“The Long History of Anti-Asian Violence in the US”: Dr. Beth Lew-Williams

Dr. Beth Lew-Williams

Beth Lew-Williams is a historian of race and migration in the United States, specializing in Asian American history. Her book, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), maps the tangled relationships between local racial violence, federal immigration policy, and US imperial ambitions in Asia.

As we confront a new surge of anti-Asian hate crimes amid the pandemic, how should history help to inform our response? Beth Lew-Williams will discuss her research on anti-Chinese violence in the US West, consider the broader history of anti-Asian violence, and reflect on the implications for present-day efforts at reconciliation.

In 2015, Dr. Lew-Williams received an HFG Research Grant (now the HFG Distinguished Scholar Award) for her project “The Chinese Must Go: The Violent Birth of American Border Control.”

About The Chinese Must Go from Harvard University Press: 

“The American West erupted in anti-Chinese violence in 1885. Following the massacre of Chinese miners in Wyoming Territory, communities throughout California and the Pacific Northwest harassed, assaulted, and expelled thousands of Chinese immigrants. Beth Lew-Williams shows how American immigration policies incited this violence and how the violence, in turn, provoked new exclusionary policies. Ultimately, Lew-Williams argues, Chinese expulsion and exclusion produced the concept of the ‘alien’ in modern America.

The Chinese Must Go begins in the 1850s, before federal border control established strict divisions between citizens and aliens. Across decades of felling trees and laying tracks in the American West, Chinese workers faced escalating racial conflict and unrest. In response, Congress passed the Chinese Restriction Act of 1882 and made its first attempt to bar immigrants based on race and class. When this unprecedented experiment in federal border control failed to slow Chinese migration, vigilantes attempted to take the matter into their own hands. Fearing the spread of mob violence, U.S. policymakers redoubled their efforts to keep the Chinese out, overhauling U.S. immigration law and transforming diplomatic relations with China.

By locating the origins of the modern American alien in this violent era, Lew-Williams recasts the significance of Chinese exclusion in U.S. history. As The Chinese Must Go makes clear, anti-Chinese law and violence continues to have consequences for today’s immigrants. The present resurgence of xenophobia builds mightily upon past fears of the ‘heathen Chinaman.’”


“Violence and the Law at War”: Dr. Craig Jones

Dr. Craig Jones

Dr. Craig Jones is the author of The War Lawyers and a lecturer in political geography in the School of Geography, Sociology, and Politics at Newcastle University. 

“Violence and the Law at War” examines the legality of violence and the weaponization of international law. With a focus on the U.S. and Israel and wars in Iraq and Palestine as well as the recent withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, Dr. Jones seeks to answer: “What is the relationship between violence and law?”

In 2016, Dr. Jones received an HFG Dissertation Fellowship (now the HFG Emerging Scholar Award) for his project “The War Lawyers: US, Israel, and the Spaces of Targeting.”

About The War Lawyers from Oxford University Press: 

Over the last 20 years the world’s most advanced militaries have invited a small number of military legal professionals into the heart of their targeting operations, spaces which had previously been exclusively for generals and other commanders. These professionals, trained and hired to give legal advice on an array of military operations, have become known as war lawyers.

The War Lawyers examines the laws of war interpreted and applied by military lawyers to aerial targeting operations carried out by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Israeli military in Gaza. Drawing on interviews with military lawyers and others, this book explains why some lawyers became integrated in the chain of command whereby military targets are identified and attacked, whether by manned aircraft, drones or ground forces, and with what results.

This book shows just how important law and war lawyers have become in the conduct of contemporary warfare and how it is understood. Jones argues that circulations of law and policy between the U.S. and Israel have expanded the scope of what constitutes a legitimate military target, contending that the involvement of war lawyers in targeting operations not only constrains military violence, but also enables, legitimises, and sometimes even extends it.

At The Crossroads October 21, 2021

“Why Do People of Color Have to Go to Extremes to Save their Kids?” A Conversation with Joseph Richardson

By Greg Berman

Joseph Richardson

“Everybody that I know got a family member dead or locked up,” says Slim, one of the young Black men featured in Life After the Gunshot, a digital storytelling project coproduced by Joseph Richardson, a professor of African-American Studies and Anthropology at the University of Maryland. A multimedia experiment, Life After the Gunshot gives voice to those who have experienced gun violence firsthand, telling harrowing stories of pain, suffering, and, sometimes, redemption. It is an unusual project for an academic, but not for Dr. Richardson. 

Trained as a criminologist, Dr. Richardson has spent the bulk of his career doing qualitative research, with a focus on Black male survivors of violence. Much of his energy in recent years has been devoted to work at trauma centers that care for gunshot and stabbing victims from Washington, D.C., and surrounding Maryland counties. His research helped to inform the creation of the Capital Region Violence Intervention Program, a hospital-based program that provides trauma-informed care and psychological services to survivors of violent injury in an effort to prevent further violence and victimization.

In July 2021, Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Distinguished Fellow of Practice Greg Berman talked to Richardson about his work as a scholar-activist, his take on the recent rise in shootings in American cities, and the relationship between structural violence and interpersonal violence.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Greg Berman: Can you rewind for me and tell me why you joined academia—and why you chose gun violence as an area of focus?

Joseph Richardson: Man, this could be a long conversation, but I’ll try to give you the Cliff Notes. Born and raised in a Philly, working-class neighborhood. I grew up in the crack era—I was an adolescent and saw the kind of devastation that it had on the city. My neighborhood was not immune to it. Even though it was a decent low- to working-class neighborhood, at least four guys that I grew up with died from gun violence.

I can remember the first person I knew who got shot. I didn’t see it, but I saw the aftermath of it. I saw the way that he psychologically changed after he was shot. That always was disturbing to me. He was very well respected and then all of a sudden after he was shot, he became a zombie. He was doing a lot of drugs. He was eventually shot and killed on my block.

That was the beginning of my interest in gun violence. After graduating from the University of Virginia, I started graduate school at Rutgers. I started as a master’s student. I had no interest in pursuing a doctorate. I didn’t have enough money to complete the master’s program. My dean just placed me in the doctoral program as a way of finding money for me. I didn’t know anyone who had a PhD. I didn’t know anyone who was a professor. But that started me down the road.

What was your dissertation about?

My dissertation adviser, Mercer Sullivan, had written a book, Getting Paid: Youth Crime and Work in the Inner City. At the same time, he was also starting a project at the Vera Institute of Justice. He called me and said that he was leading an ethnographic research project on the social context of adolescent violence in New York City. It was a perfect match for me. He asked me if I was interested in helping him conduct his study, because there were three sites. One was Black, one Latino, and the other predominantly White. I said yes. I ended up at a school in Harlem, following twenty-five kids for three years. That was the time, in the late ‘90s, that the Bloods and Crips were emerging in Harlem. 

All scientists should be engaged in applied research. Why do the work if it's not going to be translated into something?

I had twenty-five kids—ten were girls, fifteen were boys. Some were in gangs. Some were basketball players. Some were incredibly talented academically. I learned a hell of a lot about parenting. It started out as a study on the context of violence, but it became a study about social capital and how the utilization of it by kids either leads to violence, or desistance, or resistance.

After I wrote my dissertation and published a number of articles, I had a postdoc at the University of Chicago and then I started [my research] at the University of Maryland. The first study I conducted there was on kids who were adjudicated in adult court and detained in a D.C. jail. These were all kids who were like fifteen, sixteen years old, and they were serious violent youth offenders. I was working with kids who were arrested for murder, carjacking, attempted murder, robbery, et cetera. I did that for a year. It was really a study asking, “Why are we placing kids in adult jail?” 

How did you get from there to the work you have done in hospitals?

I was watching CNN one night. There was a segment on Soledad O’Brien’s Black in America on a trauma surgeon in Baltimore whose name is Dr. Carnell Cooper. The segment was on how he would operate on young men in Baltimore for gunshot wounds, and then he would see them a month later for similar gun-related injuries. He decided to create a hospital violence-intervention program. It was fascinating to me, so I cold-called him. When he answered I said, “I saw you on Black in America, and I was just wondering if I could meet with you?” He invited me up to his office. I remember that day, because the Discovery Channel was there. He was always on television. From that point on, he became my mentor.

I started learning the ropes of how hospital violence-interventional programs work. In the meantime, Dr. Cooper became the chief medical officer of Prince George’s Hospital Center [in Maryland]. They’d get like 745 victims of violent injury a year. Something like 40 percent of those are people from Washington D.C., because the hospital is close to the D.C. border. I asked him, “Dr. Cooper, do you think it would be okay if I use this trauma center as my lab to understand gun violence?” He said, “Sure.”

So I picked twenty-five young, Black men that were shot or stabbed and had come into that trauma center. I followed the lives of these guys for two years. I wanted that study to inform the development of a new hospital violence-intervention program. Dr. Cooper, who had already created one, was my counselor, giving me advice on how to go about developing one. He basically gave me full rein to develop it in the way that I saw fit. Ultimately, in 2017, I was one of the cofounders of a program at Prince George’s Hospital Center called the Capital Region Violence Intervention Program. I served as the codirector for two years.

What are some of the key lessons that you learned in implementing the program?

A key moment for me was when I met one of the young guys that was in my study, Che Bullock, who was stabbed thirteen times. He and I developed a really close relationship. I could see that he really wanted to get out of the streets. When I started the violence intervention program in 2017, he was the first person I hired. I told him, “Listen, you’re going to be the guy that approaches all of the patients that have been violently injured bedside because you have the lived experience of the guys that are lying in that bed.” He accepted the challenge.

When we first started, people were asking, “Why did Dr. Richardson hire this guy? Why do you have this guy that’s been injured on staff? Why is he going into the rooms?” Eventually, they saw how successful my program was, and he became the model for violence intervention specialists. Every single program in Maryland hired one.

One of the clear themes that come through your work is an effort to put forward the voices of young Black men. Why is that important to you?

I give them credit for their resilience. They’re constantly teaching me, and everyone else that hears their story, not just about the realities of violence in their neighborhoods, but also about the humanity that they have. I’m a researcher that does qualitative work. I want to amplify their voices. I really believe in community-based, participatory research. I was doing that before I knew that there was actually a name for it. 

Scholarship should be informing policy or informing programming or changing the narrative with the public.

Che is a good example. He goes from being stabbed thirteen times in the street, to guest lecturing in my class, to becoming a violence intervention specialist for my program. Then we applied for a grant, and he becomes a co-investigator with me on the Life After the Gunshot project. That is the way that I choose to approach these issues—by having the people who are most impacted be involved in the work. They have the solutions to what we should do to address gun violence. Too often, we ignore their voices. In theory, we say that they should be involved, but we never really engage them in practice.

One of the things that comes along with trying to elevate the voices of other people, in my experience, is that they are not just mouthpieces for our ideas. Sometimes they say things that we disagree with. 

Che and I have debates all the time, just the way I would engage in debates in the academic world. There have been plenty of times that I have had a blind spot that he, or another one of my young men, has checked me on. 

I’ll give you an example. When I was conducting my research with the young men that had been injured, I would bring them to my campus for the interviews. They would always ask me why the violence intervention program wasn’t on my campus. Initially, I kind of blew it off. I didn’t understand why they would want the program there. When I met Che, he came up to my office, like, three times a week. I knew, at a certain level, he probably was trying to get away from his neighborhood and that a campus space was really peaceful. He brought it up to me. “Doc, why do you have a program at the hospital, because the program is kind of retraumatizing me because I was just stabbed and operated on there and almost died.” 

I tried to explain this to the hospital administrators several times. I said, “We can start everything at the bedside, but the services can be provided off-site.” They weren’t interested in that model at all. I think it is because it is very sexy to have trauma surgeons involved at the hospital. People can buy into it. It’s got automatic credibility.

I mention this story because it gets back to your point about why it’s so important for those who are directly impacted to speak.

I have seen you refer to yourself as a “scholar-activist.” I’m wondering whether you could spell out for me what that means and how you see that role.

I don’t really like the term “activist.” I would call myself a scholar that engages in applied research. I would say that all scientists should be engaged in applied research. Why do the work if it’s not going to be translated into something? Translating a study into a hospital violence-intervention program is scholarly activism to me. Translating my research into a documentary that is accessible to the public—that’s scholarly activism to me. Engaging in policy discussions with elected officials, that’s what I really mean by scholarly activism. Scholarship should be informing policy or informing programming or changing the narrative with the public. To me, that’s scholarly activism. Scholarly activism doesn’t necessarily mean I need to get out in front of a Black Lives Matter protest. I don’t really see myself in that lane. I think there are multiple lanes that people can assume. 

