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New Study Shows Reducing Violence Without Police Is Not Only Possible, But Happening

Two Dallas policemen on horseback observe protesters.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
Dallas police monitor protests during President Trump's visit to North Dallas, on June 11, 2020.

A new report out of John Jay College in New York highlights multiple paths to reducing community violence without police.

This summer, protesters in Dallas called on city leaders to defund the police. Those demands fell mostly upon deaf ears, because city leaders did not feel comfortable investing in alternative public safety strategies. But a new report may help change some minds.

The research paper, “Reducing Violence Without Police: A Review of Research Evidence,” was crafted by a dozen experts from universities like Yale, Northwestern and Johns Hopkins.

Jeffrey Butts, one of the lead authors, is the director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College in New York. He said work on this paper started because folks from the philanthropy group Arnold Ventures asked him, “How can communities reduce violence without hiring more police officers?”

“I think they called me the Thursday before George Floyd was murdered,” Butts recalled. “Then, the next week the whole world blew up and everyone was talking about defunding police and new alternatives and investing funding elsewhere.”

But before Butts could move forward, he and his colleagues needed to define the term “violence.” Legally speaking, the term is used liberally. Butts points out that merely threatening another person with bodily harm can be considered a violent offense in some states.

So for the purposes of his research, Butts decided to focus on “community violence,” which he said “suggests the type of violent harm that a resident may encounter during the course of a normal day, whether in their own home or out in the neighborhood, and whether they are the intended victim of a violent act or merely an incidental victim or bystander.”

“Community violence” includes homicides, shootings, violent robberies, serious assaults and sexual assaults. It does not include suicides, and it excludes things like loud arguments, which are routine interpersonal conflicts that are not seriously violent.

“Community violence is the usual stuff people are afraid of,” he said. “I’m out, I’m headed to the store and I get robbed. My son or daughter are attacked in the park. It’s those usually stranger violent acts that express anger or are used to extract property from a stranger.”

Reducing Violence Without Police” shares strategies that have been tested, backed by credible research and proven to be successful. It explains that taking actions like mitigating financial stress, engaging youth, reducing substance abuse and even just planting trees in neighborhoods can all help make cities safer.

However, Butts admits that those strategies are long-term solutions. To see those through, he said elected officials have to look beyond reelection.

“If the politics of the situation force us to think only short-term, we’re just building a police state,” Butts said. “Because the thing I can do this weekend is get all the police in here, give them overtime, send them out into the neighborhoods, give them helmets and batons and shields and try to scare the population.”

The belief that police can reduce crime on their own, Butts said, is a fallacy and one that's unproven.

“How much do we spend on policing each year?” he asked. “Yet, people are getting shot. Can I cite that as evidence that policing does not work?”

So, instead of putting more and more millions of dollars into police departments' budgets each year, Butts suggested taking on more cost effective efforts like hiring violence interrupters.

“Hiring a few ex-prisoners to be in a social services program is a pretty easy sell,” he said. “Running it well, managing it well and supporting it, could be a serious commitment. But on the economic front, I would think it’d be pretty cheap.”

Cheap for him is paying an individual $24,000 a year.

“Maybe an annual investment of $300,000 or more per year for a whole program,” Butts said.

The City of Dallas is already planning to spend $800,000 for a new violence interrupters program this fiscal year.

Got a tip? Email Hady Mawajdeh at hady@KERA.org. You can follow Hady on Twitter @hadysauce.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Hady Mawajdeh has been a reporter, producer, and digital editor at KERA since 2016. He is the creator and the co-host of KERA's first narrative podcast, Gun Play. And prior to his work in engagement, he also reported on arts and culture, social justice, and gun rights for the newsroom.