Justice Today

Driving Down Gun Violence (Part One)

May 29, 2023 National Institute of Justice Season 2 Episode 7
Justice Today
Driving Down Gun Violence (Part One)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Three LEADS Scholars serving in different law enforcement agencies and positions discuss their experiences with identifying and implementing evidence-based interventions to reduce gun violence. NIJ Senior Advisor Dr. Tamara Herold hosts this conversation with guests Police Chief Cecilia Ashe (Milford Delaware Police Department), Chief of Staff Lieutenant Matthew Barter (Manchester, NH Police Department), and Analytical Services Manager Mr. Jason Schiess (Durham, NC Police Department). 

LEADS, which stands for Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science, is designed to increase the research capabilities of law enforcement professionals and agencies. Since 2014, yearly cohorts of selected policing professionals are provided access to programming that connects current and emerging police leaders with evidence-based research to advance justice. Learn about more about these LEADS scholars, their challenges and triumphs, and how they embraced science to tackle gun crime in their jurisdictions.  Read the transcript.

Listen to part 2 of this episode.

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SPEAKER 1: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, where we shine a light on cutting edge research and practices and offer an in-depth look at what we're doing to meet the biggest public safety challenges of our time. Join us as we explore how funding science and technology help us achieve strong communities. 

TAMARA HEROLD: Hello, everyone, I'm Dr. Tamara Herold. I'm a Senior Adviser to NIJ Director, Dr. Nancy La Vigne. In my current role, I'm working to promote NIJ's evidence to action initiative. We're bringing scientific research directly to criminal justice professionals to help inform their decision-making and create more effective, efficient, ethical and equitable justice outcomes. Today we'll be discussing how three policing professionals have championed the use of science and evidence to reduce gun violence victimization. They are all members of NIJ's Law Enforcement Advancing Data in Science Program, also known as the LEADS Program, designed to increase the research capabilities of law enforcement professionals and agencies. 

To give you more insight into the benefits of the program and the amazing work of LEADS scholars using research to improve police practice across the country, we are joined by Mr. Jason Schiess, who has served as a policing professional for more than 29 years and was selected as a 2020 LEADS scholar. Mr. Schiess currently commands the Analytical Services Division at the Durham North Carolina Police Department. Lt. Matthew Barter is a 15-year policing veteran, selected as a 2018 LEADS scholar and currently serves as Chief of Staff for Chief Allen Aldenberg of the Manchester, New Hampshire Police Department. We are also joined by Chief Cecilia Ashe, a 2019 LEADS scholar with more than 27 years of policing experience, who was recently named police chief for the Milford Delaware Police Department.  

To start us off, let's set the stage by acknowledging that gun violence skyrocketed across many jurisdictions in 2021. In Wilmington, Delaware, a record number of people were killed by gun violence, prompting local media to describe the killings as a wave of assassinations. While gun violence continued to rise in neighboring cities, Wilmington was engaged in an evidence-based strategy known as group violence intervention, sometimes called focused deterrence. This approach goes beyond enforcement and offers those who commit crimes alternatives, including job training, subsidized housing, food assistance, and other social services to help them change their life circumstances and escape violence. Chief Ashe, first, congratulations on your recent appointment as chief. 

CECILIA ASHE: Thank you. I appreciate it very much. 

TAMARA HEROLD: In 2021, you were serving as Inspector of Operations in the Wilmington Police Department and were instrumental in leading your city toward evidence-based solutions that would drive down gun violence. You knew what the research shows: that deterrence works well when it's directed toward people at high-risk of offending in a meaningful and focused way. Tell us when did Wilmington first adopt the Group Violence Intervention strategy? What happened to it over time? And what happened following the increase in killings in 2021? 

