By depending on police, Biden's gun violence plan will not make communities safer

By depending on police, Biden's gun violence plan will not make communities safer
© Getty Images

The Biden administration recently announced a federal strategy to address the rise of gun violence that grew during the COVID-19 pandemic. The primary recommendation is for state and local governments to use American Rescue Plan funding to hire police officers. Although the plan does mention that funding can be used to support community violence intervention programs, summer employment opportunities and other community-based services, it fails to recognize that police are amply funded and that adding police will not make us safer. Community violence interventions are woefully under-resourced, and urging investment in police to respond to crimes after the fact results in missed opportunities to prevent violence. 

Police department budgets remain at an all-time high. State and local governments spent $364 per capita on police protection in 2018, according to the Urban Institute. Overall, police budgets increased slightly in 50 major cities in 2021 over 2020, and cities and communities spend far more of their discretionary dollars on policing than on most other services, such as public assistance or housing. Only about a dozen of the nation’s police jurisdictions had actually reduced police budgets by the fall of 2020, and shootings rose in cities where budgets increased as well as those where they decreased. 

For example, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas blamed the City of Austin’s decision to cut its police budget by 30 percent for the city’s 50 percent increase in murders over last year; yet Fort Worth, Texas, increased its police budget and saw a 60 percent increase in homicides over 2019. In contrast, where we have invested in more community-based solutions to crime — such as violence interruption and prevention — even an investment of $1-$2 per capita has led to a decline of 16 percent to 35 percent in gun violence, according to a report by Giffords Law Center, PICO National Network and the Community Justice Reform Coalition.  

ADVERTISEMENT

The rollout of the Biden plan neglected to recognize the stressors of COVID-19 beyond economic loss. Communities that are under stress from years of disinvestment and systemic racism encountered widespread loss of life, debilitating illness, and loss of connections and relationships that can keep violence at bay. These disruptions in relationships can create deep aftershocks in the health of communities, which makes the current situation different from the economic recession in 2008 when gun violence rates did not increase

Community violence intervention programs use outreach, direct communication and transformative relationships to engage, support and address those at greatest risk of gun violence. These programs have an impressive track record of success. A 2014 study in Chicago found a 31 percent drop in homicides and 19 percent decline in shootings in two neighborhoods where violence interrupters worked. A Crown Heights neighborhood in New York City served by Save Our Streets, a Cure Violence affiliate, experienced 20 percent less gun violence than adjacent communities. In Oakland, Calif., the impact evaluation for the Ceasefire intervention program found that from 2010 to 2017, total Oakland shooting victimizations decreased by 52.1 percent. 

It is well known that gun violence is a contagion — one shooting can result in three or more retaliatory shootings. Community violence interruption programs recognize that gun violence is a public health issue and treat it as such. They are uniquely able to address the needs of communities where frayed and stressed relationships are driving increased violence and shootings. 

We must act quickly to create a coordinated response to prevent crime, rather than simply addressing crime and violence only after it happens. Congress should swiftly approve the $5.2 billion in funding marked for community-based anti-violence strategies in the upcoming American Jobs Plan, and federal agencies should issue directives and guidance to incentivize all levels of government to use American Rescue Plan funding for community violence intervention programs. 

The pandemic laid bare chronic and systemic disinvestment in communities that are being hit hardest by increased violence. Our investment in policing has not produced public safety, especially in Black and Brown communities, and we cannot expect more of the same to deliver different results. Instead, at all levels of government, we have an opportunity to adopt proven community-based solutions to prevent further gun violence. That is the strategy the Biden administration should champion so that people are truly safe from crime. 

Nick Turner is president and director of the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice in New York, created in 1961 to collaborate with government, civic leaders, and communities impacted by the criminal legal and immigration systems to implement change. Follow him on Twitter @NickTurner718.