Gun violence is a disease — has DC found a cure?

Gun violence is a disease — has DC found a cure?
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In the wake of several high-profile police shootings, and as the momentum of the youth-led gun control movement continues to carry forward, the American public is taking a renewed interest in solutions to the wicked problems of public safety, gun violence, and police accountability.

It’s become increasingly clear that we must work to address these problems in a way that acknowledges links between violence, racism, and public safety. As my colleague and Institute for Policy Studies Associate Fellow Ebony Slaughter-Johnson noted earlier this spring, American police killed more people last year than mass shooters.

Where can we find holistic solutions?

In the run-up to the March for Our Lives this March, the students of Stoneman Douglas High School proposed a gun control policy manifesto published in The Guardian. While it’s impressive in its scope, especially as the product of a group of young people, critics have made clear that some of the students’ suggested solutions would violate the privacy of the mentally ill and result in more aggressive policing.

More aggressive policing tactics can’t be the answer, of course: We know that they disproportionately harm communities of color and ultimately lead to more violence.

“The status quo of policing and mass incarceration have failed,” says Eugene Puryear of Stop Police Terror Project DC. “Study after study has shown us that mass incarceration and policing do not significantly reduce violence or other crime while carrying significant financial and social costs — that’s why a different approach is so important.”

Treating gun violence as a public health crisis is the leading edge of this new approach, and one that is gaining traction across the country, including in the nation’s capital. It could ultimately reduce America’s incarceration rate through rethinking our approach to crime prevention.

The Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act, a law passed by the D.C. Council in 2016 modeled on this approach, seeks to identify and address the root causes of crime while moving away from the failed status quo of policing and punishment that lead to increased arrests and incarceration — as well as the harassment and targeting of communities of color — while doing nothing to keep people safe.

Yet despite passing the D.C. Council unanimously in 2016, the NEAR Act is still awaiting full implementation by Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration.

There are three community-driven prongs to violence prevention in the NEAR Act:

First, the law requires Community Crime Prevention Teams of behavioral health professionals to work in communities to identify people with signs of mental illness or substance abuse and connect them with existing services outside of the criminal legal system.

Second, the law requires a newly-established Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity to prevent the viral spread of violence by bringing therapy and social service coordination directly to victims of interpersonal violence while they’re still in hospitals.

Third, a newly-established Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement is tasked with identifying and directly engaging with individuals at high risk of committing or falling victim to violence — and then providing individualized, wrap-around services to equip those individuals with the treatment, training, and support necessary to allow those at risk move towards a safer life.

Alongside these components, the NEAR Act includes several elements to increase police accountability and recalibrate the strained relationship between neighborhood police and highly-policed communities. From expanding data collection and reporting requirements to prescribing training on bias and cultural competencies, it’s a clear mandate for police to work to repair their ways of relating with areas that have suffered from harassment and police violence for years.

Here’s the best part: This broad, community-led approach has been a success across America already.

In Richmond, Calif., where this approach was pioneered, gun violence was reduced by over 70 percent in just three years. New York City piloted a similar model in five neighborhoods, and the success led to its expansion into nearly 20 neighborhoods. After that expansion, the city saw its lowest level of gun violence in three decades. Other rigorous studies have proven that hospital-based violence intervention programs like the one in the NEAR Act succeed at reducing gun violence.

This model is a replicable way to reduce gun violence. It deserves to be taken seriously.

So what’s the hold up in the District? With this community-based approach already bearing such fruit nationwide, and holding such watershed potential for a different approach to public safety, why is the nation’s capital holding back at implementing the NEAR Act?

“Since the NEAR Act became law, Mayor Bowser has consistently refused to fully or faithfully implement its life-saving approaches,” says April Goggans of Black Lives Matter DC. “We’d like to see these policies implemented in substance, to really transform what’s happening in our communities and get the results we know are possible. Unfortunately, despite being law for over two years, we’re still waiting for the NEAR Act to be implemented in substance.”

The movement to combat gun violence in America is reaching a high watermark. With luck, wisdom, and momentum, one outcome could be a new approach to public safety that reduces violence without increasing America’s incarceration rate, addresses root causes, and empowers individuals and communities to thrive.

Justin Jacoby Smith is the digital communications strategist at the Institute for Policy Studies and a Washington, D.C.-based activist.