social services groups.

Facing political pressure over the increased violence, President Joe Biden last week met with New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat and former police captain who just weeks into his first term has released a plan to combat what he called “the domestic terror” of gun violence.

Under the blueprint, New York City plans to increase the number of police officers in key, high-violence neighborhoods, where officers will be clearly identifiable and wearing body cameras. The city will launch a summer youth employment program and will invest in violence intervention programs such as mediation and mental health services.

Additionally, the blueprint emphasizes the need to coordinate and close the information-sharing gap between the city and its state and federal partners, along with trying to end a backlog of 4,000 gun cases in the state court system by fully reopening courthouses and potentially increasing the number of judges. Adams also called on state leaders to raise the penalty for gun trafficking and change bail policies to consider the potential danger a defendant poses to the community.

Biden and Adams have disavowed the defund the police movement that called for severe reductions in police department budgets to better support social services and crisis intervention tools or direct money to other government agencies.

“The answer is not to abandon our streets; that’s not the answer,” Biden said last week, speaking to officers at the New York City Police Department headquarters. “The answer is to come together, police and communities, building trust and making us all safer.”

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Biden, for his part, has called on Congress to increase funding by $500 million to local police departments and community programs that tackle gun violence. He also has vowed to crack down on so-called ghost guns and on gun trafficking across state lines.

New York City’s assertive approach is an encouraging start, said Thomas Abt, chair of the Violent Crime Working Group, a collective of community groups, law enforcement members, academics and public health officials working to address gun violence around the country.

Last month, the group published essential actions cities can take to reduce gun violence. Their suggestions include setting clear goals and creating a citywide plan that connects with people at the highest risk of being injured, killed or arrested and offers services to them.

Abt said Adams’ plan tries to strike a balance between changing law enforcement engagement and recognizing officers’ central role in addressing this issue.

“The situation is an urgent one,” said Abt, who is also a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan think tank focused on criminal justice policy that facilitates the Violent Crime Working Group. “But there are solutions available. It starts with committing to address violence directly.”

Christopher Herrmann, a professor of law and political science at City University of New York John Jay College of Criminal Justice, called the mayor’s plan a good first step but said it should have addressed a lack of affordable housing in the city and its ties to violent crime. Herrmann also is skeptical about the need to have gun violence liaisons in every city department, including sanitation or parks.

He said that while the defund the police movement and racial justice protests have brought needed attention and money to alternative approaches to gun violence, they also have hurt the relationship between police and communities.

“The police have this delicate dance with communities,” said Herrmann, who previously worked as a crime analyst for the New York City Police Department. “They need to be able to police and be proactive and get guns off the street. At the same time, they don’t want to be viewed as profilers.”

In Philadelphia, the spike in gun deaths requires a different, more focused approach than in previous years, said Erica Atwood, senior director for the city’s Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice and Public Safety.

“Gun violence is a symptom; it is not the overarching problem,” she said. “If we do not look at the issues of poverty, poor access to mental and behavioral health, poor access to quality education and training and economic mobility, we are going to continue to have these conversations every 15 to 20 years.”

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Last year in Philadelphia, 562 people were killed—a 13% increase from 2020 and the highest total in the city’s history. Philadelphia is one of 16 major U.S. cities that saw a rise in homicides last year, according to the Council on Criminal Justice. Homicides last year rose 5% compared with 2020 in the nearly two dozen cities analyzed by the council. Most of these came from shootings.

Philadelphia last year released a roadmap for addressing its gun violence emergency by providing specific neighborhoods and high-risk individuals with social services, dispute mediation and jobs to dissuade future violence. The plan also calls for reducing the number of blighted buildings and abandoned lots, while working with the state to investigate and stop gun trafficking. The plan directs police to concentrate on “hotspot” blocks where gun violence is frequent.

Atwood said she expects the city’s homicide rate will steadily decline this year as more of these policies are implemented, hopefully reaching pre-pandemic levels by 2023. Homicides in the city are slightly down from this time last year at 53—a 15% reduction.

While homicide levels in most cities are far lower than they were in the 1990s, they rose in 2021, along with other violent crimes such as robberies, gun assaults and aggravated assaults.

There are several drivers to this uptick of violence, Abt noted. The pandemic, which has disproportionately affected communities of color, strained or shuttered government services in these areas, which often are most affected by gun violence.

Protests against police brutality also drove a wedge between the community and law enforcement, Abt said. This led many officers to significantly reduce their proactive efforts in high-crime communities, while members of those communities also reduced their engagement with police.

Finally, gun sales surged over the past two years, and many of those firearms made their way to the black market. Law enforcement officers are now recovering more illegal firearms, including untraceable ghost guns, Abt pointed out.

There is still an imbalance in the way cities approach gun violence, with an overemphasis on policing and punishment instead of preventing and addressing the trauma that comes with systemic racism and violence, said Lisa Fujie Parks, associate program director at the Prevention Institute, a national nonprofit that focuses on health equity.

“It is important to investigate crimes once they’ve been committed, but to really address the problem of gun violence we have to look at the conditions that are creating it,” she said. “If we don’t heal, we’re going to see gun violence continuing, even as we invest in policing.”

Cities are taking several different approaches to prevent gun violence. In cities including Los Angeles; Oakland, California; and Richmond, Virginia, community partnership programs identify a small group of high-risk individuals and provide services such as mentoring and training.

In Chicago, the Rapid Employment and Development Initiative for the past few years has supported nearly 850 young, at-risk men through professional development and cognitive behavioral interventions, seeking to reshape violent tendencies and split-second decisions to pull a trigger. As an incentive, the program pays the men wages and stipends based on their level of participation. They have paid participants around $10 million since 2017.

The initiative may be working. According to an analysis from the University of Chicago Crime Lab, men who participate in the program for at least one session have 79% fewer arrests for shootings and homicides. Researchers caution, however, that they do not have a clear picture yet for how the program has affected citywide violence.

The program requires “relentless engagement,” said Miguel Cambray, director of strategic initiatives and partnerships at the Heartland Alliance, a Chicago-based anti-poverty organization that houses the initiative. Almost all the participants are young Black men who have been arrested. Participants are 45 times more likely to be shot or killed than the average Chicagoan. Building trust can be challenging.

“It’s not easy,” Cambray said. “We get called ‘the feds,’ we get threatened, we get friends sent after us. But we need to push through that and push that we have a job, no questions asked.”

Cambray is working with leaders in other cities, including Philadelphia, to spread its model.

Some cities want to approve new gun restrictions, though in many cases they can’t. In 42 states, laws prevent cities from passing stricter gun regulations than the state’s laws. Some cities are attempting to change that through the courts. Philadelphia, for example, is now suing Pennsylvania for the ability to enact stricter gun laws.

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

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President Joe Biden has called on Congress to increase funding by $500 million to local police departments and community programs that tackle gun violence.