Mar 20, 2012

Faith & Law Enforcement Leaders Working to Reduce Violence

There is a growing movement in criminal justice and faith-based communities to address the epidemic levels of violence impacting young males of color in America’s inner cities. This movement is driven not just by faith alone; it is also being driven by a growing body of research that suggests that we have very simple and powerful ways to end the epidemic of inner-city gun violence.

Last week I attended and presented at the RECAP (Rebuilding Every City Around Peace) conference in Washington D.C. This first national gathering of faith leaders, leading academics and law enforcement leaders was the brain-child of Reverend Jeffery Brown, Executive Director of the Boston Ten-Point Coalition. He was joined by several distinguished presenters including: Former New York and Los Angeles Police Commissioner, William Bratton, Anthony Bragga, Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and David Kennedy, Director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College in New York City. The keynote address was delivered by Acting U.S Deputy Attorney General Mary Lou Leary.

Reverend Brown described the important role of churches in the black community: “Faith-based institutions have always addressed issues of life and death in the black community”. “Churches are not powerless” when dealing with issues of violence. They can “raise funds, access volunteers and generate a belief in God and faith in the future”, according to Brown. He described the essential role of faith-based institutions as “advocates for fairness and justice”.

Acting Deputy Attorney general Mary Lou Leary highlighted the important efforts undertaken by the U.S Department of Justice to address violence and strengthen public safety. “Violence is not inevitable,” said Leary; “We owe it to our kids to collaborate and work together”. She highlighted a few figures to demonstrate the challenges facing African-American youth and their communities: While African-American youth comprise 16% of the population, they are over half of the population arrested, and A recent study in Texas found that African-American students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended and arrested on campus. She acknowledged that too often “for young black victims the services are simply not there.” The DOJ is funding anti-violence efforts through its Office of Juvenile justice and Delinquency Prevention and currently funds over 370 local reentry programs under the Second Chance Act.

Fredirck Bealefeld, Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, highlighted the successful homicide reduction effort in Baltimore, a city that has struggled until recently to address street violence. “We operated under the false belief that the community wanted us to make more arrests for drugs. When we arrested 108,000 persons in a community of 640,000 we had 269 murders”. In 2011, Baltimore had the fewest murders since 1977 event though arrests were cut in half. How did they do it? According to Bealefeld, “we reprogrammed the Department by saying we are fighting a war on violence not a war on drugs.” The police worked with clergy leaders to bring together churches and focus police resources on the most high risk individuals for violence. The police also worked to send a strong message of deterrence to high risk persons: “we tell high risk persons that if they don’t change we are going after their whole set (gang)”.

What could this mean for New York City?

There is continued debate about the relationship between police and communities of color in New York City. While New York City's crime decline is a true success story, there still remains a significant disparity in public safety between neighborhoods of color and the rest of New York City. Across the country in cities like Chicago and Baltimore new strategies for violence reduction and community policing could offer lessons for us here in New York. The relationship between police and the communities they serve require trust and a willingness to work together. Aggressive policing that indiscriminately targets racial minorities destroys trust and the legitimacy of law enforcement in communities of color that need effective public safety services. The work of researchers like David Kennedy and Tracy Mears and Anthony Bragga, as well as courageous clergy-leaders like Reverend Brown are providing an important set of tools in our national public safety tool kit. What is needed now in New York City is the will to deploy these tools. Imagine a year were no one died from gun violence in New york City.

Christopher Watler is the Project Director of the Harlem Community Justice Center