You write frequently about the idea of structural violence. Can you talk for a second about what you see as the relationship between structural violence and the kinds of interpersonal violence that result in trauma center visits?

You can’t have a discussion about interpersonal violence without providing the context of structural violence first. Until recently, there was a long period of time when we were not discussing the ways that the structure has been violent. We need to move beyond the traditional framework. To use the title of Geoffrey Canada’s book, we need to move beyond Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun to see how systems have perpetrated harm against specific populations. For example, high concentrations of poverty, food deserts, environmental racism, entire communities under some form of criminal justice supervision—all of these things are forms of structural violence which ultimately lead to a shorter life expectancy. 

Then there are other parents, who don’t have any of those resources, that are using the juvenile justice system to save their kids. They are saying, "I just want my kid locked up. At least I know where they are. They probably will have a higher survival rate if I go to the court and just tell the court, 'Can you take my kid?' I don't want my kid to die in the street.”

In Washington, D.C., you have east of the river and then there’s the rest of the city. As you move further into the northwest section of the city, it gets whiter and more affluent. If you go to Woodley Park, which is in the northwest section of the city, the life expectancy is 89.4 years. If you take a fifteen-minute drive east of the river, the life expectancy is 68.4 years. In just fifteen minutes, you lose twenty-one years of your life in the same city. That’s insane. People need to understand that. That’s just not in D.C. That’s global. 

Do you think there’s ever a tension between identifying these structural forces and the need to communicate to the men that you’re working with that they have the agency to change their fate?

It’s interesting that I’m making the argument about structural forces, but if you were to ask the young men I work with why someone did not make it, they would place the responsibility in the hands of the person. For them, it would come down to accountability and personal responsibility. They would place the blame solely on the person and say, “That’s the decision they made. They didn’t have to make that decision, and they’re responsible for it. “

I think that’s an example of what I was trying to get at before when I said that sometimes when we listen to the voices of the impacted, they say things that don’t conform with our ideology.

Exactly. My ideology is that the structure is responsible, to a certain extent. But I think it’s important to represent that the young men are holding themselves accountable for their actions. It’s complex. Because sometimes they’re actually discussing structural violence—they’re just not using the term. In the Life After the Gunshot film, one of the guys says, “Look at where I live. It’s fucked-up around here.” There’s a term for that. It’s called structural violence. That’s why I say it’s a little bit more complex because they can hold themselves personally accountable, but also they’re saying that the structures are problematic.

In addition to writing about the people that are directly impacted by violence, you also have shined a spotlight on the caregivers that support them. For example, you’ve written about the use of exile as a parenting strategy. What do you mean by that?

I don’t think it’s necessarily a new strategy in the Black community. We’ve seen for generations across the African diaspora, but particularly in this country, parents kind of sending their kids away. 

Let’s take two parents and they live in Harlem. Both of their kids are at that age where they are starting to get into trouble. Well, if you took the same family and they were White, and they were middle class, and their kids were involved in delinquency, there would be a ton of resources for that family. They might send their kids to camp. They might send their kids to counseling. They might find another school district to send their kids to—or a private school. But for many Black parents, the only alternative is, “I need to move my kid out of this situation.” 

I don't think we've asked the hard questions about gun violence and COVID. 

For Black parents in New York City with some social capital, they might be able to tap into, for example, the Fresh Air Fund, where they can send their kid to live in Connecticut for a summer and they get to see a world outside of their block. But if you don’t have that level of savvy in terms of social capital, they might send the kid to live with a brother in Texas. 

Then there are other parents, who don’t have any of those resources, that are using the juvenile justice system to save their kids. They are saying, “I just want my kid locked up. At least I know where they are. They probably will have a higher survival rate if I go to the court and just tell the court, ‘Can you take my kid?’ I don’t want my kid to die in the street.”

Why do parents have to do that? Why do people of color, particularly poor people of color, have to go to extremes to save their kids? It gets back to the issue of structural violence.

Do you have a theory about why shootings are up over the past year?  

I think there are multiple reasons. Let’s take Baltimore for example. Violence has been spiking in Baltimore since 2015. In my opinion, the fact that Baltimore has had over 300 homicides since 2015 is directly correlated to Freddie Gray. The Baltimore police department may have been ahead of the rest of the nation in terms of police not responding to incidents of violence in the way that they may have in the past. I know cops who have told me this. 

A few months ago, I had a long discussion with a cop who lives on my block in Philadelphia. I asked him why gun violence was increasing in Philly. His take, as an officer on the beat, was, “Look, I’m not jumping out of my car, I’m not doing any more pat-downs on the corner, if I know someone’s going to throw a camera in my face.”  He told me that he used to tell kids out on the street, “Listen, you got thirty minutes to get off the corner. If I come back in thirty minutes and you’re out here, whatever consequences happen, you know what it is.” Now he’s like, “I don’t even tell the kid that. I just let him stay out there.” 

That’s one perspective. I’m not saying that’s the only perspective, but I’m giving you a perspective that I’ve heard both in Philadelphia and in Baltimore. One of my really close friends, who does hospital violence-intervention work, was telling me this story in Baltimore. He said that he saw two guys fighting. Clearly, it could’ve turned into a shooting. My friend goes around the corner and tells two cops sitting in their squad car. He says, “There are two guys around the corner that are fighting.” And the cops looked at him like, “So?” He couldn’t believe it.

In recent months I’ve talked to a number of academics who are deeply skeptical that the police should play any role in responding to the uptick in shootings.

[Those academics] are not on the ground. There’s a 30,000-foot perspective about that, and then there’s the perspective of the people at ground level. I tend to lean more towards what the people who are experiencing the impact of the police pulling back are saying. 

To be sure, there are other narratives that are going on in the street. One of my guys said to me, “There are no drugs out here.” During COVID, it became harder to get drugs. The drug market was drying up in the city, which has an impact on people that were surviving by selling drugs. That’s squeezing more people out of the game. I’m giving you another perspective because that’s a perspective that I’ve heard from the ground. I don’t think anyone’s talking about that.

I also think COVID has driven more people onto social media. You have a lot of beefs that are playing out on social media now. We can go back and forth on social media, and if I see you outside it becomes very real. And now it is totally legitimate for me to wear a mask and gloves in broad daylight. 

You’ve written in the past about the relative lack of funding for gun violence research. As you look to a future where maybe there will be more money for gun violence research, what questions should we be asking that we don’t know the answers to?

I would definitely say the question you just asked, because it’s all really just speculation. I don’t think we’ve asked the hard questions about gun violence and COVID. 

Last question. I couldn’t help noticing that in various papers you have written, you have cited lyrics from Mobb Deep and Biggie Smalls. How has hip-hop informed your scholarship, if at all?

In so many ways. I’m a child of hip-hop so it’s important for me to always represent hip-hop culture in the work that I do. Like a lot of people who were raised in that era, hip-hop was a huge part of my identity. It helped me frame a lot of my thoughts about the world. From NWA saying “Fuck tha Police,” to Public Enemy saying “Fight the Power,” to Brand Nubian talking about the Five Percenters—all of those things were sources of knowledge to me. They were secondary teachers for me, whether good or bad. It’s important to me to pay homage to that in my work.


Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).

Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


Previous At the Crossroads interviews:
At The Crossroads September 21, 2021

“We Have a Lot of Damage to Undo”: A Conversation with Jeremy Travis

By Greg Berman

Jeremy Travis

In one way or another, Jeremy Travis has been involved in almost every significant criminal justice reform effort of the past 50 years. This includes multiple efforts to address the problem of urban violence, which has had such a devastating impact on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in particular.   

Travis worked at the Vera Institute of Justice in the 1970s during the early days of the bail reform movement. He was a deputy commissioner at the New York Police Department (NYPD) in the early 1990s, when violent crime rates began to plummet. Later, at the U.S. Department of Justice, as director of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) during the Clinton administration, Travis helped to advance the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (Crime Bill) of 1994. He also helped spark the reentry movement. More recently, as president of John Jay College at the City University of New York from 2004 to 2016, he helped to spread the focused-deterrence model across the country. Throughout his career, Travis has worked closely with a broad range of luminaries, including New York City Mayor Edward Koch, Senator Charles Schumer, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when she was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. 

Travis is now the executive vice president for criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, where he oversees a portfolio of grants that seek to advance racial justice. These include the Square One Project, a special three-year initiative that is attempting to reimagine the criminal justice system from top to bottom.

In this interview with Greg Berman, Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, Travis reflects on his career and the current “once-in-a-half-century” movement to reform criminal justice in the United States. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Greg Berman: You recently told me that you went to New York City criminal court to mark the 50th anniversary of your first visit to criminal court. Tell me what you saw. What was the same, what was different? 

Jeremy Travis: So the goal, very selfishly, was to take the occasion of the 50th anniversary of my starting in the criminal justice world to engage in a period of reflection. I spent a day in arraignment court at 100 Centre Street in Manhattan. Compared to my first days at 100 Centre Street, there were some pretty profound changes, starting with metal detectors at every door, which did not exist in 1971. I found the whole security apparatus at the front door of the courthouse really alienating and startling. 

The other big change, of course, was that I was there in the midst of the pandemic. So the arraignment court was empty, except for the judge, court officers, and police officers. Fifty years ago, when I was working for the Legal Aid Society, I was struck by the vitality of the courtroom. Every day, I would see people in moments of intense anxiety and distress. That kind of human drama was nonexistent because of the pandemic. Instead, there was a disembodied arraignment process with a judge speaking to a defendant on a screen in front of him. The defendant was in the holding pens behind the courtroom, speaking to the judge through a laptop. The judge was really good at trying to make a human connection through the technology, but it was a disembodied experience.

Sitting in the courtroom was a strong reminder of the ways in which our apparatus of justice, starting with the police, squeezes a lot of human drama—and claims from ordinary people that their government should help them—into the box of each individual case. In the midst of a once-in-a-half-century reform movement, how do we pay attention to that reality? How do we make sure that we do not lose sight of the very real experiences of people who have been harmed? In court the other day, there was a sexual assault case, there was a shoplifting, there was a street mugging. These are all very real circumstances that come into the courtrooms of our country. How we respond best to them is always the question of justice. 

Do you feel like there is a disconnect between the once-in-a-half-century criminal justice reform movement that you mentioned and the adjudication of the individual cases that you saw in the courtroom the other day?

My meditation of the day was being reminded of the daily reality of courts, and police, and crime, and the individual injuries and harms that are being suffered. Over the last 50 years, we’ve constructed an enormous criminal justice apparatus. Do I doubt for a minute the importance of the reform movement that is focused on undoing that system? Not for a minute. Do we all need to be reminded that there are real people who are hurting, who are demanding some sort of response to their situation? Absolutely. 

That's the challenge right now: to think carefully about what might be driving violence and about what we now can do that we didn't know to do before. In particular, we need to avoid overreacting by increasing sentences and sending more people to prison, which is what we did in the '80s and '90s.

I think the Square One Project for me is an acknowledgment that we have a lot of damage to undo and a lot of racial harm to come to terms with. But at the end of the day, wherever that reimagination process leads us, there will always be instances of people coming into the courts of our country where something should be done. It shouldn’t be exactly what we’re doing now. We have to be much less punitive in our response and much more restorative in resolving our conflicts. Ultimately, we need to have a response that promotes individual and community well-being. We’ve gone so far off course. We are now in a period of fundamental course correction where we have to recognize the harm that we’ve done and undo many of the policies that have promoted this era of punitive excess. 

You cut your professional teeth at the Vera Institute of Justice during what was an incredibly fertile moment for the organization. I would put Vera’s accomplishments during that era up against just about any nonprofit that I can think of. What was it like to be at Vera back then?

Vera was a high-energy, high-purpose organization when I was there. I am who I am today because of Vera. I’m very clear about that. It was a place where ideas mattered and where people took reform seriously. We cared about the outcomes and results. We were working at the cutting edge of a national reform movement. The two initiatives that I was privileged to be part of—bail reform and victim assistance—have now evolved into the New York City Criminal Justice Agency and Safe Horizon, which are major players in the criminal justice landscape of New York today. We’re so lucky that Vera had this philosophy of creating demonstration projects and spinning them off. That’s Vera’s legacy.

