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To reduce Baltimore's gun violence, invest in strategies that work

Violence is not inevitable, and the right interventions can make the city safe

By Daniel Webster

8:00 AM EDT, July 7, 2013

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The recent spike in shootings in Baltimore and the city's endemically high rate of violent crime underscore why reducing gun violence must be the top priority for city officials. Violence exacts an enormous toll on Baltimore beyond the direct costs from the deaths, disability, medical care, law enforcement and prisons. Violence costs U.S. cities over a billion dollars annually due to fear which reduces incentives for private investment and lowers property values.

With lower property values, city lawmakers are forced to raise taxes, reduce services or both — not a recipe for success. This is why Baltimore cannot thrive until it significantly reduces gun violence.

The first step is to get over the belief that change isn't possible. People once viewed New York as a perpetually dangerous city. In 1990, its murder rate was 31 per 100,000 residents. Then murders began to plummet, and the murder rate in 2012 was 5 per 100,000 residents — 83 percent lower than its peak in 1990. Many other cities and communities have significantly reduced murders and shootings and did not have to cure all of what many consider to be the root causes of violence — poverty, unemployment, broken families and addiction.

In addition to making reducing gun violence its top priority, Baltimore must fully commit to evidence-based strategies to accomplish the task. For decades, the conventional wisdom was that Baltimore's gun violence was driven by the illegal drug trade. Violence would be reduced by locking up drug sellers, the more the better. Vast resources were spent carrying out this strategy with little or no beneficial impact on violence. Hundreds of thousands of mostly young African-American men were incarcerated and their prospects for gainful employment and making positive contributions to communities greatly diminished.

While I know of no systematic examination of the effects of drug law enforcement efforts in Baltimore, studies from other cities consistently find that law enforcement crack downs on drug selling organizations almost always result in more, not less, violence. Many economists who study illegal drug markets believe the strong demand for drugs and the large supply of potential drug sellers make it nearly impossible to arrest our way of the problem.

I am not advocating ceasing all drug-related arrests. In some cases, violent offenders can more easily be prosecuted on drug charges than on charges for violent crime. I am recommending a thorough, data-driven examination of drug law enforcement efforts to assess their impact on violent crime.

Baltimore had its largest reduction in homicides and nonfatal shootings when, in 2007, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III began redirecting police resources from illegal drugs to illegal guns — in his words, going after "bad guys with guns." I've studied the effects of police and public health initiatives in Baltimore that were designed to prevent gun violence and found that some were effective in reducing homicides and shootings.

As has been found in many other cities, when Baltimore police deployed special detective units into areas with the most shootings and directed them to focus on armed criminals and illegal gun carrying, homicides and shootings declined in the targeted areas. But the impact of these units lessened when cutbacks were made in the number of detectives doing this work.

Safe Streets Baltimore replicates a strategy scientifically proven to reduce gun violence in Chicago. The program employs former gang members to do outreach to high-risk youth in the most violent neighborhoods, serve as positive role models, and mediate disputes between gangs or individuals. My research has shown Safe Streets substantially decreased gun violence in three of the four neighborhoods where the program was implemented here. The beneficial effects sometimes extended to neighborhoods adjacent to areas targeted by the program. It is likely no coincidence that each of the four communities currently implementing the program were spared from Baltimore's recent spike in gun violence.

The problem is that we have underinvested in Safe Streets. The program should be an integral part of the city's approach to preventing gun violence, yet it is being implemented in only four high-risk neighborhoods. There are probably 40 more that need it. City leaders, foundations, faith-based groups and other civic institutions should come together in a collaborative effort to support and expand the program to other areas of need.

Data that I've analyzed indicates that a team of Safe Streets outreach and violence interruption staff reduce gun violence similarly as the same number of detectives focusing on gun offenders. One is not a substitute for the other. They are perfect complements in preventing shootings, and we need more of both to have substantial citywide impact.

Beginning in October, state and local law enforcement will have stronger state laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Vigorous enforcement of these laws is critical to long-term reductions in gun violence in Baltimore and in the rest of Maryland.

Curbing addiction, improving schools, expanding programs to support positive youth development and build skills needed for employment, and development focused on job growth can create an environment in Baltimore that is less conducive to violence. But these efforts will struggle to succeed if we don't invest more heavily in the most direct and effective ways to reduce gun violence and let go of ineffective of approaches that sometimes make the problem worse.

Daniel Webster is director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and deputy director for research of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. His email is dwebster@jhsph.edu.