When we think of gun violence, we usually think about big, urban centers like Chicago, Baltimore or St. Louis which have large, inner-city neighborhoods and, unfortunately, lots of violent crime. But it often turns out that gun violence is all too common in smaller cities, for example last week five people were gunned down in Chester, PA, a little burb of Phillly with a population of 34,000, the town leading the United States with an average of 53 gun homicides per 100,000 every year for the last fifteen years.
Even though it’s the location of Yale University, the city of New Haven used to be right up there with places like Chester when it comes to residents getting shot. In 2011 there were 34 homicides, which gave the city a per-100K homicide rate of 27.2, while the statewide rate that same year was 4.06. In fact, in 2011, with three percent of the state’s total population, New Haven accounted for 25% of the people who were feloniously killed in that one year. That’s serious sh*t.
Know what the New Haven numbers looked like in 2016? Homicides were down to 13, non-fatal shooting victims dropped from 133 to 67, and the number of gunshots that were picked up by the city’s ShotSpotter system went from 426 to 160. To quote Mayor Toni Harp, New Haven has become a “healthier, safer city.” That’s for sure.
If a city like New Haven, with a family media income that is 30% below the national average and with one-quarter of the residents living below the poverty line, can get it together and reduce gun violence to such a remarkable degree, we need to figure out what they are doing because it might serve as a template for other communities who would like to healthy and safe because gun violence goes away.
New Haven’s effort is based on a state initiative called Project Longevity, which brings together all the major institutional and community stakeholders to confront the perpetrators of gun violence through a combination of social service outreach, law enforcement attention and the application of both positive and negative incentives to the at-risk population on an ongoing basis. Those individuals in the neighborhood who otherwise might commit gun violence but ask for assistance are given job, housing and education assistance; those who spurn such help and continue to commit violence are identified by the police and taken off the streets.
The New Haven project is the brainchild of David Kennedy, who ran his first police-community anti-violence program in Boston in the 1990’s and has taken this approach to cities in 31 states under the aegis of the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC,) which operates out of John Jay College of The City University of New York. The Network’s informational guide should be required reading for everyone in the GVP community, and you can download it here.
What runs through NNSC philosophy and practice is the idea that law enforcement is not just a tool for maintaining law and order by arresting and locking up the bad guys, it’s also a community-service organization where the cops spend as much or more time assisting and positively interacting with community residents as they spend chasing criminals. As the attitude of fear and suspicion between cops and community is replaced by an attitude of respect and trust on both sides, keeping the neighborhood safe becomes an effective basis for building a viable police-civilian partnership which drives down all crime.
Our friend Frank Zimring talks about the degree to which police shootings in the inner-city contribute to a general sense of violence that makes the presence and use of guns part and parcel of ghetto life. After all, if the cops can shoot willy-nilly at everyone, why can’t civilians do the same? But the decision by New Haven police to only use lethal force in the most extreme circumstances seems to have resulted in the decline of gun violence within the city as a whole. Could this be a template for reducing gun violence nationwide?