So being at Vera was an exciting time. It was also a time when there were a lot of different perspectives in the same room. We had sociologists, lawyers, police officers, formerly incarcerated folks, all around the same table talking about things like bail reform and victim assistance. It was a great way for a young person to get an education.

I first met you in the early ’90s, when you were at the NYPD.  At the time, the murder rate was peaking at more than 2,200 homicides per year, and the crack epidemic was still raging. It felt like a time of crisis. What was it like to be at the NYPD during those years? And how would you compare that time to our current moment, where the spike in violence has many people afraid that we are heading back to the bad old days?

We didn’t know in 1990 that we would be a year or two away from the peak of the violence in New York. On the contrary, we couldn’t see any end to the increase in violence, both in New York and nationally. The rise in violence, and homicides, in particular, had been very steep. This was the era when people were using words like “super predator” and predicting a coming bloodbath. It was a time of hyperbole that was really damaging. But the underlying reality of a significant increase in violence in America was undeniable. In New York, we peaked with a murder count of 2,245. 

I don't celebrate the relatively modest decline in the prison population in New York. I think we should accelerate it, then celebrate. I think we should be much more aggressive and much more creative in thinking about how to end the era of mass incarceration in our state. That's work left to be done. I'm very impatient with where we are right now.

In the first year of Mayor David Dinkins’s administration, there was a call from the New York Post: “Dave, Do Something!” Dinkins did something that was very important, which was to seek approval from the state legislature to increase our taxes to pay for more police officers. It was a remarkable political moment when you think about it. There was deep concern about our city’s future viability. It was a very trying time for civic life in New York. Businesses were leaving. People were leaving. There was a sense of concern bordering on despair. 

Looking back, you could say that there was a natural life course to the epidemic of violence. But I’d like to think there was some human agency involved as well. Police departments responded. Other parts of civil society also kicked in to say, “We’re not going to take this.” But that took some doing. The addition of police officers took some time. The mayor who benefited from that was mostly Rudolph Giuliani, not Dinkins.

The political moment of deciding that we couldn’t go on with this level of violence was something that has been seared in my memory ever since. When I compare that reality to today’s, the numbers are very different. We’re starting from a much lower base today. Starting in ’91 and ’92, violent crime in New York started to decline. Basically, it has come down almost every year since then, except for the last year. Now, we have seen an increase. Not in all crime, but in gun violence, which is very troubling, because what we’re talking about is lost lives. That has to be of concern to everybody. I have been very clear in speaking to others in the reform movement: we need to forthrightly acknowledge the reality of this spike, which is coming upon us very quickly. Depending upon the city, we’ve seen 10%, 20%, 30%, 40% increases in homicides. 

It’s a concern on two levels. One is the loss of life. We have to figure out what to do about it. But the other concern is that this has played into resistance to the criminal justice reform movement. It provides an opportunity for people to say, “Well, those reform ideas are responsible for the spike in violence.” That is not true, so we have to be in myth-busting mode here. But we also need to have both a hypothesis as to what’s causing the violence increase and a response to it that saves lives.

What’s your theory about what’s behind the spike in shootings?

There are some hypotheses floating around, not one of which has sufficient explanatory power for me. Are there more guns? Yes. Is that what’s causing a spike in violence? I doubt it. Are there more people being released from jail? Yes. Is that causing a spike in violence? I doubt it. 

The hypothesis that to me has the greatest potential for helping us understand what’s going on is very much derived from my understanding of the crack epidemic. Our current pandemic has been highly disruptive of community life, as was crack. The pandemic has taken young people away from prosocial environments like schools and afterschool programs. It has created stress and anxiety within our entire society, but particularly in communities that are living at the margins. It has caused police to withdraw from communities, for self-protective reasons related to COVID infection but also because they’re not feeling appreciated at the community level. 

All of these forces have resulted in a loss of support for prosocial, prosafety forces at a community level. Unfortunately, I think we’re going to be here for years with an increased level of violence. It is not going to be an easy fix. The good news for me is that in the years since the crack epidemic, we’ve learned so much about what might work and what might not. We have the ability now to put together a menu of strategies that’s quite different from what we put together in the late ’80s or early ’90s. That’s the challenge right now: to think carefully about what might be driving violence and about what we now can do that we didn’t know to do before. In particular, we need to avoid overreacting by increasing sentences and sending more people to prison, which is what we did in the ’80s and ’90s. Hopefully, we can come out of this both smarter and safer.

Back to the 90s for a second. One piece of the puzzle that you didn’t mention was that future NYPD commissioner William Bratton was starting to employ a “broken-windows” orientation to law enforcement as chief of what was then the city’s Transit Police Department. What did you think of broken windows then and what do you think of broken windows now?

Page for page, the broken windows article by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, has had more impact than any other scholarly article in our field. It’s an idea that has sort of swept policing and, more broadly, public discourse. 

Hopefully, over time, we'll figure out how to do right by people coming out of prison. That extends into doing right by them when they're still in prison. 

I think it’s important to come back to the core idea of what broken windows is about: that order matters. People want to feel safe in their community. They want to be able to go about their business feeling that their neighborhood is safe and that things are being attended to. The broken window metaphor is a powerful one. 

The hypothesis within broken windows, which Kelling always said was a hypothesis, is that conditions of disorder, if left unaddressed, lead to more serious crime, and that addressing those conditions would lead to less crime. If you look at the academic literature over the last 20 years, that hypothesis has been challenged and, with a few exceptions, largely disproven.

But the core idea of broken windows—that government should respond to people’s concerns around issues of safety and well-being—is very strong to me. So what does that mean? That means the government should respond when there’s somebody who’s mentally ill. Government should respond to vacant lots. Government should respond to issues of excessive noise. Addressing those concerns will lead to a better quality of life for the community—an improved sense of well-being and feelings of safety—which is, by itself, a positive outcome. 

The risk of the broken-windows theory, and we’ve seen this play out, is when broken windows became “Broken Windows Policing.” The idea moved from a compelling theory to a way of driving the deployment of police resources. We saw lots of unfortunate outcomes grow out of this, particularly when it came to stop-and-frisk. There’s a trajectory here. Broken windows starts as a good idea. But then broken-windows policing becomes a way to rationalize aggressive police enforcement activities which were damaging, particularly to young people of color. Along the way, we lost the core idea—that government, not just the police, is responsible for working with communities to provide order and safety.

My North Star has always been a comment made by Herman Goldstein, father of problem-oriented policing, in a series that I hosted at NIJ called Measuring What Matters. At one point, we were talking about the metrics of success for policing. When asked what metrics he would recommend, Herman said, we should measure the success of policing one problem at a time. It’s the problem that matters, not the metrics of police activity. It’s not the number of stops. It’s not the number of arrests. For me, Herman hit the nail on the head, as he so often did in his own quiet way. When broken windows got married to the metrics of enforcement activities, that’s when we saw things go off the rails, in my view. The metrics became what mattered, rather than the problems.

Earlier, you framed the last 50 years as a kind of failure, as an era of punitive excess. Maybe this is a New York–centric worldview, but I have a counternarrative, which is that the last 30 years or so have been a time of enormous success for the criminal justice system. This was a story that you yourself talked about in a 2019 speech at New York Law School. In that speech, you documented not just the remarkable crime reduction that New York has experienced over the past 30 years, but a pretty significant incarceration reduction as well. 

Well, the reduction has to be seen against the backdrop of the ramp-up of incarceration that took place both here in New York and nationally. There was a significant increase in incarceration rates, from which we’re now making a decline. We have to tell both parts of the story. Do we call the ramp-up a success? Not in my book. Not by a long shot. In responding to crime, we have to use the deprivation of liberty carefully, surgically, and parsimoniously, to use my favorite word. We can’t reflexively say that we’re going to be “tough on crime” and put more people in prison for a longer period of time. That to me is a policy failure of the first order. Forget the enormous financial cost, the cost is harm to communities and harm to families.

So I don’t celebrate the relatively modest decline in the prison population in New York. I think we should accelerate it, then celebrate. I think we should be much more aggressive and much more creative in thinking about how to end the era of mass incarceration in our state. That’s work left to be done. I’m very impatient with where we are right now.

The jail story is different. In New York City, the jail reductions have been staggering. When I worked for Koch, we had 20,000 people in jail. Today, as we sit here, the number is around 5,000. The Lippman Commission is hoping that it will go down even further. We are approaching European-level jail incarceration rates [which are lower than American rates]. And let’s not forget the reductions in youth prisons in New York State. The Close to Home initiative of Governor [Andrew] Cuomo and Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg—started by Governor [David] Paterson and the task force that he asked me to chair—was an uncelebrated, staggering success story.

After leaving the NYPD, you joined the Clinton administration as the director of the National Institute of Justice. How do you feel when you see activists these days point to the 1994 Crime Bill and say that it was responsible for the rise of mass incarceration?

It’s a misreading of history to say the ’94 Crime Act is responsible for the era of mass incarceration. The National Academy of Sciences traces the rise of incarceration back to the early 1970s. The incarceration rate went up every year up until 2010. The ’94 Crime Act happened along the way and did play a minor role in the ramp-up, but no fair reading of history can make the case that the ’94 Crime Act was responsible for mass incarceration. 

As a Democrat, Bill Clinton saw the political necessity of running on a platform to do something about crime. His response was to increase the size of police departments and to advance community policing as a different way to police. His response resonated with me. I thought it was politically astute. 

There is a part of the crime act that I’ve critiqued, which was the truth in sentencing part of the act, which did provide financial incentives to states if they would change their sentencing statutes to move back the date of eligibility for parole to a longer percent of the maximum sentence, eighty-five percent typically. That has to be seen as one of the great perversions of federalism: the federal government paying states to keep citizens in prison longer. But in terms of the impact on incarceration rates, we have to remember that many states did not take the federal government up on this offer. In terms of the overall contribution to mass incarceration, it was very small.

One of the big things that you worked on when you were part of the Clinton administration, and then subsequently at the Urban Institute, was the challenge of individuals coming back to the community after a period of incarceration. You helped to popularize the idea of reentry. As you look back now, from a distance of twenty years or so, where do you think we are in terms of rethinking the reentry process?

I was struck by the bipartisan appetite for a policy discussion about new ways to improve reentry outcomes across the country. When the Clinton administration left office, George W. Bush came in and embraced the reentry agenda. They decided that money should be allocated in all fifty states to develop reentry councils to bring workforce development folks and health folks and corrections officials together to come up with reentry plans. So in a relatively short time, it really took hold in an impressive way. When Attorney General Janet Reno and I and others first started this work, there was very little discussion about reentry. The word didn’t exist. In a short time, this idea really took hold. 

I'm not sure it's worse today than in 2008, or that what I described in 2008 was any different from what you would say in the decades before that. I think what is new is the public discussion about race in the operations of the justice system.

One of the hopes that I and others had in doing the work on reentry, which I continued at Urban for the four years I was there, was to call attention to the reality that everybody in prison eventually comes home. By doing that, we wanted to highlight the reality that each of these people in prison is a human being—somebody’s father, son, sister, brother. These returning citizens, as we now call them, are entitled to our support because of their humanity. The journey from prison to community is a tough road.

There’s still a long way to go. Has the parole system changed? Has supervision changed? Has our approach to the supports needed for people coming out of prison—has that changed? Not much. Parole, in my view, needs to be reimagined. Hopefully, over time, we’ll figure out how to do right by people coming out of prison. That extends into doing right by them when they’re still in prison. We need to involve their families and communities in very different ways so that the return home is a welcome home, rather than a drop-off, which is too often the case. 

One of the consistent through lines in your career has been your interest in the challenge of race. In a 2008 speech, you said, “The day-to-day operations of our system of justice now penetrate so deeply into communities of color that we are at risk of undermining basic respect for the rule of law.” That seems prescient to me. It feels like something has broken between the justice system and the Black community, or at least segments of the Black community. 

I’m not sure it’s worse today than in 2008, or that what I described in 2008 was any different from what you would say in the decades before that. I think what is new is the public discussion about race in the operations of the justice system. I’m very encouraged by this discussion. It’s raw and it’s uncomfortable for lots of people. It requires a discussion about history and about present-day harm that is sometimes very difficult. But we need to have those discussions. We really, really do. 