CECILIA ASHE: Yeah, so I think what's most important to take from this is that in 2017 we met with Dr. David Kennedy of the National Network for Safe Communities to go over kind of this GVI approach, because we knew even at that time, we were labeled as Murder Town, USA. We also had the highest propensity for juvenile violence as well. And in that, what we had to do is break things down, right? Look at the research, stop the guessing game, look at the research and say, "Where are we as an agency, looking at our intelligence-led policing?" But then also looking at where do we take things next? We know that our traditional style of policing was not working. We had distrust within our communities. And really that comes from kind of that zero-tolerance approach, which a lot of our forefathers in law enforcement, you know, inflicted upon a lot of these communities and disproportionately on communities of color. So when we really looked at things and drilled down, we started to focus on the people. Everything is based off of human contact, right? Whether it's intelligence-led policing with human contact, whether it's engaging in social services, it's human contact. And when we started to drill down on those things in 2018, we saw great reductions. But it's not about one strategy. It's about overlaying those strategies.  

In 2021, we saw the increase in violence, I believe, because we lost that human contact, because we stopped, because of COVID, having our call-ins, engaging with these people who had the highest propensity for violence. When we were doing enforcement efforts, we were also losing in the courts because the courts are so far behind. So where I think we ended up making a lot of strides is holding the course, our governor, Governor Carney, was very supportive of the program, really allowed us the ability to create sustainability within the program, and held the course as a politician, right? When the--when the heat was hot. And so we were able, in 2022, to drive that down by probably a 58% reduction in homicides and a 30% reduction in overall shootings. So I think the takeaway from that is look at your policing strategies, base them in research, and stay the course. Even when it gets hot, sometimes you got to stay the course in these things to allow the research to play out. 

TAMARA HEROLD: Those are simply amazing results. More than 50% reduction in homicide is just absolutely incredible. And a testament to your commitment to evidence-based practices.  

Lt. Barter, your agency adopted a similar Group Violence Intervention approach called Project Connect. And my understanding is that Manchester's project focus heavily on social network analysis to identify the individuals involved in gun violence. And in the project’s second phase, leveraged street outreach workers to interrupt cycles of violence. I know some police professionals are wary about working with external partners, including outreach workers, Tell us about the partnerships your agency formed, and what happened to victimization among those that were identified as at-risk for gun violence. 

MATTHEW BARTER: Yeah, we recognize obviously there was an issue and a growing problem. And so when Chief Aldenberg took the helm at the police department, we really wanted to be more strategic in our approach. And we partnered with the National Policing Institute to kind of develop a concept and a really strong problem-solving approach. And we adopted the CompStat 360 model for our agency. And in doing so, it's really community-centered and what it says is, you know, gun violence, gun crime and violence in general, is not a police problem, in and of itself, it is a community issue, and everyone in the community needs to partner on that. And so that's where the partnership started, was really engaging with our community partners, with members of the community, to look at understanding the problem, to look at the drivers of the problem, and then look at gaps. And we recognized, through that process, that a gap we had was we weren't connecting with especially the youth population that we needed to and the youth that were most at risk for gun crime, and being involved in gun violence. And so we identified a really strong partner, a local nonprofit called MY TURN, that's already working with many of these youth or many of their associates. And we engaged with them, and they had the capacity and I think the built-in relationships to connect with youth in a way that we just couldn't as a police department, or as police officers. And through that partnership, because we engaged and because they engaged back with us, we identified that we could really do some great things. And so what we worked on with them is using the social network analysis to identify kind of those influencers, those key people involved in gun violence. And we pretty simply just refer those names over to Project Connect and said, "This is who we are seeing is most at risk and most influential within these groups. And do you think you can connect with them and see, A, what services you can provide? And B, just be that that form of communication that can maybe if something's going on, talk to them." And that's what happened. They did a great job. Some of it was literally cold calls by outreach folks and just leveraging their own networks. It was really cool to see. And one by one, they gained credibility and trust in the group and got them in the door and started having connections with them. You know, we're not there yet with having police officers have connections with these youth in the same manner, but having that in between has been really, really helpful. And so things are flaring up, if there's a rap video drops, if there's social media conflict going on, I think we all have seen, we can voice those concerns to our partners at Project Connect and say, "Hey, we're seeing this." Most of the time, they have also seen it and they have also recognized it usually before us and say, "Hey, well, can, you know, do you think you can make a call?" And they'll do that. They'll engage and talk. And it's been great. And so what we--what we saw was pretty significant. I think the biggest eye-opener was reduction of victimization among the group. And so before, we were seeing of the influencers that we sent over them being victims of violent crime, you know, five times a month, roughly within that group, which for us, you know, we're a smaller city, but that was pretty significant compared to everyone else. And we saw that dropped to zero during this this kind of phase of street outreach, this time period or block that we did our initial evaluation. And so that was significant for us to see that not only do we see reductions in just police involvement being named the suspects involved, but the biggest one was that they weren't victims of crime anymore. And I think that goes to hopefully, the violence interruption piece that if something happened, that either the person did or they their group was involved, and they weren't then being retargeted in a crime. And so that was very significant for us to see. 

