Like many areas of the United States, Harris County, Texas, has faced a historic rise in violent crime in recent years. In Houston, the county’s largest city, homicides increased by 41% in 2020, leaving nearly 400 people dead, a majority of whom were Black and Latino men. Homicide spikes like these have some politicians retreating from recent criminal justice reforms. But in Harris County, local officials have leaned into reform, implementing evidence-informed interventions that have the potential to reduce violence.
In 2021, Harris County officials passed $6 million in funding to implement the new Gun Violence Interruption Program, which will connect people at risk of violent victimization and offending with mental health and substance abuse treatment, employment opportunities, and support to exit gangs. The Harris County Safe program will use $2.6 million for analysis and community input to pinpoint violence “hot spots” for increased police presence. Another $50 million will go to environmental fixes like planting trees and adding lights in distressed neighborhoods — evidence-based strategies highlighted in a recent report from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Violent crime is not distributed evenly across cities, and the new measures seek to help communities experiencing the bulk of violence. “The violent crime increase is concentrated in particular communities within our county,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who has been instrumental in pushing the new violence-reduction policies. “It’s not necessarily all over the place, and so that helps us tackle it.”
Over the past two years, violent crime in the United States has soared, with homicides rising 30% in 2020 and police data indicating another 7% rise in major cities during 2021. This surge in violence overwhelmingly affects communities of color. In the face of this problem, experts and front-line practitioners say that now is not the time to return to aggressive police tactics of the past. Instead, they point to a slate of programs that involve law enforcement and communities working together in ways that not only address violence but also improve police legitimacy and reduce the criminal justice footprint overall.
“The good news,” said Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice who chairs the organization’s Violent Crime Working Group, “is that community violence is something we understand reasonably well and that there are solutions for.”
Research efforts across the country are seeking to understand and perfect strategies for identifying who might benefit from programmatic services, and which are most effective at reducing violence.
While Harris County begins to implement these strategies, its Texas neighbor to the north may already be reaping the benefits of using data to better highlight those best served by violence-prevention interventions. Experts have pointed to Dallas as an example of a city that saw its homicide rate fall even as arrests declined after implementing recommended data-driven solutions.
“That tells us we are targeting the right individuals — not all individuals,” Dallas Police Chief Eddie García told the Dallas Morning News. “Our goal to be laser-focused on violent crime looks to be working.”
As the benefits of such targeting begins to appear in the statistics, more local leaders are beginning to embrace community safety strategies backed by at least preliminary data that they may be effective, and more criminologists are calling for deeper research and assessment to pinpoint best practices and implementation strategies.
The Nature of the Problem
The homicide spike has taken a particular toll on communities of color, the same ones that have long suffered the brunt of community violence and police misconduct. “Disadvantaged communities continue to experience a disproportionate share of violent crime,” said Asheley Van Ness, director of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures. “It’s one of the leading causes of death among Black males ages 15 to 24.”
Even within those communities, Van Ness explained, violence is further concentrated. A small number of people and places face extraordinary risk: Typically less than 1% of a city’s population is connected to more than half of homicides and shootings, and neighborhoods containing just 1.5 percent of the U.S. population see a quarter of its gun violence.
Typically, proportion of a city’s population that is connected to more than half of homicides and shootings.
Experts name a few factors that have recently aggravated the problem. The social distancing and shutdown requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic made it harder for police, community members, and services providers to conduct face-to-face violence interventions with the people and neighborhoods most in need of support. At the same time, abusive police practices, including the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, sparked a protest movement and deepened disengagement between law enforcement and the neighborhoods they are supposed to protect and serve.
‘You Need Both Law Enforcement And Community Approaches’
To get solutions into the hands of local governments, the Council on Criminal Justice, an Arnold Ventures grantee, brought together a new Violent Crime Working Group — composed of advocates, academics, law enforcement representatives, front-line practitioners, and public health professionals — dedicated to advancing the use of evidence to address violence.
Since its formation in July 2021, the working group has published a range of practitioner-friendly bulletins on community-based responses and law enforcement-based responses, as well as a primer on how to foster a collaborative approach. “We believe that you need both law enforcement and community approaches,” Abt said. “It can’t be just one or the other.”
Community-based approaches include well-managed street outreach programs that employ front-line workers to mediate conflicts, connect high-risk people to services, and promote nonviolent norms. Models in Chicago and Los Angeles, which are linked to the mayors’ offices and provide professional training for outreach workers, have shown potential for reducing crime and violence. So has the emerging Advance Peace program in Richmond, California, which offers participants additional mentorship, skills training, and stipends. Programs rooted in cognitive-behavior therapy, like Becoming a Man, are also encouraging, especially as new evaluations shine a light on whether and how these programs impact violence.
“These community-based programs take a trauma-informed, healing-centered approach in their work with high-risk individuals,” said Anita Ravishankar, director of criminal justice research at Arnold Ventures. “Careful implementation, from the selection of front-line outreach workers to the quality of services delivered to program participants, is essential to their success.”
However, more research is still needed to better understand the full impact of these types of programs, and the specific implementation strategies that can maximize their effectiveness.
“Rigorous process and outcome evaluations — of which there have been few published to date — can help build the evidence base on these programs and help guide other jurisdictions as they look to implement similar efforts in their communities,” Ravishankar said.