I talked in that speech about the rule of law and respect for the rule of law. That’s a big concept. It really is the relationship between government and the governed. [Yale law professor] Monica Bell has a phrase for this, which I find very useful, which is “legal estrangement.” Monica’s phrase is so powerful. There is a deep estrangement between Black communities and their government, particularly around law enforcement. It goes back decades. Why should we be surprised that this divide exists when the agencies of the law have done so much harm, whether it’s beating civil rights protesters or arresting lots of young men and taking them off to prison or other examples of police brutality. 

There’s now a call for a reckoning with that history. So we’re tearing down statues of Confederate generals. We’re thinking deeply, thanks to Bryan Stevenson, about the history of lynching. Let’s not forget that the Tulsa race massacre included moments when law enforcement officers allowed the mob to take people out of a jail to lynch them. Many lynching stories start with a judge or a jailer allowing that to happen. So it’s hard to have respect for the rule of law when the law allows such things to happen.

I think the fundamental question is what, if anything, can government do to bridge this divide and to counteract the realities of legal estrangement. The burden shouldn’t be placed on the Black community to do that work. Of course, they’re welcomed to this discussion. But it’s really upon those who have worked in government, as I have, to ask some pretty deep questions about what we’ve done. Have we caused harm? That discussion is very uncomfortable for many of our colleagues. 

Over the years, you’ve chosen to make a deep professional investment in the focused deterrence model. In recent months, I’ve been talking to a fair number of academics who seem to have an ax to grind with focused deterrence. Have their criticisms reached your ears? And if they have, how do you respond to them?

The criticism has been around for as long as focused deterrence has been around. 

At its core, focused deterrence is, as its name implies, a very focused look at a small number of individuals who are involved in the dynamic of violence in their communities. Focused deterrence engages with those individuals very directly, with an acknowledgment of concern on behalf of the community. The message is that we care about you, and that we want you to live. Alongside that message is an offer of assistance from the service providers who are part of this program. At the same time, there is also a statement about consequences—that if the violence continues, there will be consequences. What I like about the model is the focus on a small number of individuals with clear communication. 

The research shows very strongly that the focused deterrence intervention reduces violence and saves lives.

In the program’s early days, there was this celebrated case—in Boston, I think—where somebody was sent off to prison for a long time for possessing a bullet. To me, that is excessive. That runs counter to my general beliefs about overreach of state power. The missing part of focused deterrence in its early formulation was some sense of true community engagement. There have been efforts over the years to build up the community engagement piece of the model. Some cities are more successful at that than others. 

But research is the beginning and ending point of my analysis here. And the research shows very strongly that the focused deterrence intervention reduces violence and saves lives. All the metrics that we care about are going in the right direction under focused deterrence. So I would consider focused deterrence to be a necessary part of every crime strategy. Ideally, there will be a combination of strategies that a city can deploy to reduce violence. I hope we are now beyond a point where people have to pick and choose between focused deterrence and Cure Violence or some other type of intervention. I think we’re on the cusp of an era where all of these can be thought of as being mutually supportive. 

What President Biden is doing is just along these lines. We need police and we need community interventions. We shouldn’t be pointing fingers at each other. The police have a lot to learn about how to be humble and how to share the table with others. Community groups have something to learn about working effectively with the police. And the research community has a lot to learn about how to do research in a more comprehensive sort of way. 

Like you, I’m a believer in trying to reduce the use of incarceration. I’m also a believer in the core insight of the broken windows theory that maintaining a sense of public order is important. So help me think through what we should be doing about public urination, aggressive panhandling, public drinking, and the kinds of cases that we used to call quality-of-life offending. If we’re not going to respond to those offenses with a criminal justice sanction, or even a fine, how do we as a society communicate that we don’t want people to be engaging in these behaviors in the public square? 

Well, the first answer is we don’t communicate that only through the power of arrest. We like to turn to the police to solve all of our social problems. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, but often not. We need to expand the menu of options. 

One of the things I’m very proud of is the work that we did through the Misdemeanor Justice Project. We brought public attention to the fact that criminal summonses were being issued for really minor offenses. The response of the [New York] city council, thankfully, was to transform those from criminal summonses to civil summonses. That, to me, was a very important step in the right direction. We then run into some more complicated questions, such as what do you do with somebody who continuously thumbs their nose at those summonses?

As you know, in New York, you have people engaging in this behavior not once or twice but on dozens of occasions.

At some point, I think that’s when I would say, okay, that pattern of behavior does warrant a criminal sanction. But even then, arresting somebody for a minor offense, what does that allow you to do as a criminal justice response? Not much. A night in jail, maybe. 

Pause there for a second because I feel like the conversation about this often focuses on individual deterrence, as opposed to general deterrence. Maybe you will disagree, but I think there is value in sending a message not just to the individual involved in something like public urination but to the people that are seeing this behavior on their streets.

Again, this is a claim on government. The public is saying to their government, “Do something.” We need more tools in the toolbox. The way that you and I know each other best is through the work of the Midtown Community Court and other problem-solving courts, which expand the responses available to judges to deal with individual circumstances and needs. That should be commonplace across the system. 

Now we get to a larger social policy question about the shortfall of mental health services, of employment, of job opportunities. The entire social safety net in this country is very weak, unfortunately. 

This next generation is responding to the call to make things better. That's not just the research community but the legal community and the advocacy community. The people are now literally in the streets calling for change.

Channeling Herman Goldstein, I would start by asking what’s going on with that individual who is engaged in public urination? What’s the problem? I tend to believe in the value of assessing the underlying dynamics. How did that person go off course? What is the best intervention for that person? How can we provide that? In New York, police can now bring somebody to a center instead of the precinct. They can get a bed and stay overnight. They can work on issues of addiction. 

But we still don’t have enough options in our toolkit. We need more alternatives for low-level misconduct that send the signal, which is so important, that this conduct is not welcomed. It doesn’t mean that we exile somebody. We would rather help you than jail you. 

In a 1998 speech that you made at John Jay College, you bemoaned the state of criminal justice research. You faulted the field for not having good answers to the question of why crime had declined. You also characterized researchers as scoffing at the idea that police could have any impact on crime. I’m curious to hear what your sense of the state of the field is today. Has the state of criminal justice research improved since ’98?

No question, it is better now than it was then. We have a long way to go, particularly in terms of our data infrastructure. We don’t have the ability to track events in real time. We’re feeling that loss right now as we try to understand this spike in gun homicides. 

But I think the research community has made great strides since 1998. We now have the ability to look at our history of incarceration, in particular, and think about the trends. In the Square One Project, we start each one of our roundtables with a paper by a historian, to try to help us understand our own history. 

The interest in criminal justice is high right now. It is front and center in the national discussion. Every presidential candidate on the Democratic side had something to say about criminal justice reform. That’s never happened before. So it’s high on the agenda and that means that emerging scholars are turning their attention to these issues. I think there’s still a narrowness in some of the criminal justice research that is very system-centric, rather than looking at the larger societal forces. That’s unfortunate. We miss the proverbial forest for the trees too often. But we’ve come a long way. The federal funding for research has made a big difference. 

People now want to go into criminal justice reform in large numbers. People are dedicating their lives to justice reform because the injustices are so vivid and so palpable—both through human stories but also through the data. This next generation is responding to the call to make things better. That’s not just the research community but the legal community and the advocacy community. The people are now literally in the streets calling for change.

In preparing for this interview, I went back and read many of the things that you have written over the years. One of the qualities that comes across most powerfully in your writing is a certain earnestness. I’m wondering whether that is intentional. If you were going to point to the values that you are trying to put forward in your writing and your speechmaking, what would be on that list? 

Above all, independent inquiry: taking a close and honest look at some of the issues that we face, most broadly in our society but more specifically in the criminal justice system. I have always tried to step back and take an independent look at a question or a trend or a policy proposition so that we can make it better. The goal is always progress, improvement, having government that works, and making things better for people and for communities. As I’m reflecting on a long, long journey, what I’ve always wanted to do is to be in the fray, but removed enough to be able to comment on what I’ve seen. That’s hard. That’s why I teach, that’s why I write, that’s why I care about research.


Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).

Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


Previous At the Crossroads interviews:
At The Crossroads August 18, 2021

“Evidence Doesn’t Seem to Play a Key Role”: A Conversation with David Weisburd

By Greg Berman

David Weisburd
Dr. David Weisburd

David Weisburd is one of the most prolific and important criminologists of the past 50 years. The winner of the Stockholm Prize in Criminology, Weisburd has published more than two dozen books and more than two hundred scholarly articles.  

Weisburd’s work has largely focused on the importance of place. Beginning with a ground-breaking study conducted with Lawrence Sherman in 1995, his research has demonstrated that by proactively focusing on high-crime hot spots, police can effectively reduce crime and disorder. He has also studied the impacts of different police tactics, including the use of “stop and frisk,” on the people who live in the communities targeted by police.

Weisburd has long sought to bridge the worlds of research and practice. A vocal advocate of evidence-based policymaking, he has served as the chief science advisor to the National Police Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to innovative policing.  He also played a role in the creation of the Campbell Collaboration, a nonprofit organization devoted to disseminating high-quality research findings. 

Born in Brooklyn, Weisburd currently lives in Israel, where he is the Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law and Criminal Justice at the Hebrew University Faculty of Law. He also holds an appointment as a professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University.  

Over the course of two sessions in May 2021, Weisburd talked with Greg Berman, the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, about a broad range of topics, including his research on police deployment, the potential impacts of the Black Lives Matter movement, and current trends in criminology. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Greg Berman: What is the “law of crime concentration”?

David Weisburd: That’s a term that I came up with, but I think there’s a lot of support for it. The law of crime concentration really starts with my Seattle study. A generation of studies had already documented that a relatively small group of places produce much of the crime in any given city. But what struck me in Seattle was that every year, 50 percent of the crime was produced at about 5 percent of the places. Over time, crime declined by 22 percent in Seattle, but the crime concentration level stayed the same. It was constant. 

Fifty percent of streets have no crime at all in a given year. It means that you shouldn't be spreading police resources around. You should be focusing on the hot spots. Pick those streets that are problems and focus there. 

Then I did a study in Tel Aviv, and I found that about 5 percent of the streets there produced 50 percent of the crime—and that about 1 percent of the streets produced 25 percent of crime. It was pretty much the same results as Seattle. Then I did a study in New York and I found that about 5 percent of the streets produced 50 percent of the crime, and about 1 percent produced 25 percent. So that led me to articulate the “law of crime concentration.” It’s not just that crime is concentrated, it’s that it is concentrated in incredibly consistent ways. Almost everywhere I’ve looked, and other people as well, you get this same dynamic, at least in larger cities.

Malcolm Gladwell cites your work in his 2019 book Talking to Strangers, writing about the implications of the law of crime concentration for how the police should behave.

Gladwell does a wonderful job of communicating what my research means. I think he’s right about the real-world implications of this idea: we can get a lot of bang for our buck by focusing on hot spots of crime. Half of the crime is in 5 percent of the places. Fifty percent of streets have no crime at all in a given year. It means that you shouldn’t be spreading police resources around. You should be focusing on the hot spots. Pick those streets that are problems and focus there. You would also do a lot less damage to citizens if you did this. There are also implications beyond policing—crime prevention, social welfare interventions, and many other programs would be much more efficient if they were focused on the streets that are very problematic. 

If the police were to focus their energies in the way that the law of crime concentration suggests, wouldn’t the effect be to increase racial disparities?

I’ve actually argued against that.

Walk me through the argument.

Let’s talk about Seattle, where I’ve done a lot of research. There’s a neighborhood in the southeast of Seattle that is disadvantaged and contains a large immigrant population. Let’s say that the police were thinking about doing something there, because there’s more crime in that neighborhood than other neighborhoods. They start sending out officers across the neighborhood. Well, police have a noxious side to them as well. There is a downside of policing. They arrest people. They stop people. They use other enforcement tactics. All of this might have negative psychological and social impacts, even if in specific circumstances it is necessary to combat crime. We know it’s bad for young people to be stopped, for example. You want to use these tools sparingly. The more police there are around, the more those kinds of tools will be used. 