TAMARA HEROLD: And I don't think anybody can argue with results that lead to a complete absence of victimization. I mean, that's absolutely incredible.  

In my experience, when talking about evidence-based crime prevention strategies, like group violence intervention, policing professionals commonly express concern about potential displacement. Despite evidence to the contrary, some believe that if we block opportunities for crime, all of it will simply move around the corner, or people who have committed lower-level crimes will be willing to engage in more serious crimes. What was your experience in Manchester? Did you look for evidence of displacement and if so, what did you find? 

MATTHEW BARTER: Yeah. We love social network analysis. We find the tool very valuable to look at individuals and how they relate to their peers and the rest of their network. And you know, the theory says that these influencers are influencers for a reason, it's because that they are influential to the behaviors of those around them. And what we did is we looked to track that, not only, you know, did victimization and crime involvement of the influencer go up or down? We looked at how did that impact the rest of the network? So the network that made up kind of the most at-risk youth in gun violence was 109 individuals, and doesn't mean they're all offenders but they had some involvement in this network. And what we found was, in that group, arrests declined by 32%, compared to the pre-intervention period. Being suspected of a crime declined by 44%. Also significantly, victimization in that network declined by 73% compared to the pre-intervention levels. And then there's any involvement in a crime being whether they're a victim or witness, just there on scene, had declined by 40% when we looked at the contacts within our system. And that I think was really significant and just proof of the fact that if we target these influencers, not just for enforcement, but also for outreach and making them better, that that's going to make those around them better as well. And it kind of was proof of the theory for us and our contexts in our city. And to be able to then show that and bring that back, especially the leadership and to the officers working every day responding to these things, is helpful and just showing that these interventions can work. 

TAMARA HEROLD: Absolutely. So following the literature, you found evidence of a diffusion of benefits rather than displacement. 


TAMARA HEROLD: Which tends to be more common and really helpful, I think, for people to hear. Now, to answer the questions that I just posted Chief Ashe and Lt. Barter, we need data and we need quality analysis. And Mr. Schiess, this is your area of expertise. So if you could please just tell us a little bit about obstacles you've encountered as an Analysis Manager, what makes it difficult to measure crime problems and determine whether our interventions work? 

JASON SCHIESS: Yeah, thanks for that question, Dr. Herold. There's really two parts of that question that jumped out to me, which was measuring crime problems and then evaluating the results. And so we really have to be able to build our data capacity and then be willing to use it, right? So the analogy that I would use on building data capacity is, data is like a kaleidoscope. And I'm kind of showing my age here a little bit, but I had one of these handheld kaleidoscopes as a kid, the cylindrical object that you would look through, you'd put a disc into it, hold it up to the light, and as you turn it, the colors and the shapes move and interact. Data is a little bit like that. If an agency is only using a records management system to collect static data according to NIBRS data elements, it's like dropping that kaleidoscope disk in there but not even bothering to turn the cylinder. It's not very interesting, not very useful. But if you can expand that data capacity, and recognize that NIBRS, while it's an advancement forward still has limitations, such as there is no data element for capturing that an incident was a shooting, or that a subject's injuries were the result of a gunshot. But also expanding that capacity to build on other data sources that are available such as records--I'm sorry, beyond records management systems, but calls for service data, enforcement data, and optimally, court outcome data. So the more that that data can interact, the more that you can gain these really valuable and interesting insights into what's going on. But the flipside is that you have to be willing to use that data. And so the analogy that I would use here, I'm going to borrow from Stephen Covey, is beginning with the end in mind. So the SARA model, Scan, Analyze, Respond, and Assess, we do a really good job in law enforcement of identifying problems, and then developing solutions very quickly. And that might work well for a tactical scenario and field operations. But for strategic and operational analysis, maybe not so well. And sometimes what happens is crime analysis units get somebody coming in and asking for data and maybe that's even after a response has occurred. And that analysis was not on the front end of it. And that can be really challenging. And analysts have to be willing and have the freedom to ask those who are requesting data, "Why?" What is the question that you are trying to answer? And I think that's a really important aspect of applying the SARA model. 

