Beware the quick fix: The limitations of “violence prevention” | Opinion

Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police last May and the protests that ensued, the discourse on policing and public safety exploded in a diversity of directions, and with an unprecedented sense of urgency.

Much of this discussion coalesced around the early demand from some activist corners to defund police departments. Indeed, within two weeks of Floyd’s killing, a “veto-proof majority” of Minneapolis City Council members had publicly committed to this idea.

By September, however, this ostensible consensus had dissipated, as it became apparent that, like Black Lives Matter, “defund the police” is a slogan that means very different things to different people. For some supporters, this means abolishing police departments and the institution of policing wholesale; for others, it means making modest reductions to municipal police budgets.

As these competing views suggest, important questions remain about what alternative models of policing and public safety might look like. Much of this discourse has sensibly focused on reimagining responses to the kinds of relatively mundane incidents that account for the bulk of police work.

Proposals likeThe People’s Budget,” for example, advocate for a range of interventions that would work to redress on the front end issues that often prompt police contact (e.g. increasing housing resources for the unsheltered) or replace police response on the back end with other services and interventions (e.g. deploying mental health workers to address mental health crises).

In Minneapolis, this discussion has played out against a backdrop of skyrocketing levels of gun violence and other violent crime. In 2020, violent crime rose by 21% over the average of the preceding five years, and the city’s 84 homicides were the second-highest tally in its history.

These startling trends are not isolated to Minneapolis, or to the Twin Cities. Likely owing to some combination of intensified dislocation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, disruptions to stabilizing social institutions like schools caused by the pandemic and attendant lockdowns, shifts in patterns of policing, and deepening disillusionment with law enforcement among widening sectors of the public, 2020 saw the largest one-year nationwide increase in homicides in U.S. history.

While relatively little in the debate on police reforms or defunding in Minneapolis is designed to address gun violence and other serious violent crime, proposals from both elected officials and grassroots groups have largely coalesced around two popular strategies for tackling these issues: focused deterrence policing and public health outreach and intervention.

With focused deterrence, law enforcement officials meet directly with gang members and other individuals considered to be at high-risk for involvement in gun violence to communicate a message of zero tolerance and the promise of a swift, severe and coordinated response from police and prosecutors for those who fail to take heed of this message. Public health outreach and intervention similarly targets those considered most likely to be involved in gun violence, but focuses on intervening in conflicts and potentially violent situations and connecting those individuals to needed resources.

It is worth noting that these proposed interventions are not new to Minneapolis; they have been implemented in the city for years. (The local approach appears to be a synthesis of the two models.) In effect, then, these proposals are calling for heavier doses of interventions that were incapable of either stemming last year’s dramatic rise in violence or of appreciably reducing levels of violence in the city in the years before that.

Indeed, despite being widely touted as evidence-based interventions that will make violence disappear whenever and wherever they are implemented, when they fail — and they routinely do — these failures are often ignored or even reframed as victories.

I have written extensively about these dynamics as they have played out over the past decade and a half in Chicago. The public health model and focused deterrence policing have been implemented in that city for the better part of two decades now and have produced no decline in citywide shootings or homicides.

Perhaps doubling down on these interventions — combined with the eventual end of the COVID-19 pandemic — will bring levels of homicide in Minneapolis back down to their pre-pandemic “normal.” And if we are only going to commit to spending a few million dollars on combating gun violence, we could do worse than a street outreach–oriented public health approach. Facial recognition software and other technocratic solutions, for example, would be a step in the wrong direction, particularly given their dubious implications for constitutional rights. (Thankfully, the Minneapolis City Council recently banned city agencies from using such software.)

But we could also do better. We could decide that the dispossessed and disaffected young Black men involved in most of Minneapolis’s gun violence are important members of our society deserving of the resources and opportunities that form the basis of a dignified life.

This would require recognizing that the inequality and despair that fuel gun violence are features of our political economy, not bugs, and that redressing these issues will necessitate a more fundamental transformation of the social order, one in which high-quality affordable housing, comprehensive health care, living wages and meaningful employment are treated as public goods available to all.

Gun violence not only serves as a pretext for the kind of stress policing that promotes police aggression and violence, but it also acutely compromises community life in already distressed neighborhoods. Residents of these neighborhoods deserve to feel and be safe.

Determining what policing will look like moving forward is one imperative dimension of this challenge. But eliminating gun violence and ensuring meaningful public safety in these communities will require more than even dramatic changes to policing — and certainly more than the often empty promises of a quick fix.