So, if you go in and blanket the neighborhood, the police are naturally going to interact with people who they shouldn’t be interacting with. That’s what Gladwell talks about in his book Talking to Strangers. Sandra Bland wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. Police officers should not have been stopping people there in the first place. Nothing ever went on in that spot. There was no previous pattern of crime events. There was no reason to be worried about someone driving there. The police officer just stopped her for a stupid reason because he thought she was suspicious. 

My point is that a strategy that doesn’t recognize hot spots will have police going across the neighborhood, interfering in the liberties of lots of people. If you use a hot spots approach, you only go to those specific small numbers of streets where the problems are focused. If you use the hot spots approach, you can lower the intrusion of police. 

I think the blanket criticism of hot spots policing is ideological, not realistic. People who live on streets where there’s a lot of crime know they need the police. The question is, what do the police do when they go there? They shouldn’t go in like an invading army. This is not a foreign country. These are the citizens that the police work for. So the police should go in behaving in procedurally just ways. The law of crime concentration tells you where to go, but it doesn’t tell you what to do when you get there. So I would say that you should focus police resources on that small number of places that produce most of the problems, but when you go there, you should use practices and procedures that will not lead to negative impacts on the public.

“Procedural justice can help us get there”

In some circles, there’s a strong pushback right now against procedural justice, the idea that how a person is treated matters as much as the outcome of their case or their encounter with police. Some people feel that the most zealous advocates of procedural justice have made claims that are not well grounded in science. But more fundamentally, there is a critique that procedural justice is just window dressing. You can get police officers to look people in the eye and use plain English, but at the end of the day, they are still enforcing an unfair, racist system. How would you respond to this kind of critique?

I recently did a study in which we trained a group of hot spots officers in procedural justice, and another group, we didn’t. We found that you can train police to behave better, to care more about what people think, and to give people a sense of justice. 

When people place procedural justice as the first goal of policing, as [Yale law and psychology professor] Tom Tyler and colleagues sometimes do, that’s a mistake. I think it’s wrong to imagine that the first task of policing is to be procedurally just. The first task of policing is to protect order, to respond to citizen requests for assistance, and to reduce crime. Police are expensive. I don’t want them to just be popular. I want them to do something. I want them to improve public safety. 

There’s no question that procedural justice captures a mode of behavior that we want from police in a democratic society. I don’t think it’s only window dressing. I mean, it can be. But the hope of it is that we can teach people better ways of interacting with the public. The study I’ve done suggests that you can train police to be procedurally just. Why wouldn’t I want that? 

I don’t think there’s good evidence that police acting on the street in procedurally just ways will have immediate short-term impacts on perceptions of legitimacy in the community. I think it’s much simpler for me. I believe the police in a democratic society have to treat people with the basic characteristics of procedural justice—fairness, justice, giving people a voice. In my view, that is exactly the way police in every community should treat citizens, irrespective of whether it has any impact whatsoever. That’s the democratic way of treating citizens. 

Greg, you spent a lot of time working in Red Hook. You’ve done research in other places. Do the people in those streets say, “I don’t want the police to help me?” Or do they say, “I want the police to help me, but I want them to treat me with respect.” I think that the circles you’re talking about are very out of touch in terms of their attitudes towards the police. I think that in general, people living in high-crime streets want the police. They need the police. They don’t want to defund the police. They don’t want only policing as the solution to their problems, that’s for sure. But they need the police and they know it. They just want the police to treat them with dignity and respect. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Procedural justice can help us get there. 

A few years ago I reached out to you, right after the release of the National Academies of Sciences report on proactive policing that you helped put together. I thought that report was important and that it wasn’t getting the attention it deserved. I’m wondering whether you are frustrated with the conversation that we are currently having about policing in the United States, which to my eyes at least doesn’t seem to be driven by what the evidence says.

I think there are ebbs and flows in this process. Sometimes it seems like the role of evidence in policy is growing tremendously, and then all of a sudden it looks like things are going the wrong way. You just have to recognize this reality. There are going to be periods when there’s advancement and there are going to be periods when you go back a little. My gut feeling is that overall, we’re moving in the right direction. Whatever negatives may have occurred recently, there were tremendous advances before that. Maybe now with this new administration in Washington, there will be another push forward.

There was a long period when there seemed to be consensus among people on the left and the right that there is this thing called evidence, which we're going to use to help us make decisions. We're going to bring our normative backgrounds to those decisions, but we're going to pay attention to the evidence. That sort of working together seems to be falling away.

The nice thing about the evidence-based policy movement over the years was that it gained advocates on every side of the aisle. There were conservatives who wanted to listen to the evidence, and there were liberals that wanted to listen to the evidence. And those people began to have a common language to support criminal justice reform. What’s frustrating at the moment is that that common language seems to be falling apart. On both sides, there are assumptions that are very hard to undo. And evidence doesn’t seem to play a key role. Life is complicated. Many assumptions are not proven empirical realities.

Take stop-question-and-frisk. So, a rational conversation about stop-question-frisk might go, “Well there’s mixed evidence about large-scale use of stop-question-and-frisk [SQF] across cities but there’s strong evidence that pedestrian stops work in hot spots, in areas with high violence.” There is also evidence that SQFs have negative medical, educational, and other social impacts on those who are stopped. There is little direct evidence of negative community reactions overall, though there has been limited study of this issue to date. You should be able to have a dialogue about all of this. You should be able to ask, “Can stop-question-and-frisk be carried out at high-crime hot spots in a way that’s constitutional, and in a way that minimizes its negative outcomes?” Maybe it can and maybe it can’t. Maybe that strategy is so noxious that it has to go. But that sort of rational argument using evidence is very hard to have right now, because people walk in saying, “Well, I’m against it, it can’t be effective.” 

You did a great interview a couple of years ago with Cynthia Lum from George Mason University. In it, you talked about your research process. You said that your approach was to look at practice and then work backwards to the theory, or words to that effect. But I feel like a lot of what I’m seeing these days is essentially doing the reverse. Many people seem to be starting with the assumption that police involvement is wrong before they even look at the evidence. 

To be fair, people on the other side start out by saying, “The police are always right,” and “Give police more power.” It’s all very frustrating. It becomes a political fight. There’s a statement in the Talmud that essentially says: you’re not obligated to complete the repair of the world (tikkun olam) but you’re not free not to try. We’re all obligated to try to make things better. We’re not necessarily going to achieve it, so I don’t get completely discouraged when things aren’t going well. 

There was a tremendous (positive) movement from the early parts of my career through the Obama administration. There was a long period when there seemed to be consensus among people on the left and the right that there is this thing called evidence, which we’re going to use to help us make decisions. We’re going to bring our normative backgrounds to those decisions, but we’re going to pay attention to the evidence. That sort of working together seems to be falling away.

I’m very concerned about our intellectual climate. I don’t see how we get to effective solutions if we can’t speak honestly and forthrightly in the public square. I lay a lot of the blame on Twitter and Facebook and other online forums that I think incentivize outrage and the opposite of in-depth thinking.

It’s very difficult. I think the two of us would like to see people look at the evidence and draw some conclusions from it, recognizing that there is such a thing as evidence. There are some facts out there that you need to pay attention to. Maybe by doing that, you get some consensus. This has in fact happened in several areas. I think there’s growing consensus that there are too many people in jails and prisons, that over-incarceration was a mistake. I think the evidence helped to stoke that realization. And that realization came from both liberals and from people that you would think of as conservatives.

The importance of ‘making the scene’

Another thing that you’ve discussed is that it is incumbent on researchers to “make the scene.” What do you mean by that? And do you feel that criminologists are rising to this challenge? 

Look, when I started my career, being involved in the real world was not necessarily considered a good thing. I remember when I went to the Vera Institute of Justice in 1985 to do a project on community policing, a colleague told me, “I don’t know why you would do that. This isn’t academic work.” In my career, I’ve tried very hard to break down that idea. My view was, “How could we say something about crime without actually making the scene? How could you talk about the police if you’ve never walked with them in the street and seen the problems they have?” 

My students and others have pushed this idea very far. Anthony Braga became embedded in a police department. Anthony just won the Vollmer Award of the American Society of Criminology. I think that’s wonderful. It suggests that this idea of making the scene, of understanding what’s really going on, is very important. 

I think if we’re concerned about making the world a better place, we have to deal with the range of problems that exist. At the same time, we have to be open. You have to be willing to ask the difficult questions. People on the side of the police don’t want to even consider whether the police role should be changed. I’m very willing to think about the role of police. Should the role of police be what it is now? Should there be other agencies that take on some responsibilities that we now give to the police? These are all legitimate questions we should be asking. But “defund the police”? I don’t really understand how that works. 

I recently completed a report for the Manhattan Institute which looked at hot spot streets in New York City. Given the tremendous crime decline over the last two decades in New York, you might think that proactive police efforts are no longer necessary. But we found that in 2020, over 1,100 street segments had at least 39 crime reports in a year. The average number of crimes for the 1 percent of streets that produced about a quarter of the crime problem was over 70 crime reports. This suggests that there are many streets that need immediate police attention. That doesn’t mean that policing is the only response we should have, but we have to recognize that many streets need help in dealing with crime problems and that police have a role to play.

Talk to me about what you see as alternative approaches to policing that might make sense. 

Not long ago, I published an article with colleagues in the American Journal of Community Psychology that said that mental illness is much higher on hot spot streets. I thought that was really interesting. There are many people on hot spot streets that have mental health problems like post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression. I said, “What happens if we tried to do something where we had the police and mental health social workers go to these streets together? Because that would be a way for the police to show that they’re interested in the health of the place and not just enforcement.” 

I went to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and received a grant to run a pilot program in a few sites with the Baltimore City Police Department. We had social workers and police go out together on the street. These hot spot streets in Baltimore are really tough. We were shot at multiple times doing the data collection for a large National Institutes of Health (NIH) project on Baltimore crime hot spots. The social workers would never have gone out to these locations on their own because they would have been afraid. Putting them with a police officer made them feel safer. Together, they went door to door and said, “We’re here to try to help people get the services they need.” One of the ideas was that this would be a way for the police to get to know people in the street and for people to see the police in a more positive framework. This would also hopefully lead to police gaining more information on crime and more cooperation from the public. 

Anyway, we carried out the study, and we got some very interesting results. The social workers and the cops were shocked that the people in the street wanted to hang out with them. They were able to help a number of people get needed services, and the police were able to get to know people on streets that they normally avoided except to engage in enforcement actions. We observed lots of good things qualitatively. 

I still think it’s a good program, but we haven’t been able to get [additional] funding [for it] anywhere.  The difficulties we have had in getting support for this idea reinforces my sense that there is a lot of talk about changing policing, but there is often little investment in programs that go beyond traditional enforcement efforts.

“The talk about alternatives to policing is just talk”

Are there other things we should be trying?

Right now, I’m pushing the idea of seeing whether we could develop a program to increase collective efficacy on high-crime streets. This could help communities solve some of their own problems. I believe this would also improve relationships between the police and the public. 

What I’m talking about here is Rob Sampson’s collective efficacy idea. Rob, a sociologist from Harvard, basically said that when people who live in a community trust their neighbors, and when they believe that they should respond cooperatively to problems in the community, that reflects high collective efficacy. The theory is that streets in which you have higher collective efficacy will exercise informal social control over criminal behavior. That’s also part of broken windows theory and social disorganization theory.

If everybody's so upset at what the police are doing, shouldn’t we be thinking about different ways of dealing with crime problems?

A few years ago, we did an NIH study in Baltimore in which we looked at hundreds of streets and then collected three waves of survey data with thousands of individual respondents. We asked people whether they trust their neighbors. Some of the differences we found were really large. On the hottest crime blocks, less than 50 percent of people trusted their neighbors. On the lowest crime blocks, 85 percent of people trusted their neighbors.

What’s the direction of causality there, though? Or does it matter?

It does matter. It could be that collective efficacy reduces crime or it could be that low crime causes collective efficacy. It’s very hard to disentangle that. But we do know that they are strongly correlated. In our statistical modeling we have tried to address the causality question, and our analyses published in Prevention Science suggest that it is very much the case that collective efficacy influences crime.

