Friday, May 3, 2024

In 2023 cities experienced the largest single-year decline in violent crime since the FBI began keeping track

 In 2021, Detroit was in trouble.

The city, which already had one of the highest murder rates in the country, was experiencing a surge in gun violence coinciding with the Covid-19 pandemic. In the first five months of the year, homicides were up 27 percent, and nonfatal shootings were up 44 percent, reported Vox.

James White, who was Detroit’s assistant police chief from 2012 to 2020, had only been retired from the department for a year when he got the call to return, this time as chief of police, in June 2021. When he came back, he said, “policing had completely changed.”

“It was on the heels of the George Floyd murder, it was the pandemic — all those things kind of intersected,” White told Vox. It wasn’t just Detroit: Homicide spiked 30 percent across the US in 2020, the largest single-year increase since the FBI began tracking it. “We found ourselves [facing] a really big question, and rightly so, about the validity of policing and the model of policing that was happening around the country.”

Three years into his time as chief, White and others in the community have much to celebrate. At the end of 2023, the city reported the fewest homicides since 1966, a decline of 18 percent over the previous year. Nonfatal shootings fell nearly 16 percent, and carjackings dropped by a third. By the end of 2023, the city’s homicide rate had returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Detroit is on the leading edge of a national trend. Across US cities last year, homicides fell more than 12 percent, the largest single-year decline in violent crime since the FBI began keeping track. In Buffalo, they fell 46 percent from a year earlier — the fewest homicides since 2011. In Philadelphia, they dropped 21 percent. New York and Los Angeles also saw double-digit declines, according to preliminary data.

What explains the precipitous rise — and sharp fall — in violent crime? Experts caution that several complex, intersecting factors drive crime trends, and no single explanation can easily answer the question.

The best working theory is that multiple overlapping social crises — including pandemic-related disruptions that kept more people stuck at home and out of work, and the unrest across major cities after the murder of George Floyd — contributed to a breakdown of trust between the public and police, and created conditions ripe for violence in a country awash in too many guns.

The decrease, meanwhile, may have much to do with society reopening and stabilizing, but it also probably has something to do with changes to the way some police, prosecutors, and civic leaders — in Detroit and elsewhere — have been operating after the major challenges of 2020.

For Detroit, what worked was a coordinated effort across multiple agencies and community organizations that was targeted at reducing and preventing gun crime and mobilizing the judicial system after a pandemic-era shutdown seriously hampered the courts.

That’s not to say Detroit, like other cities in the US, doesn’t face severe challenges when it comes to reducing violent crime. Though the city saw the fewest killings since 1966, it also had a much larger population back then, meaning 2023’s per capita homicide rate of around 41 people per 100,000 is much higher than the 1966 homicide rate of 15 people per 100,000.

Still, White says, elected officials and community leaders in Detroit are encouraged by the fact that homicide fell back to the pre-pandemic baselines. “We’re not satisfied,” White says, but there’s satisfaction in “knowing our plans are working.”

US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Detroit Police Chief James White in February in Washington. Biden met with White to tout Detroit’s efforts to reduce crime, including using federal funds to transform policing and community interventions. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

It’s not just the chief of police saying that, either. “I think our people are hardwired to be skeptical of any news that comes from top to bottom, like, is this a political ploy? Is it real?” says Alia Harvey-Quinn, the founder of FORCE Detroit, a community violence intervention program that is active in northwest Detroit and is part of the effort to reduce gun violence. “We’re hearing people actually feel safer as of late, and that’s exciting.”

Violent crime is continuing to fall across the US this year, but it’s still a major voter concern, driving politicians to pass laws aimed at reducing it further. Here’s how Detroit is reducing crime, and what other cities can learn from their success.

Detroit changed the way police respond to some calls

In 2020, in response to the murder of George Floyd, the city came up with plans for a Crisis Intervention Team, a partnership between mental and behavioral health specialists and police. The Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network (DWIHN) staffs 911 call centers with mental health professionals and offers week-long training programs for police officers to learn about trauma-informed policing. The network also partners with police on a centralized mental health unit co-response team, where officers are paired with behavioral health specialists who can respond to people experiencing mental health crises. DWIHN’s Andrea Smith, who has answered 911 calls and worked with the crisis response team on in-person calls, says the goal is always “to bring a situation down instead of contributing to an escalation of the crisis,” and to help officers find other ways of responding to certain calls.

The approach, modeled on methods first implemented by a team in Memphis, Tennessee, “contributes to a lower number of incidents of use of force,” says Smith. “It’s allowed us to have more of a focus on, ‘OK, this person might not have a behavior problem. It might be a behavioral health problem.’ … When you have the community that knows that the police are looking at alternatives to just pulling out their gun, that enhances or improves the relationship between the police and citizens.”

For White, who in addition to being police chief is also a licensed mental health counselor, paying attention to the mental health needs of community members makes sense, but it was far from the only strategy.

