Cities across the U.S. are struggling with tragic increases in community violence. Homicides jumped by 30% in 2020 and 4% in 2021, disproportionately affecting communities of color. But for local leaders, the solution is often unclear — and there’s little rigorous, publicly available information to guide them.
Consider Richmond, Virginia. Homicides there rose to 90 in 2021 from 66 in 2020, a 36% spike, and in 2022 the city continued to see an alarming spate of shootings. What can be done? Could a tough-on-crime task force stop the killing? How about mentorship and job programs for youth? Maybe a gun buyback program? State and local policymakers are trying all of these approaches, despite a wide body of evidence demonstrating the ineffectiveness of such strategies.
Left to their own devices, it’s easy for cities to fund programs that sound good on paper but work only temporarily, or don’t work at all. Meanwhile, they often miss out on investing in interventions that are proven to reduce violence.
We’re here to save lives by stopping violence.Thomas Abt professor of criminology and researcher on community violence at the University of Maryland
That problem is what led Thomas Abt, a professor of criminology and researcher on community violence at the University of Maryland, to launch the new Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction, also known as the Violence Reduction Center (VRC).
“We’re here to save lives by stopping violence,” Abt said. “The way we do that is by getting the best science on violence reduction and making it available, free of charge, to policymakers and practitioners.”
The mission of the VRC is twofold: to gather and share the most rigorous evidence on effective community violence interventions, and to help city leaders choose and apply the right combination of strategies to reduce violence locally. Abt and his colleagues work collaboratively with both government officials and community representatives to improve community safety for the long term.
Expanding ‘Access to Research About What Works’
The spike in violence has spurred unprecedented new funding for anti-violence programs at every level of government. The 2022 bipartisan Safer Communities Act made $250 million of federal funding available for local community violence intervention initiatives, and 15 states have pledged a total of $700 million for community safety and wellbeing programming.
Spending those funds well is key to saving lives. “So many cities are struggling to understand how to effectively reduce violence,” said Walter Katz, vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures. “But they don’t necessarily have access to research about what works.”
Arnold Ventures devotes significant investments to reducing community violence. The philanthropy places a strong focus on addressing perpetration and victimization among young Black and brown men in high-risk places, increasing community involvement in preventing crime, and improving police effectiveness and fairness. To advance that vision, Arnold Ventures supports rigorous research on strategies to guide local policymakers, community members, and law enforcement officials in their efforts to plan, launch, and sustain evidence-based strategies that lead to large-scale violence reductions.
“With its unique combination of research and practice, the VRC is central to realizing this goal,” Katz said.
A Commitment to Research and Practice
On the research side, the center is working on two major projects. One is a systematic meta-review of all anti-violence strategies, building on Abt’s previous research. The other is a systematic review of street outreach work, an intervention that employs community workers to intervene in conflicts and connect high-risk people with services. Both studies are “well underway and should be published next year,” Abt said.
Some strategies have already been shown to reduce violence effectively. Focused deterrence — which brings law enforcement together with community members and social service providers to offer both a legal warning and community resources to high-risk people — has been linked to a 43% decline in homicides in Oakland and major violence reductions elsewhere. Street outreach programs like Cure Violence have helped reduce community violence, as have hospital-based violence intervention programs and approaches that incorporate cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Decline in homicides in Oakland linked to focused deterrence strategies
“The common denominator,” Abt explained, “is that these approaches focus on the highest-risk people and places, balance punishment with rewards, and forge connections with local communities so that they are perceived as fair and legitimate.”
Building legitimacy is especially important to reducing violence, according to University of Maryland criminology professor Rod Brunson, who is advising Abt on the VRC. Strategies that use aggressive law enforcement tactics in neighborhoods of color often damage police legitimacy in the eyes of the community, making residents less likely to cooperate on solving violent crimes.
“Anti-violence strategies need to be implemented as part of broader public safety initiatives rooted in fairness, equity, and procedural justice,” Brunson said. “Police will be better equipped to help prevent and solve crime if the community sees them as having the moral authority to do so.”
On the practice side, the VRC is ramping up to work with a small number of cities using a training format that the organization calls the “practicum.” Over the course of a few days, VRC staff collaborate intensively with senior city leadership, including the mayor, police executives, social workers, and community representatives, helping them put together a plan and then assisting as the city puts it into action.
“We know that cities need to implement more than one strategy simultaneously, and they need to figure out how to align them,” Abt said. He noted that effective anti-violence work includes both enforcement and non-enforcement strategies.
In December 2022, VRC staff held its first practicum with leaders in Knoxville, Tennessee, which saw its highest homicide numbers on record in 2020 and 2021. There they worked with local leaders to determine the nature of the city’s violence problem, understand what obstacles stood in the way of past interventions, and outline what strategies the city would use in the future.
“The subject matter experts they exposed our community to really gave insight about how to do violence reduction well, what things have worked, where some stumbling blocks are, what tools or resources we will need, and how we need to think about not only implementing the work, but also assessing the work in real-time,” said LaKenya Middlebrook, the city’s community safety director. “The experience was invaluable for our community.”
Brunson explained that the practicum was exemplary of how the VRC works with cities: “We didn’t come with all the answers. We came to listen, and to help them shape a collaborative effort that will not only have positive impacts on violence but also be sustainable well beyond our involvement.”
Abt brings a long record of anti-violence action to the VRC. He is currently a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank where he chairs a committee focused on addressing recent violence spikes. His 2019 book, “Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence — and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets,” outlined an influential vision for reducing violence in major American cities by combining the most effective strategies. Abt also served for several years as a public safety official in the New York Governor’s Office, leading the state’s Gun-Involved Violence Elimination Initiative, and prior to that he was chief of staff for the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs, where he helped to found the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention. Abt has advised hundreds of public officials on anti-violence strategies in the U.S. and internationally.
Brunson has spent his career conducting research that informs criminal justice policy, particularly in the areas of youth violence, concentrated neighborhood disadvantage, and police-community relations. In landmark studies like “Oh Hell No, We Don’t Talk to Police”: Insights on the Lack of Cooperation in Police Investigations of Urban Gun Violence,” from 2019, Brunson interviewed people in disinvested Black communities to understand what policy solutions can help improve police-community interactions and counteract “anti-snitching” norms. A fellow of the American Society of Criminology, his scholarship has appeared in Criminology & Public Policy and Preventive Medicine, among other academic journals.
We believe that this approach, through the University of Maryland, is an important piece in advancing what works.Walter Katz vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures
The VRC will also benefit from the participation of Bianca Bersani, a professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and Joseph Richardson, the university’s Joel and Kim Feller Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology. Both have made important contributions to violence reduction research and policy throughout their careers.
The new center brings Katz hope that a greater number of cities will connect with more effective anti-violence strategies, he said. “We believe that this approach, through the University of Maryland, is an important piece in advancing what works.”