THE BLOG

The Story Behind the Nation's Falling Body Count

01/21/2014 09:39 am ET | Updated Mar 23, 2014
Richard Williams Photography via Getty Images

The numbers are in: 2013 puts America on track for its lowest murder rate in nearly 40 years. But there's an important point the year-end media round-ups are missing: there is a method to the growing lack of madness in America's cities. Most of the cities making headlines -- Chicago, down 18 percent, to the lowest level since 1965; New Orleans, down almost 20 percent, to the lowest level since 1971; Baton Rouge, down over 20 percent; Philadelphia, down a quarter, to the lowest level since 1967; New York, down 20 percent, to an absolute historical record low; Oakland, down 29 percent, the single largest reduction in 40 years; Stockton, down 55 percent, the single largest reduction ever -- are using the same basic method to stop the killing. There is something that can be done about the urban homicide that has plagued the nation for generations, these cities are doing it, and it is working.

Violent crime has been declining across the U.S. for some time, but there is still tremendous work to do. It is nothing less than a national shame that communities across America, especially poor black communities, live with unconscionable levels of violence, incarceration, and tensions with the police (for much of the time the national homicide rate has been going down, the gun homicide rate for younger black men has been going up). Traditional enforcement in these neighborhoods has been not only ineffective but often broad, blunt, and intrusive: high levels of street stops, drug arrests, "trespassing" and other pretext misdemeanor arrests, warrant service, and the like have left many angry at and distrustful of authorities. But the cities where violence really declined in 2013 are approaching the problem narrowly and strategically; working to not arrest and incarcerate; and consciously engaging with communities in ways that they can embrace as fair and that help them reset their own public safety standards.

Indeed, focus is one of the important things these cities have in common. A growing body of criminological evidence shows that serious violence (and much other crime) is concentrated among remarkably small numbers of "hot" people and places. We now know that homicide and gun violence are overwhelmingly concentrated among serious offenders operating in groups: gangs, drug crews, and the like representing under half of one percent of a city's population commit half to three-quarters of all murders. We also know some reliable predictors of risk: individuals who have a history of violence or a close connection with prior victims are far more likely to be involved in violence themselves. Hot groups and people are so hot that when their offending is statistically abstracted, their neighborhoods cease to be dangerous. Their communities aren't dangerous; they are.

Hot places are likewise very few and account for a startling proportion of a community's crime. Research on hot spots shows violence to be concentrated in "micro" places, rather than in "dangerous neighborhoods," as the popular idea goes. Blocks, corners, and buildings representing just five or six percent of an entire city will drive half of its serious crime.

The good news is that these concentrations create high-payoff opportunities to intervene. The cities that recognize this fact are creating community-based interventions with a laser-like focus on the people and places driving violence.

In Chicago, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Philadelphia, Oakland, and Stockton -- all cities where homicide, not homicide reduction, has made headlines for years -- a community, social service, and law enforcement partnership identifies group members with extensive criminal histories and engages them in meetings -- "call-ins" -- to demand an end to violence, explain the legal risks they face, and offer them help. Chicago has added "custom notifications" and is using new social network analysis techniques to identify the hottest and most vulnerable people and give them individualized messages about their vulnerability, the help available to them, and their legal risks. Not only has violence dropped dramatically, the Chicago Police Department made 7,000 fewer arrests last year. In Los Angeles, where homicide is down to 255 city-wide, a pilot version of the approach in the San Fernando Valley's Mission Area has reduced violence even further: shooting victims are down almost half over last year.

Similar hot-people interventions are consistently effective. In New York City, NYPD has launched Operation Crew Cut, aimed at street crews and their dynamics. Closely monitoring crews, focusing enforcement on the most violent, and intervening when violence is imminent appears to have cut youth homicide in the city by half while resulting in only 400 or so arrests -- at the same time that, at year's end, the city's controversial street stops were down a full 80 percent. The NYPD's Juvenile Robbery Intervention Program, or JRIP, operating along similar lines, has cut robbery recidivism equally dramatically. A gun-offender call-in initiative pioneered in Chicago over ten years ago by now-Yale Law School Professor Tracey Meares has shown remarkable impact and is being replicated in five sites across New York State, and expanded to juveniles in New York City. High Point, North Carolina has even extended the approach to the most dangerous domestic violence offenders, with very promising early returns.

