Recently, I interviewed three highly respected community-based violence prevention practitioners in Washington, D.C., Tyrone Parker, Tony Lewis and Ron Moten, on the history of
gun violence in a city once notoriously known as the “murder capital” of the U.S.
I asked all three men in separate interviews how D.C. managed to reduce their persistent homicide rate that averaged almost 400 homicides per year during the early 1990s to a record low of 88 homicides by 2012.
Each man arrived at the same answer: The city had invested considerable financial resources to funding violence intervention and prevention initiatives. These three men and their respective organizations were recipients of that funding.
Fast forward seven years later to 2019, and the District ended last year with 166 homicides, almost double the number of 88 homicides experienced seven years prior. When I asked them how the city went from a low of 88 homicides to 166 in matter of seven years, to paraphrase Ron Moten, “The homicide rate goes in cycles, when funding is up for violence intervention/prevention initiatives homicides go down, when funding and resources are low homicides rise.
It’s not rocket science. Once the homicide rate reached 88, the city felt it had achieved its goal, so they took their foot off the gas and stopped funding us.”
D.C. is on pace in 2020 to match the 166 homicides last year. My takeaway from those interviews was their analysis of the correlation between the lives we save from gun violence and the money we invest to reduce it.
It is not rocket science.
Two thousand miles away in the Bay Area of Northern California cities such Oakland, San Francisco and Richmond have experienced significant drops in homicides. Oakland and Richmond, Calif., were once regarded as two of the deadliest cities in the nation.
However, with an infusion of sustainable government funding for violence intervention and prevention initiatives in these cities, Oakland’s gun homicide rate dropped 44% from 2007-2017. Richmond experienced a 55% drop in gun related homicides and assaults during 2010-2016.
Many credit the reduction to sustained government funding for community-based violence intervention and prevention
programs and collaboration between community-based violence intervention and prevention programs, the faith-based community and law enforcement.
Community-based violence intervention and prevention programs such as Operation Ceasefire, Advance Peace and Youth Alive! have been instrumental in reducing gun violence in cities and neighborhoods in the Bay Area. Oakland residents now embrace the mantra “keep investing in it.”
A decade ago, the Bay Area was where Maryland is now. Oakland was Baltimore. The reductions in gun violence in Oakland did not happen overnight but it began by investing
resources to address gun violence using a public health approach that worked in tandem with community-based policing.
Lawmakers in Annapolis are considering whether to support legislation for the Maryland Violence Intervention Prevention Program Fund (MD VIPP) that could provide the same sustained government funding and investment that reduced homicides in the District of Columbia, Oakland, and Richmond. As a grant recipient of the first Tier of grants provided by MD VIPP in 2018, the hospital-based violence intervention program I formerly directed at the University of Maryland Prince George’s Hospital Center provided psychosocial services for 116 program participants who had been shot or otherwise injured in violence over a period of 16 months.
During that timeframe only one participant — less than 1% of participants — returned to the hospital for a violent injury. Before the program at UM-PGHC the trauma recidivism for violently injured patients was 32%!
Studies have shown that hospital violence intervention programs work. Just as was the case when
community-based violence prevention was defunded in D.C., when the funding support for the HVIP was reduced, we experienced the first gun-related homicide of a program participant in November 2019. This young man was 20 years old and recently accepted into a local community
I attended his funeral, viewed his lifeless body in casket, hugged his grieving mother. I thought about the countless hours my staff and I spent getting him into college, and suddenly we divested in his success, because we could no longer support the staff who were instrumental in his life.
He lost his life because of disinvestment in prevention. There is no other way to circumvent our responsibility — his death happened on our watch. The death of a 20-year-old by firearm should simply be unacceptable for all us.
We have an option and it’s not rocket science. We can invest in life or divest from it and hope to elude death. Homicides and shootings skyrocketed in Baltimore City in 2015 following the in-custody death of Freddie Gray and the violence has not abated.
Despite this crisis, there has been minimal public investment in prevention. There are success stories in gun violence prevention with Safe Streets reducing homicides in Cherry Hill by 39% and community-led ceasefire weekends
led by Baltimore Ceasefire 365 having 52% less gun violence than forecast without the events. Much more could be done with state investment in gun violence prevention.
The MD VIPP legislation under consideration would provide some funds to support scientific evaluations of the programs it funds. We need to know what programs are working and which ones are not to provide insights into how to expand and sustain their impact.
Given the enormous cost of gun violence to our sate and local jurisdictions, there is incredible return on investment from the MD VIPP in lives saved, trauma prevented, and criminal justice dollars saved.
— JOSEPH RICHARDSON, WITH DANIEL WEBSTER
The writers are, respectively, the Joel and Kim Feller Endowed Professor of African-American Studies and Anthropology at the University of Maryland and Bloomberg
Professor of American Health and Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.