Community-based interventions that focus on high-risk places have also been proven effective, Multiple randomized controlled trials find that “cleaning-and-greening” efforts, like Philadelphia’s program to restore blighted land in high-risk neighborhoods, appear to have the potential to reduce violent crime.
Foremost among law enforcement-based approaches is focused deterrence, a framework that includes strong partnership between police and community members, clear communication with people with the greatest need for support, targeted legal sanctions for further violence, and an offer of personalized assistance. The approach has been applied to group violence (the kind driven by gangs and neighborhood crews) in dozens of cities under the names “Group Violence Intervention” or “Operation Ceasefire,” and evaluations have linked it to meaningful reductions in gun violence. One of its strengths is that it can incorporate community-based approaches like street outreach work and cognitive-behavior therapy.
The working group also recommended effective proactive policing approaches like hot-spots policing that focuses on the hyper-specific locations where violent crime concentrates, and problem-oriented policing that analyzes and addresses the underlying causes of crime. Increasing clearance rates for homicides — which largely go unsolved in Black neighborhoods — can also improve perceptions of police legitimacy and lead to greater community cooperation on deterring future gun violence. However, not all applications have been successful, especially when policing tactics cast too wide of a net.
“Focused, targeted policing can have a positive impact on crime and violence,” Abt said. “But it needs to be carefully managed to make sure it doesn’t eventually become overbroad and indiscriminate.”
If improperly implemented, these strategies not only lose their efficacy in reducing crime, but can also unnecessarily entangle people with the criminal justice system.
“To date we have only really measured the effects of hot spots and focused deterrence strategies on crime,” said Ravishankar. “We do not have a good sense of their effects on a broader set of outcomes, including potential harms.”
The working group recommended against broad, aggressive enforcement tactics like “stop-and-frisk” or “zero tolerance” policing that overuse misdemeanor arrests. These strategies have not shown evidence of effectiveness, and can actually have adverse effects by weakening community trust in law enforcement and harming individuals. In fact, research has found that not prosecuting certain people for low-level misdemeanors actually makes them less likely to commit a new crime.
The key to all the strategies the working group identified is that they specifically focus first on addressing violent crime itself.
“In the short term, the most effective solutions focus directly on violence, and they focus directly on the people and places where violence is concentrated,” Abt said.
No Retreat to the 1990s
That focused approach is being used right now in California, where the California Partnership for Safe Communities (CPSC) guides local violence intervention work across the state. CPSC is best known for its efforts in cities like Oakland and Stockton that have historically grappled with high violent crime rates.
“Their approach is looking at how they can ensure that the police department and the community are implementing violence reduction strategies that work and that don’t lead to adding more people to the prison system in California,” Van Ness said.
In Oakland, Vaughn Crandall, the organization’s executive director, and Reygan Cunningham, its co-director, have helped guide Oakland Ceasefire for almost a decade. CPSC’s approach in Oakland and other major cities combines focused deterrence, procedural justice, and community intervention efforts with the goal of achieving a public safety “triple bottom line”: reduce gun violence, reduce recidivism for those at highest risk of violence, and build police-community trust. Importantly, they said, Oakland Ceasefire has the commitment of city leadership and a shared focus on stopping homicides and retaliation. CPSC coordinates the partners’ work to analyze data about shootings, communicate with high-risk people about the legal consequences for violence, and offer them pathways to improve their lives.
“When we do these interventions, and engage individuals at the highest risk, we do it in partnership with folks who live in the neighborhood, who have influence with those individuals,” Cunningham said. The city has been a model for success: A 2019 study associated its strategy with a 31.5% reduction in gun homicides and a 43% reduction in gang shootings, while citywide arrests declined by over 60% from the previous decade.
Beginning in 2020, however, homicides and shootings have spiked badly in Oakland, making the city a national flashpoint. Crandall and Cunningham said that bringing violence down again will require staying the course — and securing long-term political support, resources, and infrastructure for interventions that work. CPSC was a leader in advocating for a recent expansion of the California Violence Intervention Grant Program, which made $200 million in state funding available over three years to help cities address gun violence. The organization helps coordinate a coalition of over 60 organizations across California including city leaders, policy organizations, and front-line practitioners to secure large-scale permanent state funding for effective violence prevention and reduction efforts. “We believe we can leverage the state’s current one-time investment and make it permanent,” Crandall explained. “We’re in the long game.”
Cunningham said that the new state-level funding is encouraging: “Even in this environment, we’re seeing a more progressive approach and not a retreat back to the 1990s ways of violence intervention.”
‘Large Upswing In Federal, State, and Local Investment’
The approach that jurisdictions like Harris County and Oakland are using is precisely what experts say will reduce violence in the short term while also building the police-community partnerships to sustain those reductions over time.
In January, the Council on Criminal Justice’s working group published a bulletin focusing on how to integrate local violence reduction efforts, citing essential factors like establishing a shared local vision and infrastructure and securing state and federal investments.
On that score, there is cause for hope, as states like California and the Biden administration have begun committing historic levels of investment to community violence intervention focused on the people and places that are suffering the greatest harm.
“We are seeing a large upswing in federal, state, and local investment in anti-violence initiatives,” Abt said. “I’m optimistic about this new funding, if spent properly, making a real difference.”