The approach can transform what are often broken relationships between police and historically troubled, oppressed, and deeply angry minority communities. By making it clear that law enforcement can tell the difference between the very few even potentially violent and everybody else, and leading with intervention rather than arrest and incarceration, law enforcement wins the trust of communities and strengthens their ability to act on their own behalf and police themselves.

This is not simply an aspiration; more and more, it is a proven approach.

In Los Angeles, for example, the Watts Gang Task Force has set up a real-time working partnership between the LAPD, community figures and ex-gang members to gather street intelligence and intervene to head off trouble before anybody gets either hurt or arrested. Ex-offenders committed to their communities are working closely with the Philadelphia and Mission Area law enforcement teams, and elsewhere across the country. Community actors -- elders on the block, pastors, the moral voices that remain strong and authentic in the most troubled of neighborhoods -- help make the Chicago-style "custom notifications" and say to young men and their mothers, we care about you, we need you alive and out of prison, the violence has to stop. These and similar efforts are not about "community relations." They are concrete, pragmatic working partnerships between police and communities. Evidence shows that they reduce violence, but they also have the important effect of increasing police legitimacy, the belief that authorities are acting with respect and in communities' best interests. "The statistical information reflects a positive trend," says Todd Chamberlain, commanding officer in the LAPD's Mission Area. "However, what's not reflected, yet just as important, are the incredible partnerships that have grown out of implementation of the program." We now know that where legitimacy goes up, crime goes down: if police are seen as allies, rather than an occupying army, and street offenders hear "put your guns down" rather than "stop snitching," the spiral of decline we have been used to for so long becomes a virtuous cycle.

The new law enforcement thinkers are even taking on the past harms and toxic racial legacies that poison relationships between police and especially African-American communities. Chicago's Superintendent Garry McCarthy is a model of this new honesty. "I understand the historical divide between police and communities of color," he said shortly after taking over the Chicago Police Department. "The most visible arm of government is a police force, and the institutionalized governmental programs that promoted racist policies that were enforced by police departments in this country are part of the African American history in this country. And we have to recognize it because recognition is the first step towards finding a cure towards what is ailing us. Over the years we've actually done a lot of things wrong and I'm willing to admit that. A lot of police executives are defensive. We've done a lot wrong." Remarkably, this transformative honesty about the America's racial history and its implications for legitimacy has become all but, if not, mainstream amongst criminal justice's leadership. "It's time to declare, once and for all, that we must do better - as a country and as a people," Attorney General Eric Holder told the International Association of Chiefs of Police this fall. "For the safety of our men and women on the front lines -- and in the name of winning the respect and cooperation of America's minority communities -- it is incumbent upon law enforcement leaders to help bridge this divide. And we can start by recognizing that compliance with the law begins not with the fear of arrest or even of incarceration - but with respect for the institutions that guide our democracy."

It's true, of course, that not every city with homicide declines in 2013 is doing this work (and this is not all the successful ones are doing; the Philadelphia Police Department, for example, is seeing powerful impact from a parallel hot-places strategy). But where cities are using these approaches, the results are consistently tremendously promising. And they are growing and spreading: Detroit, Denver, and Kansas City have begun to use them; Baltimore will launch this year; the state of Connecticut is supporting them in New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford; smaller cities like Peoria, Chattanooga, and South Bend have begun or are beginning. They are taking on squarely the core public safety issue for American cities, and in many ways for the American democratic experiment: how to police both effectively and with legitimacy, and how to protect communities without sending whole generations of young men to prison.

Homicide may be down nationally, but until we reach the corners of America that still suffer from daily violence, and where getting stopped, arrested, and locked up are a normal part of a young man's life, we are doing them an injustice. The efforts of these cities, using these methods, represent a major advance -- a workable way forward. They foster a focus on preventing violence and incarceration among the people most likely to be touched by both; help police do their jobs in a way that does not harm, and in fact strengthens, the communities they serve; and support communities in reclaiming their voice about the way they want to live.

David M. Kennedy is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, and co-chair of the National Network for Safe Communities, which supports cities in the work described in this article. His most recent book is Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America.