If we’re looking for alternative ways of promoting safety, besides just throwing the police at these problems, collective efficacy is an idea that is worth pursuing. I am pursuing a program now with the director of a government crime prevention agency in Israel, Yamit Alfassi. She has a number of civilian employees who support crime prevention in Rishon LeZion, a moderate-sized Israeli city. We’re going to send these people to crime hot spots. Their job will be to get people organized so they understand the problems and then work together to solve them. Maybe it’s garbage or graffiti or kids hanging around on the streets. There are other departments besides the police to deal with those problems, and we are hoping that this effort will empower citizens who live on hot spot streets and increase their efficacy for solving problems. And if hot spot communities are better organized, they can also deal with the police in a more effective way. I think quite often police get in trouble because they are dealing with individuals. When they’re dealing with communities, they actually do better.

Pause there for a second. When you say that cops do better dealing with communities than individuals, what do you mean?

What I mean is, when cops decide there’s a problem and they go to solve the problem on the street, they sometimes forget about the importance of working with the public. In a democracy, you need the consent of the public. It’s hard for individuals to provide this kind of consent. They can make complaints, of course, but if you get a block association together, it’s a different story. They can call the police, which now gives the police legitimacy. And they can also have input about how the police are behaving. 

Liz Glazer, the former head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice in New York City, says that we have defaulted to the police to perform various tasks in part because they are a well-resourced, paramilitary agency that, for all of its faults, does tend to get stuff done when asked. In a place like New York, maybe we’ve put too much on the shoulders of police because we don’t have faith in other government agencies like the New York City Housing Authority to actually function effectively.

Maybe other agencies are less effective. That might be part of the problem. The police are sometimes efficient and effective, I agree with that. But the police are not the right organization to deal with some types of problems. You don’t bring a sledgehammer to a problem that maybe doesn’t need a sledgehammer. The police have gotten into trouble because the government, and the people, don’t want to fund all of the things that need to be funded if you’re not going to use the police. If everybody’s so upset at what the police are doing, shouldn’t we be thinking about different ways of dealing with crime problems? My sense is that all of the talk about alternatives to policing is just talk. What it would take is a large public investment in something else. For some reason, I don’t see that happening. 

Concentrate resources on those places that need it”

What do you think of Patrick Sharkey’s idea that neighborhoods with nonprofit organizations are associated with lower rates of criminal behavior? 

That grows out of Rob Sampson’s work. Sharkey looks at things at a community level. I look at things at a street level. So the idea that NGOs can play a role, I think that’s right, but I would focus them on the hot spots. By the way, that’s one of the problems that we’ve had in trying to implement this idea—community organizations can’t seem to wrap their minds around the idea that they should be focusing on specific streets. They think their job is to serve the entire community: “How can I focus on specific streets? The whole community needs me.” I think these community groups to some degree are wasting their energy. You need to concentrate your resources on those places that need it. It’s the same problem with the police. When the police think of themselves as a community resource, they fail. They need to think of themselves as a resource for the specific places where they’re needed. 

A halfway house is better than a prison. But America didn't want to invest in those kinds of things. Americans don't like to pay more taxes. They don't want to pay for these types of interventions.

I think what Sharkey and I are talking about is the same thing, I’m just doing it on a micro level. Informal social controls should absolutely be enhanced. But that does not take away from the need for the police. You’re not going to have community organizations deal with the mafia, with drug dealers, with killers. I mean, there are people who are just bad. Not everybody committing crime is bad, but there are some people where the police are particularly needed. When people are repeatedly violent, when they’re threatening people, you can’t expect the community to deal with that problem. That just doesn’t work.

The good part of the defund-the-police movement is the recognition that we have to invest more in other ways of producing safety. I think it’s been bad for the police to get every job that every other agency fails at. The police should be reducing their footprint in those areas. In schools, for example, I believe the police should be reducing, not increasing, their footprint. That will be good for the police, too, I think. There are many places where we could invest in other sorts of interventions.

In Israel, you still have many halfway houses and other community facilities for kids that leave their parents, for drug addicts, for young delinquents, and for people with mental health challenges. But in the U.S., we’ve gotten rid of all those things. A halfway house is better than a prison. But America didn’t want to invest in those kinds of things. Americans don’t like to pay more taxes. They don’t want to pay for these types of interventions. What I would hope is that people will recognize that we shouldn’t defund the police. But we should decide how much budget the police should have. And we should be funding other efforts too.

I think we are already seeing a lot of policing reform happen at the state and local level. And I think Black Lives Matter has clearly opened a lot of eyes and changed a lot of hearts and minds. So, to my way of thinking, Black Lives Matter has already been a success. But my fear is that for lots of people who are invested in this issue, the goal seems to be the end of racism and the elimination of any bad encounters between Black people and the police. And that seems to me impossible. My fear is that success will end up feeling like failure to a lot of people. 

Black Lives Matter was a great thing because it captured the idea that Black people are suffering in the system, and they’re suffering in a way they shouldn’t be suffering. America has a system, from the time you wake up in the morning to the time you go to sleep, that basically disenfranchises many Black people. I’m not saying all Black people. And I’m not saying Black people have not made progress in American society over the last generation. But there is a system there, from housing to employment to education to you name it, that sort of draws Black Americans into the criminal justice system.

If, in the end, Black Lives Matter leads to reform of the police in positive ways, and it leads to the development of other mechanisms to help control some of the problems the police are dealing with, then I think that’s great. But if you want to completely alter American society, you’re probably not going to get there. 

What frightens me is the idea that there’s a lot of focus on policing now, but it’s not going to really lead to fundamental change. In fact, it’s going to lead to worse outcomes in the community. It’s going to reduce public safety, because the police are going to be reduced, they’re going to be stigmatized, or whatever. And at the same time, communities are not going to pay for those other things that are necessary that would help in terms of increasing control in the community.

The problem with ideologues is they’re so certain that what they’re doing is right. This applies to Black Lives Matter and it applies to Republicans. It applies to everyone. The minute you start bringing in facts, it makes things more complicated and nuanced. There is a lack of introspection that we really need to be wary of. I think it was John Maynard Keynes, the economist, who once said that policymakers don’t like evidence, because it makes making decisions harder. But the outcomes of such “harder decision making” will be much better. That is the idea of evidence-based policy.


Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).

Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


Previous At the Crossroads interviews:
At The Crossroads July 16, 2021

“You Can Reduce Violence But Harm People”: A Conversation with Caterina Roman

By Greg Berman

Dr. Caterina G. Roman
Dr. Caterina G. Roman

“Libraries, parks, rec centers, pools, free internet — those are all crime prevention activities and resources,” Caterina Roman, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, told the New York Times last year.

Over the course of her career in academia and at the nonprofit Urban Institute, Dr. Roman has taken a broad view of violence and how to prevent it. Among other topics, she has investigated reentry programs, community justice partnerships, and the social networks of at-risk youth.

I talked to Dr. Roman by phone in February, not long after she had published an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer calling for deeper investments in evidence-based gun violence prevention programs. Much of our conversation was devoted to focused deterrence, an approach to reducing gun violence that emerged in Boston in the 1990s and has been broadly disseminated by the National Network for Safe Communities, under the leadership of John Jay College professor David Kennedy.  

Focused deterrence begins with a recognition that most of the violence in a given community is perpetrated by a small group of individuals. It seeks to target these individuals with offers of assistance, providing them with the job training, drug treatment, and other services they might need to avoid future offending. If they do not cease their violent  behavior, the focused deterrence model encourages the justice system to use all of the levers at its disposal–including arrest, prosecution, and incarceration–to halt the violence. The use of focused deterrence strategies has been associated with local reductions in homicides, according to a number of evaluations.

In addition to focused deterrence, my conversation with Dr. Roman touched on gaps in our collective knowledge base, particularly the need for more information about effective crime prevention. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Greg Berman: How concerned are you about the spike in homicides we have seen over the past year? Do you think that the increase is something that we need to be worried about?

Caterina Roman: I think we really need to be concerned about it. I think we’ve reached some kind of a tipping point. When you look at the reasons that people generally offer for any major spike in violence, all of them come into play with COVID. You have a little bit of everything. You have so many people buying guns. You have more hurt people who will hurt people. You have disinvestment that has been exacerbated. You have governments that aren’t funding parks, rec centers, summer jobs. You don’t have in-person religious services.

Police departments have the resources to do data-driven work that can be useful in communities. Where are the hot spots? How long have they been hot? What makes them different from other areas? What have we learned from both our successes, our failures in addressing hot spots from five years ago?

You don’t have outreach workers on the streets or the typical social services. And then you have compounded stress. All of these things are coming to a head together. There’s no place to go. Young people don’t have the access to pro-social jobs that will keep them busy and put them in contact with potential mentors.

Recent writing about the increase in violence seems to fall into two categories: an effort to score political points or a search for simple, silver-bullet answers to what’s going on.

I talk to my students a lot about the media. I’ve studied fear of crime, and I often ask, “Where does that fear come from?” Some of it is based in reality, but most of it is not. Having had many conversations with journalists over the years, I know that journalists often like to focus on just one thing to hang their stories on. Some of this comes from journalism itself, which requires stories to have a hook. It is also true that policymakers tend to want quicker fixes and easier answers. If you hang your hat on one cause, you have a straight line to a solution. In reality, it’s just not that simple.

You talk about the structural forces that lead to violence, including inequality and racism. The investments that we need to make to address these kinds of problems are probably generational. But we also have a need to move right now in response to an immediate crisis. How would you advise a mayor or some other political actor who wanted to make a difference? How should we balance long-term investments with short-term strategies to quell violence?

I think policymakers and politicians should be direct and transparent with regard to longer-term investments. Given that the world knows that poverty has some relationship to crime and that disadvantage has some relationship to crime, it would be great if policymakers and politicians would just be open and say, “We are optimistic that we can make longer term change, and we’re going to do it by investing in neighborhood infrastructure. We’re going to do this, we’re going to tell you where the money’s going, and we’re going to measure the incremental change over time.” 

We're only looking at the outcomes related to police data and changes in violence at the aggregate level. We're not asking who benefits from the intervention and who is burdened. We're only focused on the data we have at hand.

I recognize that people want a quick fix. I’m not going to tell you that I believe that X policing solution or Y law enforcement solution is an answer. But I do think that police departments have the resources to do data-driven work that can be useful in communities. Where are the hot spots? How long have they been hot? What makes them different from other areas? What have we learned from both our successes and our failures in addressing hot spots from five years ago? This is where I would advocate for practitioner-academic partnerships because we know even the best police departments with the most data aren’t necessarily applying it in a larger, theory-based way. By creating these partnerships, we can ensure that policing will be used for smart strategies and reduce the likelihood that we’re sending police out on calls that have nothing to do with violence.

One of the problems in New York at the moment is a decline in clearance rates for homicides. Do you have some thoughts about what police should be doing to improve this?

There’s very little research out there on how to improve clearance rates. It is a huge gap in our knowledge. There’s a whole gamut of programs that are trying to achieve community-level change, whether it’s a focused deterrence/pulling levers model or Cure Violence or something else. I would advocate for researchers who have studied these models to go back and look at whether clearance rates were differentially affected in the treatment versus control neighborhoods. That’s relatively easy to do. Maybe where there’s less violence on the street and less fear of crime, clearance rates go up.

You mentioned focused deterrence policing strategy. I’m curious to hear how you are thinking about focused deterrence these days and what we can say about its effectiveness as an intervention.

I’ve evaluated focused deterrence in Washington, D.C., in its first sort of iteration right after Operation Ceasefire in Boston. And I think the big issue for me about its effectiveness is that we’re only looking at the outcomes related to police data and changes in violence at the aggregate level.  We’re not asking who benefits from the intervention and who is burdened. We’re only focused on the data we have at hand. This tends to be what evaluators do. It’s easy to get arrest data, so that’s what we measure. And so we only know from the majority of evaluations of focused deterrence that it reduced violence at the aggregate level.

For every intervention we need to be asking who benefits and who is burdened ... What are the unintended consequences of using credible messengers to go into the community and be pro-social mentors and caseworkers?

We just know that we got the end result of reduction in violence. But what got us there? [John Jay professor] David Kennedy’s theory of change is that the threat of this very focused deterrence led to general deterrence. But we have no research that shows us that that is true. Yet everybody who advocates for focused deterrence is saying that it is an evidence-based program, that it’s working and this is what we should do. I don’t know if that’s true.

So, if you were going to sponsor research into focused deterrence going forward, what would that look like?

