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Mayors Urged to Join Together, Share Strategies to Reduce Homicides, Gang Violence

By Laura DeKoven Waxman
January 30, 2012

"Guns, gangs and drugs are at the heart of all of our problems," Washington (DC) Police Chief Lanier commented in the January 19 plenary panel discussion on preventing youth and gang violence. "If you're not a gang member, a drug user or toting a gun, you're probably not going to get murdered in most cities." That got right to the heart of the subject at hand: how to reduce homicides, particularly among African American males, and how to reduce gang activity and gang violence.

Calling for a frank discussion of what is happening in many urban communities, Conference of Mayors Vice President Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter provided data to demonstrate the extent of the problem:

  • In the United States, there were almost 13,000 murder victims in 2010.

  • African Americans account for 50 percent of total homicide victims, and 85 percent of those victims were Black men.

  • On average, each day 16 young people between the ages of 10 and 24 are murdered, and 86 percent of them are male.

  • Of the offenders caught committing these murders, 16 percent are Black men under the age of 24.

"We are watching a generation, an entire generation of African American men, fall behind," Nutter commented. "We are watching the next generation of children grow up without fathers, uncles and male role models. We are watching our communities crumble under the weight of incarceration, drugs, illiteracy and, most of all, violence." He called on mayors to stand with him "to confront this violence and to not stand for it any longer. We need a call to action and need to nationally discuss the direct impact this violence has on our communities and families."

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu echoed Nutter's concern about the high rate of violent deaths among African American males, explaining that his city is among 73 which have a higher murder rate than other places and that it is concentrated in several neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and family breakdown and "not great pathways to prosperity" through early childhood education, primary or secondary schools, or vocational-technical schools. He reported that in these 73 cities:

  • Among victims, 86.5 percent are male; 91 percent are African Americans; 65 percent have a prior felony.

  • Among perpetrators, 95 percent are male, 97 percent are African-American, 83 percent have prior felonies, 43 percent have been arrested for a firearms felony, 55 percent are unemployed, and 88 percent are acquainted with the victim.

Thanking Nutter for his efforts and the Conference of Mayors for its support, Landrieu commented that, "It doesn't have to be this way; it can change. We have to speak directly to this issue and not be afraid of it." He said that there have been examples of successes, and we need to emulate them.

Lanier provided one of those examples of success, describing how her department has achieved a dramatic reduction in homicides: An essential element of her strategy was information gathering. She sent out 300 patrol officers into highest crime neighborhoods, provided them with cell phones and other up-to-date equipment, and told them to develop sources, to get to know everyone and treat them with respect. She started an anonymous text tip line, particularly aimed at young people. She reported that information started coming in at unbelievable rates and that the department was getting names, addresses, car descriptions even before the violence starts. Lanier indicated that many more people are now willing to testify, as demonstrated by an increase in reward money payouts.

Lanier reported that murders have been reduced by 42 percent across the city over the last three years, and by 56 percent east of the Anacostia River in the last year alone (the area which accounts for most murders). The homicide closure rate last year was 95 percent; the national average for cities of similar size is 56 percent. "Those numbers show We've established relationships in our communities and people trust us," she commented.

Another example of success was provided by Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Guillermo Cespedes, who heads the Mayor's Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, which was begun in 2007. Cespedes described his city's strategy, which is place-based, family-focused, and empirically driven. It involves prevention, intervention and community-law enforcement engagement. Cespedes stressed that law enforcement is involved in every aspect of the city's effort.

One of its most visible and successful efforts is Summer Night Lights. Developed in response to the spike in youth violence which occurs in the summer, the effort provides programming until midnight intended to keep people involved and out of gangs. In the summer of 2011 it operated in 32 sites and across them saw 774,800 visits made to the program, 484,250 meals served, and 1,614 jobs made available. Officials also saw in and around these sites a 35 percent reduction in gang'related part 1 crime and gang'related homicides, a 43 percent reduction in aggravated assaults, and a 55 percent reduction in shots fired.

In response to a question about Summer Night Lights, Cespedes commented that it's really about community engagement and that "communities will choose this type of program over body bags every time." The panel's moderator Patrick McCarthy, President and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, suggested that was a terrific quote on which to end.