The city also unveiled a 12-point “summer surge” plan that increased police presence, curfew enforcement, and strategic traffic restrictions to secure downtown Detroit following the murder of a security guard last year. Police also cracked down on drag racing and stepped up their presence at community events where they had reason to believe there might be a risk of gun violence.

The city council also approved a contract that gave officers a roughly $10,000 raise at the end of 2022 to help offset the recruiting problem other police departments are also facing across the country. White was careful to point out, though, that the work is far from over: “The challenge is to continue to drive down violent crime while providing policing excellence to our community and treating everyone fairly,” he says.

Prosecutors made community outreach a key priority

Courts across the country shut down because of Covid-19, delaying trials and preventing felony charges from moving through the adjudication process.

To get the system moving again and to reduce the backlog of felony gun cases, district and circuit courts moved to get more hearings on the calendar. The US attorney for Eastern Michigan, Dawn Ison, also partnered with federal agencies to prosecute gun crimes and take illegal weapons off the street.

Ison also led violence prevention and reentry efforts for formerly incarcerated people.

“The studies show enforcement alone has never been effective at moving the needle to reduce violent crime. We have to be transparent and bring legitimacy. We can’t do this work without the community,” Ison says.

When developing One Detroit, her office’s program to reduce violence in the two city precincts with the highest rates of gun crime, Ison drew upon several evidence-based strategies outlined in the book Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence—and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets by Thomas Abt, founding director of the Violence Reduction Center at the University of Maryland.

This included reaching out last summer to 200 individuals who, based on their previous interaction with the state’s legal system, were believed to be at highest risk of becoming a victim of, or perpetrating, gun violence. They were invited to a roundtable to hear from people who’d been incarcerated in an effort to deter them from violence.

Ison’s office also focused on engagement with the city’s residents. In the summer, she goes into the precincts with high rates of gun crime and hands out fliers letting the public know that her office is looking to prosecute the small number of people driving most of the gun violence in the city.

The office also puts on what they call “peacenics,” or summer block parties with DJs, bounce castles, and vendors from the city and local government who help people with basic services, like getting a driver’s license or having their record expunged for low-level offenses.

“My vision is for it to be our non-enforcement engagement with the community,” Ison says. “We have to be talking to them, and not only there when we’re kicking in their doors or arresting somebody.” By the end of 2023, the city reported that homicides were down 17 percent in the precincts targeted by One Detroit, and carjackings were down 63 percent.

Ison isn’t the only prosecutor focusing on violent crime reduction. At the direction of the Office of the Attorney General, each US attorney was asked to come up with their own district-specific violence reduction plan in response to the pandemic-related spike. But Thomas Abt says that the energy Ison brings to the effort is unusual. “The US attorney and Chief White are demonstrating an exciting new form of collaborative leadership,” Abt says. “They’re people who can celebrate the successes of others. I think that’s really positive and constructive.”

Detroit invested in community violence interruption

Detroit received $826 million through the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021, and in 2023, the city allocated a small slice of the money to a handful of community-based programs working to reduce gun violence in the neighborhoods that suffered from it the most. One of those programs is FORCE Detroit, which works on the west side of Detroit in a neighborhood that saw a significant reduction in gun violence last year.

“Our goal is to create peace, so we’re dealing with people on multiple sides of conflict,” says Harvey-Quinn, the group’s founder. “They understand that our space is a neutral zone.”

Since FORCE has begun its work, she says, the group has had at least 87 instances of intervention or deescalation. Those incidents range from getting someone to take down a threat made on social media before it escalates into violence to convening rival gang members and saying, “Let’s sit everyone down, and as long as people don’t want to go to prison, or die, there has to be a solution.”

Mostly, it’s about connecting young people with credible messengers who have served time and lost friends to gun violence and are now trained by her organization in deescalation and crisis mitigation strategies.

FORCE Detroit was touted by city leaders when the neighborhood they serve saw no homicides between November 2023 and January 2024.

“We’re working with the people who shoot guns, and we’re encouraging them not to,” Harvey-Quinn says.

“Statistically, less than 2 percent of our community is ever going to shoot a gun.” By designing programs focused on meeting that 2 percent in their own neighborhoods, she says, “you have a real opportunity to deeply impact them. It really matters whether or not they get the good, wraparound services. It really matters that they have mentors that care.”

With polls showing that voters think of crime as a major concern this election year, political leaders are looking to show that they’re serious about reducing it. If they’re interested in what reduces crime, they should look at what worked in Detroit. It wasn’t the “tough on crime” approach that so many leaders are now pursuing as a too-late reaction to the crime surge of 2020 and 2021.

Detroit succeeded by thinking creatively, working cooperatively, and asking the city’s residents to partner with them in the effort. City leaders demonstrated that they were willing to offer resources to help, even as they acknowledge there’s so much more work to be done. It’s a strategy designed for long-term improvement, not election-year grandstanding.

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