TAMARA HEROLD: It makes a lot of sense. And your agency in Durham initiated Operation Bull's Eye, a multi-year city operation. And like many of the initiatives that I've designed or participated in, it was also place-based, which brings another dimension to violence reduction strategies. We're not just focused on who, but on the specific places where crime tends to concentrate over time. And it's amazing, at least to me, that the next generation of officers will often be dealing with the same persistent hotspots as the generation before. Your initiative was also heavily focused on gun crime intelligence. Tell us a little bit about Operation Bull's Eye, and what the evidence suggested about the results of the project through your kaleidoscope of data. 

JASON SCHIESS: Yeah, sure, absolutely. What's funny is that Operation Bull's Eye was a bit of an accident to begin with. And I love stories of accidental discoveries. So with Bull's Eye, we were working on, like I said, a different project. And it was with calls for service data around shots fired calls. And we discovered that the centroid of the densest area within the city, and we were using a very specific geographic extent in this particular problem, what was centered on this part of East Durham. And then we overlaid the violent gun crime data on top of that. And the centroid of that was almost right on top of the shots fired calls. And then, we took the last known residence of validated gang members. And lo and behold, the centroid of that was almost right on top of the other two. So we have this area of significant concentration where right around two percent of the land mass of the city was contributing twenty percent of the violent gun crime. So police agencies are like businesses. We have limited resources. So where are we going to use those resources? So with the initiative, when we first went to police administration, the initial response was, "That's really interesting. What do we do about it?" And it wasn't a pushback on the analysis, it was, "Okay, how do we operationalize this?" And a key component was that it could not be simply a police response. We've done this many times in policing where it's a suppression-only response without utilizing other resources to address issues in the environment. So, to his credit, then city manager Tom Bonfield challenged every department within the city with identifying specifically what they could do to help contribute to solutions within this two-square mile area whether it be street maintenance or identifying vacant and abandoned properties, implementing a systematic rental inspection program. It was a coordinated approach, not just police suppression. So the result was, by the end of year four, we had cut violent gun crime by half in a two-square mile area. And this was a really challenging thing to address something at such a large scale because some of the other evidence that we've looked at in preparing, whereas Operation Ceasefire initiatives in, say, Boston or St. Louis or LA, this was much larger in scale and we had to break it down into nine deployment zones. There was also a big reduction in other quality-of-life issues. So the takeaway from that was really being willing to look at local risk factors, work with partners, and realize in order to achieve really long-term change, that those partnerships have to exist. It's not just the police. 

TAMARA HEROLD: Thank you for listening to part one of this episode. If you like what you heard, please follow us on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts, and stay tuned for part two. 

SPEAKER 2: To learn more about today's topic or about NIJ, visit the links in the episode description and join us for new episodes every month.  

Opinions or points of view expressed in this episode represent a consensus of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. Any products and manufacturers discussed in this episode are presented for informational purposes only and do not constitute product approval or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Group Violence Intervention in Wilmington, DE
Using street outreach to reduce gun violence in Manchester, NH
If we block opportunities for crime, does it "simply move around the corner?"
Difficulties with measuring crime
Operation Bullseye in Durham, NC