Amid a spike in homicide rates, tragic mass shootings, the first substantive federal gun safety law in 20 years and the Supreme Court striking down long-standing concealed carry license laws, Washington Post Live hosted a series of panels on Tuesday about violence and community safety. The event brought together a combination of local law enforcement, federal government representatives, and community leaders to discuss data-driven responses that improve public safety, strengthen police accountability, and increase public trust.
These conversations come amid national debate that often pits the need for police reform and accountability against investing in law enforcement to reduce gun violence, which disproportionately affects underserved communities of color. But support is growing for community violence interventions that complement the efforts of police and help make the justice system fairer, more equitable, and more effective.
“It’s a question of how we properly calibrate,” said Walter Katz, vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, during a panel hosted by the Council on Criminal Justice. “The best way to do that is by bringing together policymakers, community leaders, and law enforcement to collaborate together, truly assess the problem, and then apply the right interventions in the right places.”
The Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan think tank, was launched in 2020 to bring together leaders in the field to find data-driven solutions that advance safety and justice. The organization’s panel was moderated by Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at CCJ, and included Linda Harllee Harper, director of gun violence prevention for the Office of the City Administrator in Washington D.C., and Chico Tillmon, executive director of READI Chicago, as well as Katz. All the panelists have served as members of CCJ’s violent crime working group or the policing task force over the past two years.
The conversation focused on effective partnership-based approaches to violence reduction. Katz said that exclusively using policing strategies to keep communities safe, which was the policy default in the 1990s and ‘00s, has limits to its effectiveness and comes at great social cost, especially to communities of color. But doing away with policing altogether is not the answer.
“It’s unfortunate that the debate has turned into this binary between ‘back the blue’ on one side and ‘defund the police’ on the other,” Katz said. “That argument has not made communities safer.” He pointed to Newark and Washington, D.C., as cities that have taken promising collaborative approaches to violence intervention.
In Washington, the Office of the City Administrator works with community violence intervention workers who mediate conflicts that could escalate to shootings. Another pilot program employs community responders for mental health crises, an approach that avoids potentially harmful police encounters. Still, Harper said, these approaches require collaboration and “mutual respect” between police and community workers. Harper’s office employs a law enforcement liaison to facilitate that relationship. “We have to respect what each other’s roles are,” she said. “I think that we’re getting close to that here in the District.”
Abt reflected on the importance of having challenging conversations about public safety at a moment of intense partisan politics. “If you really care about community safety, it cannot be exclusively law enforcement, but it cannot be exclusively community-based approaches, and we’re going to have to work together,” he said.
Today, Tillmon said, the challenge is to invest in community-based approaches and to create a professional structure for the frontline workers they employ. “By using individuals in the community who are closest to the problem, who have the most intimate knowledge of the problem,” he said, “we can stop violence, and we can change the way our society looks, both for people who are closest to [violence] and for people who are indirectly impacted.”
Meanwhile, Arnold Ventures has launched a research agenda and request for proposals to support research that will identify solutions to violence, like community-based programs, and to pinpoint best practices and implementation strategies.
Other panels included a conversation between Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison, and one between Campaign Zero Executive Director DeRay Mckesson and Former Chief of Police in Austin, Houston and Miami Art Acevedo. In what were, at times, lively debates, these officials and activists discussed the ways that gun legislation, police use-of-force regulations, and initiatives for greater fairness in law enforcement intersect with efforts to reduce violence and build community trust.
A closing conversation with Vanita Gupta, associate attorney general at the U.S. Justice Department, offered a federal viewpoint on police, racial justice, violence, and public safety. Gupta has worked on consent decrees with the Baltimore Police Department and many other agencies across the country, and has seen firsthand how histories of mistreatment undermine cooperation between law enforcement and entire segments of major cities. This experience and many like it across the country convinced Gupta that “police-community trust is at the heart of being able to fight violent crime.” Recently, the Justice Department launched its Knowledge Lab, a clearinghouse of resources on evidence-based, constitutional policing that is available to cities across the country seeking to address these issues.
“If we just use the strategies from thirty years ago, we will be no better off,” Gupta said. “Part of what we are doing through the Knowledge Lab, through collaborative reform initiatives, and through our pattern and practice investigations is understanding the fundamental role that communities play in protecting and co-creating and defining what public safety looks like.”
The Washington Post Live event’s mix of diverse perspectives underscored a point made by Katz, who emphasized the importance of bringing together local, state, and federal governments to move beyond partisan politics and collaborate on data-driven solutions to the pressing issue of violence reduction — solutions that save lives and create a fairer justice system.
“Despite the politicization that has been going on recently, it is so important to put aside partisan interests,” Katz said. “It shouldn’t matter whether a mayor is, for example, a Democrat, and a governor is a Republican. The fact is that tens of thousands of people are dying every single year because of gun violence, tens of thousands of people are dying each year because of suicide. It’s [a problem] that should require a whole government response.”