Any intervention that expects a community-level reduction in violence has to have enough research dollars behind it to fund a comprehensive survey to track individual-level behavior change. You want to be interviewing those who are targeted in the initiative, and following up with them, and then also interviewing potential high-risk individuals in the community. This won’t be cheap. You’re at a million dollars right there. But that’s where I believe we have to go. If we want answers, we need to be able to conduct the kind of studies that are going to let us measure what is really happening at the community level.

You talk about people advocating for more focused deterrence. Recently, I’ve seen a number of calls for deeper investment in Cure Violence. Do you think that the evidence merits this push?

I think you’re asking the question in the wrong way. I think for every intervention we need to be asking who benefits and who is burdened. If you frame the question that way, I would have to think long and hard about who is burdened by Cure Violence. What are the unintended consequences of using credible messengers to go into the community and be pro-social mentors and caseworkers?  I don’t think there is an obvious burden to funding Cure Violence as it’s intended to be implemented, whereas there are so many things that could go wrong with focused deterrence, given its complex implementation structure. You can reduce violence but harm people.

You are advancing a kind of “do no harm” argument on behalf of Cure Violence. But do we know that it actually does what it says it does, in terms of reducing shootings?

I’m not sure. It’s supposed to be increasing legitimacy by telling the community to be collectively accountable and bringing up the moral voice of the community. But I also think you have to ask whether focused deterrence works in the long run. Is focused deterrence successful at reducing violence if once everyone knows focused deterrence is going away, they start shooting again? Please answer that for me.

Instead of Cure Violence, you could put money into victim services to make sure that every single person that's a victim of violent crime has everything they could possibly need. Victim services are basically nonexistent in most urban communities.

I don’t want us to get locked into a focused deterrence versus Cure Violence conversation, because I don’t think that dynamic is helpful.

I wasn’t arguing for one versus the other. I am using those two models as an example of investment versus policing, surveillance, and deterrence. It does not have to be focused deterrence. It does not have to be Cure Violence. I think instead of Cure Violence, you could put money into victim services to make sure that every single person that’s a victim of violent crime has everything they could possibly need. Victim services are basically nonexistent in most urban communities.

Are there other programs out there that you feel are interesting, whether or not they’ve been evaluated with any degree of rigor?

Do you know about the Chelsea Hub? This is a model where community agencies work collaboratively with the police, probation, school, and victim services. Everyone is meeting weekly. Let’s say I am a victim service agency and in walks someone who witnessed a shooting and that individual seems like they are in a crisis moment. That victim service agency would ask that person, “Would you be willing for me to present your case to a group of service providers to talk about how we could strategize about what you might need holistically?” So the Hub is a method to provide holistic services to people who are in some type of crisis. It could be a domestic violence event. It could be after a hit and run incident. It doesn’t have to be violent crime, necessarily. Philadelphia is testing the model now through Temple med school. It’s voluntary for the individual. It is a positive, full-investment, collaborative model that cuts across systems so you can get to the complexity of the issues and offer an array of useful services and gain individuals’ trust. There hasn’t been a long-term evaluation of it, but it’s a very promising model. The GRYD model in Los Angeles is also worth checking out. I think they’ve had some impact evaluation work done that is pretty strong.

Let’s talk about some of the articles you have written. A few years ago, you wrote about gang research and how to get people to leave gangs. What did you learn?

The point of that article was to look across three very large studies to identify the kinds of pushes and pulls that get somebody out of the gang. A “pull” is pro-social. It is anything from “my significant other doesn’t want me involved in that anymore,” to “my grandmother says she’s not going to let me come home if I’m still hanging out with them.” A pull is some pro-social opportunity, like a job, that is getting me out of the gang. A push tends to be more negative. A push can be: they were victimized, or they were incarcerated, or they have gotten tired of being roughed up by the police. But it could also be they just realized that the gang wasn’t what they wanted. 

You have also looked at fear of crime in Washington D.C. Tell me about that research.

That piece came from my interest in social capital and collective efficacy.

How would you define collective efficacy?

Collective efficacy is the activation of social ties and informal social control among neighbors. So we ask people, “How likely are your neighbors to help out another neighbor in need?” Or, “If a group of teens is hanging out on the street corner, being rowdy, how likely are your neighbors to do something about it?” We aggregate information from questions like these to measure collective efficacy.  

We don't have good evidence on prevention, because we don't research prevention.

In the survey that I did in the northeast section of Washington, D.C, we looked at how collective efficacy was related to fear of crime as measured by people reporting that they were not going to go walk outside because they were worried about crime. At first, what we found jibed with the literature—older people and women tend to be more fearful. As we added different variables to the model, we looked at the interaction of collective efficacy on Black residents versus White residents. What we found was that there was an increase of fear when collective efficacy was higher among Black respondents. We did not find any significant effect among non-Black respondents. We posited that, as collective efficacy increased, Black residents in those neighborhoods were talking more and transmitting more information about violent crime and what was actually happening in the neighborhood. And that relaying of information in the neighborhood increased fear. So higher collective efficacy meant more fear for Black respondents.

What do you think is the biggest misconception that policymakers have about crime prevention?

The truth is that we know very little about what works because we don’t test prevention. We don’t test prevention mechanisms like Pre-K. In Philadelphia, where I live, we have 4,000 more kids in Pre-K each year over the last couple of years. We don’t know if that’s going to reduce violence, because we’re not testing that. So when a policymaker goes to the evidence base, they’re looking at the interventions that were more likely to be evaluated. As we have discussed, policing programs are relatively straightforward to evaluate: You get crime data, that’s really simple. What we’re not doing is funding the kinds of survey research that would give us evidence that legitimacy is increased, that moral cynicism is reduced, that more people are integrated with their neighborhoods. We have no idea how to increase collective efficacy. That’s why we can’t solve the violence problem. So, going back to your question, I think what’s not understood is that we don’t have good evidence on prevention, because we don’t research prevention.

If you were going to make a reading recommendation to an audience that is interested in community-based violence, is there a single book or single study that you would point to?

If someone is interested in this topic, they should spend a week with an outreach worker. They should spend a week in a victim services agency. They should be inside the neighborhood. You’re not going to learn anything from a book. If you want to change a neighborhood, be inside it, and see if you can feel it.

But to answer your question about a book, I would tell you to check out the Aspen Institute’s roundtable on community change, which was turned into a book edited by Karen Fulbright-Anderson and Patricia Auspos. Dennis Rosenbaum has a great chapter in there on promoting safe and healthy neighborhoods. I’d also encourage people to read Wes Skogan, a criminologist who studied policing and community change.


Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).

Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


Previous At the Crossroads interviews:
At The Crossroads March 2, 2021

“Social Disruptions Reveal Who We Are”: A Conversation with Jeffrey Butts

By Greg Berman

Dr. Jeffrey A. Butts
Dr. Jeffrey A. Butts

New York City is at a crossroads moment.

In the 1970s and 1980s, New York City was an international symbol of chaos and disorder, with many observers concluding that the city had become “ungovernable.” That all changed in the early 1990s. Violent crime in New York City plummeted, with the number of murders reduced by close to 90 percent from its high of more than 2,200 in 1990. By the second decade of this millenium, it had never been safer to live, work, or visit New York City.

Of course, no one is throwing ticker-tape parades for the criminal justice system at the moment. Recent years have been dominated by Black Lives Matter protests, which have shined a spotlight on the enduring legacies of racism in the American justice system. These protests have added fuel to a number of local political movements—to close Rikers Island, to halt the building of new jails, and to defund the police.

All of these movements serve as backdrop for a disconcerting new development: a significant increase in the number of shootings in New York City. The New York City Police Department has reported that murders in the city rose to 462 in 2020—a 45 percent increase from 2019. The city recorded 1,531 shootings in 2020—a 97 percent increase from 2019.

Is this the beginning of a trend that will lead us back to the “bad old days”? Or is it just a COVID-related statistical blip?

Launched by The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, At the Crossroads takes a deep dive into the problem of community violence in New York City through a series of in-depth interviews with leading researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and advocates.


At the Crossroads begins with a conversation with Jeffrey A. Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. Dr. Butts’s career has been focused on improving policies and programs for young people involved in the justice system. Prior to coming to John Jay, he worked as a research fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, as director of the Program on Youth Justice at the Urban Institute, and as senior research associate at the National Center for Juvenile Justice. He began his career as a drug and alcohol counselor.

In recent years, Dr. Butts has worked on a number of studies exploring various aspects of crime and safety in New York City, including an evaluation of the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety and the effects of the Cure Violence program in the South Bronx and East New York.

We spoke on the phone in mid-January. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.

Greg Berman: I’d like to start with a fairly basic question. NYPD reports suggest that in 2020, shootings were up 97 percent from the previous year. We also know that lots of crimes, even crimes of violence, don’t end up getting reported. So things may be even worse than the numbers suggest. My question is: How bad a problem do you think we have in New York at the moment?

Jeffrey A. Butts: First of all, it’s not just New York. A lot of major cities around the country are seeing similar patterns. There’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding around, in part because the popular media tends to focus on percent change from year to year. A friend of mine once wrote a report called The Tyranny of Small Numbers. If your shootings go from two to four, that’s a 100 percent increase. So you have to keep in mind how low the numbers were to begin with. New York is still in a very good condition relative to 1994. But if you only look at a graph that starts in 2014, the increase in shootings that we’ve seen seems large. That’s not to dismiss the increase, because there is a definite increase. But it is also worth pointing out that you don’t see similar increases in other violent offenses, like robbery and sexual assaults.

What’s your sense of what’s going on? Why have shootings gone up?

It’s important to look at the distinction between shooting incidents, where a gun has been fired at someone, versus shooting victimizations, where someone has actually been hit by a bullet. In New York, attempted shootings have gone up more than victimizations. The fact that there are more unsuccessful shootings suggests that the people involved in these shootings are not your typical shooters.

My theory, and I’m not the only one who thinks this, is that what we’re seeing is a reflection of predominantly young men walking around with hand guns and deciding to use them, where a year ago, they may have thought twice, or they may not have been walking around with a hand gun because they were actually in school or had a job. Petty interpersonal grievances and insults are turning into bullets being fired because of the disruption to the social structure caused by the pandemic. If that’s correct, it explains why you are seeing similar increases in other areas around the country. It’s not a function of the stupid theories that people have advanced about bail reform. People tend to think that the criminal justice system is supposed to keep crime under control, so when crime goes up, they look at what’s going wrong with the criminal justice system. That is wrong-headed. That’s not how you explain social phenomena.

Having said that, you also said that a year ago, the would-be shooters might have thought twice about using a gun. Does this imply that they are making the calculus that there’s not going to be any consequence for their behavior?

No, I don’t think that’s how young people think. You don’t pull the gun out of your pocket and think, “What is the sentence range for this offense? What’s the probability of conviction if I am charged?” That’s not how things happen. You can’t explain short-term fluctuations in crime rates and behavior by looking to the criminal justice response or lack thereof. When your normal person says, “we need to fix the criminal justice system,” they’re thinking about cops on the beat, arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration. That has never been the way to explain changes in the crime rate.

What about the notion, popularized by Jane Jacobs, that having “eyes on the street” helps deter crime? Is it possible that we don’t have eyes on the street in New York in the way that we did pre-COVID?

I would agree that the day-to-day guardianship over shared space, which means people walking around the neighborhood, whether they have on police uniforms or bright orange outreach jackets or something else, helps keep things under control. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t stepped outside for three or four days. I think that’s true of a lot of people. You see scenes, especially during the freak-out months of April, May, and June, where there just wasn’t that kind of presence on the streets. I think it is true that people feel safer walking around if there are a lot of people around them.

Have you ever heard people talk about taking hallucinogens? People say hallucinogens don’t change who you are, they reveal who you are. I think social disruptions, like a pandemic, don’t make who we are, they reveal who we are. What it’s revealed for me is that we have a lot of young people who have no reason to believe in the social structure and civic behavior. They don’t benefit from it. They know they’re never going to be a part of it. This whole idea of, “Go to school, get a job, buy a house, have kids”—they don’t see that in their future. Protecting themselves and their friends in the short term with violence seems acceptable to them. I think the pandemic just revealed the extent to which that’s always been there. It’s been kept slightly under control by people being busier.

You say violence has been kept “slightly under control,” but we’ve just experienced essentially three decades of dramatic and sustained reductions in crime in New York City. Isn’t that more than just keeping things “slightly under control”?

It depends on how you talk about it. One of the reasons I criticize law enforcement is because they tend to say, “We reduced this. We slashed this. We cut this.” Whenever I have a chance, I always say to them, “You’re just setting yourself up to being exposed in the future as having exaggerated your own effectiveness.” Why not say, “We have benefited from a great reduction in crime”?

Definitely, things came down a lot from the 1990s, but you’re more impressed with the decline if you’re looking at citywide numbers. In some neighborhoods within our city, it would be hard to convince someone that things are incredibly better than they were 30 years ago, because they didn’t experience that much change.

The NYPD is also reporting that 70 percent of shootings were unsolved in 2020. Does that kind of clearance rate concern you?

The efficiency rate of investigations and arrests is an important thing. It is important to remember that clearance rates have a numerator and a denominator. You have to be careful when you accept the clearance rate because the denominator of a clearance rate can be reduced through administrative decision-making. When I was living in Chicago, I remember there was a scandal about the police manipulating the clearance rate by moving shootings across from one calendar year to another in order to even out the calculation. You have to have a very broad way of thinking about the overall efficiency and effectiveness of law enforcement and not just accept the numbers as they present them.

If you were going to respond to the increase in shootings with some sort of law enforcement intervention, what would you do differently? Or maybe you don’t believe there should be a law enforcement response?

I think anyone who thinks that the way to improve public safety is to invest in law enforcement is just pushing us further down the path toward a police state, where the only public safety we have is purchased and maintained through force and coercion.

I think anyone who thinks that the way to improve public safety is to invest in law enforcement is just pushing us further down the path toward a police state, where the only public safety we have is purchased and maintained through force and coercion.

That’s really disturbing to me. The police can’t prove that they have the effect on public safety that they claim. But they can definitely win the game of public safety theater with badges and cars and lights and perp walks and people in cuffs. The public sees that and thinks, “I’ll be safe because look at what they did.” I understand the impulse, but if that’s all we have, we’re never going to really make durable improvements in community well-being.

What about non-enforcement responses? Where should we be investing our energies?

You and I both know a little bit about the Cure Violence model. Programs like Save Our Streets—that’s where I would put all my investments.

I wanted to ask you about the state of Cure Violence research. It is a model that resonates very powerfully in the current political moment. How much do we actually know about whether it works or not?

These programs have shown that they can reach out and connect with a critical number of teenagers that you really need to influence if you are going to reduce neighborhood violence. But we need to have research that shows it’s effective. We’re nowhere near making Cure Violence merit the label “evidence-based.”

The problem with Cure Violence right now is that it has become a movement, as opposed to a strategy or an intervention plan. People talk about Cure Violence and the whole public health approach like people talk about religion. It’s hard to have a rational conversation about the need to build the evidence for the model. As soon as you say something like that, the believers in the model will reject you.

We’re not making enough progress, in my view, in terms of nailing down exactly how to make these programs effective. In particular, I think there has to be some connection between the formal system of law enforcement and the Cure Violence programs. I do appreciate the extent to which people try to keep that connection informal or out of the public eye. If the police take it over, then you’re participating in the creation of a police state. But if you don’t have a connection to the formal system and you don’t have professional management, the danger is that Cure Violence just becomes a bunch of well-meaning people who are not going to have an effect.

One of the pieces of Cure Violence research that you did that struck a chord with me was looking at the attitudes of young men who had been touched by the program. What did you learn from that study?

As you move through adolescence and into your twenties, at some point, you have to start assuming that not everyone is out to get you. You do have some responsibility to make your own life. A sense of community and mutual responsibility has to emerge from somewhere. If someone is growing up in an environment of violence and instability and you never know whose couch you’re sleeping on from one week to the next, it’s a struggle to build that. But it is critical.

What we saw from the study you referenced was a small increase in the willingness of someone to believe that the police have a role to play in community well-being, when we compared young men who lived in a neighborhood with a Cure Violence program to those without a Cure Violence program. I did find that very encouraging.

I’ve seen you talk in other settings about some of the biases and perverse incentives that shape the field of criminal justice research. Obviously, the need to publish is one. The bias toward evaluating projects that can show change over short time frames rather than long timeframes is another. You’ve also talked about how it is easier to measure interventions that are looking at individual change rather than broader community-wide change. Do you have hope that these dynamics will change in the years to come, or do you think they will be with us for the rest of our lives?

I begin from a base of pessimism about seeing things improve. The one thing that gives me hope is the increasing detail and ubiquity of administrative data. If we can start using it creatively, and not allow it to use us, we could look at non-individual-level interventions in a more sophisticated way.

The one thing that gives me hope is the increasing detail and ubiquity of administrative data. If we can start using it creatively, and not allow it to use us, we could start to be able to look at non-individual-level interventions in a more sophisticated way.

For example, if we were more creative with getting data from social media, instead of asking people in a given neighborhood, “Do you feel better?” you could track their cell phones and see how many people are using the local park and how many actually use their local train station. You can start collecting more rigorous data. We need to do more experiments along that line where we change something simple like improving the stairwell down into the train station to make it feel more engaging and more hospitable. Let’s do that in five stations and then compare that to another set of five that are just like them. We could see if there’s an effect over time with data that’s available passively through social media. I think that would be a way to start generating reliable, experimental data that a policymaker might listen to that’s not rooted in law enforcement and not rooted in helping individuals one by one.

I recently read a report that you did for Arnold Ventures called Reducing Violence Without Police. As it happens, I was reading the report at the same time that I was reading Robert Putnam’s new book, Upswing. Among other things, Putnam writes about massive declines, starting roughly in 1970, in churchgoing and in conventional, two-parent family structures in the United States. It struck me that your review doesn’t talk at all about the potential impacts of family or church on crime. It made me wonder if another bias in the field is a desire to avoid anything that could be interpreted as supportive of conservative ways of looking at the world.

That report was a look across the empirical literature to see if there were any findings that are respectable and strong enough to rely upon that are not part of a policing world. Both of the things you mentioned, religious affiliation and two-parent families, are proxies for stable, supportive, civic society. There’s nothing about belief in some super-being that has anything to do with public safety. But there’s a slightly increased probability that if you do belong to a congregation, that you’re not completely anti-social. Although, as we’ve seen, there’s a great overlap right now between so-called Christian Evangelists and the people who are trying to undermine our government. So, religious affiliation does not always correlate to prosocial behavior.

It has nothing to do with stability or supportive family relationships. By that logic, four parents would be better than two.

The two-parent family thing is a vestige of our economic structure. Single parent family means higher probability of insufficient income. It has nothing to do with stability or supportive family relationships. By that logic, four parents would be better than two.

Certainly it’s fair to say that people bring ideological and political biases to their work. The group that we formed to do the Arnold report, we all got together and started talking about what we should explore and what was useful or not. I think we probably did stay away from things that were conventional thinking that we didn’t think would be causal.

I was also struck looking at the Arnold report that when you focused on reducing substance abuse, you didn’t mention drug court. I think of drug court as a well-researched intervention that has shown an impact on reducing substance abuse. Am I reading the literature wrong?

No. I do know people that have done respectable work on criminal court drug courts and say they can be helpful. I became disenchanted with them because I think drug courts just help perpetuate the way Americans think about drug use. I would make all drugs legal so you can eliminate the black-market profit incentives. We should stop arresting people and start treating addiction as a health problem. Drug courts never talk about that.

Okay, last question. [Attorney General-nominee] Merrick Garland calls you up and says, “Jeff, I want you to be the head of the National Institute of Justice, and money is no object.” Where would you be investing research dollars right now, if the goal is to improve the state of knowledge about community violence?

First of all, if we continue to talk about violence and avoid discussing guns, that would be a tragedy. We don’t have to confiscate everyone’s guns, but we do need creative solutions. If we don’t deal with guns, we’re never going to solve these problems. That’s the biggest hurdle. I would invest everything in that right now.

If we don't deal with guns, we're never going to solve these problems.

After that, I would explore how to remedy crisis-oriented income issues. The fact that you could live in this country and be doing everything the way you’re supposed to do it and get laid off and two months later not have a place to sleep is just disgusting. Other countries have figured this out. Those are two easy things: fixing income inequities and firearms.


Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).

Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

At The Crossroads April 8, 2021

“People Who Do Harmful Things Are Reacting to Harmful Things”: A Conversation with Marlon Peterson

By Greg Berman

Marlon Peterson
Marlon Peterson

Marlon Peterson grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He experienced a difficult childhood, which culminated, at the age of nineteen, in his involvement in a robbery that led to the death of two people. Peterson ended up serving ten years in prison for his participation in this crime. While in prison, he earned a degree and became a writer and an activist on behalf of those who are incarcerated.  

I first met Peterson not long after his release from prison in 2009, during the years he spent working at the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center (now Neighbors in Action). At the mediation center, Peterson helped to implement Save Our Streets Brooklyn, New York’s first Cure Violence program, which trains credible messengers from the community to help interrupt violence on the streets of Brooklyn. 

In the years since then, Peterson has gone on to host his own podcast (Decarcerated), to give a TED talk (Am I Not Human?), and to write a memoir (Bird Uncaged: An Abolitionist’s Freedom Song), which will be released this month by Bold Type Books.A vocal critic of the American criminal justice system, Peterson has written about violence prevention for numerous publications, including Ebony, The Nation, USA Today, and The Root.  

I talked with Peterson by phone in late January about his unique history, his take on what’s going on in New York at the moment, and his predictions for the future. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Greg Berman: In honor of your forthcoming book, I thought I might read to you several excerpts of things that you have written over the years and ask you to elaborate on them. For example, a few months ago, you wrote, “Some are opposed to bail reforms, citing a jump in crime numbers from the first couple months after New York ended the practice as evidence of the need to repeal bail legislation.” I am assuming that you don’t think bail reform has led to the uptick in shootings. Do you have an alternative theory about what’s going on?

Marlon Peterson: It’s the COVID crisis and the racial upheaval. If you look at what happened last year, and is still happening, you had more young people out of school. And you had people cooped up in households with no outlet. All of this pushes some of these younger folks to go outside. It also pushes some people to articulate their frustrations online, whether it be on Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, whatever. People have this misplaced anger and rage, and they go online and say stuff. And we know now that online beefs are leading to more street beefs than ever before. 

And then there’s just less money. People are out of work and struggling. So you had young people who had been supplementing their family incomes with whatever side jobs they may have had—Burger King, Wendy’s, whatever. And they either got less hours or no hours. And then summer youth employment opportunities flew away. 

So all those things add up. And then there is the trauma of the COVID crisis. Young folks have aunts and mothers and grandparents who are suffering from COVID or dying from COVID. And that’s a trauma that’s not being dealt with. So trauma and anger and frustration lead to conflicts with other people on the streets in their community.

And then there’s the police part. The police violence hit hard because it was unavoidable. There were no sports. There were no concerts. There were no clubs, no parties. So, even though we’re all aware [police shootings] have been happening for years, thanks to COVID, you are seeing it every day on the news and in your feed. Celebrities are talking about it. Rappers are talking about it. Athletes are talking about it. And it’s like a cauldron that’s being mixed all at once.

I made an Instagram post about this before the summer started. I just sort of outlined all these things I’m talking to you about right now, Greg, and I said that we should expect more violence in our communities in the next months. So nothing we have seen is surprising to me.

No one says, "Well, you know, they ruled stop-and-frisk unconstitutional, so now we can hang out."

What about the argument that people are no longer scared to leave the house with a gun because they feel like they won’t get caught. Do you think that’s behind some of the violence we have seen?

I don’t see that. I’m somebody who carried guns at one point in time. I grew up in the height of the stop-and-frisk era. I knew that I could be stopped and frisked at any point—and I was, often. But I wasn’t afraid that they would catch me with a gun. Young people don’t think about things in that way. When you’re at that age, when you’re out here hustling, you know you could go to jail for it. But that doesn’t factor into your thinking. You feel untouchable at that age. We in the field of criminal justice are aware of all these changes to policy and practice, but kids on the street aren’t aware of these changes. They’re not paying attention.No one says, “Well, you know, they ruled stop-and-frisk unconstitutional, so now we can hang out. They’re not doing that. So I don’t agree with the idea that there’s some sort of consciousness that police aren’t policing the way they used to, so we can walk outside with our weapons now.

You once wrote, “I grew up in a community where guns are easier to get than sneakers.” I’m assuming that was hyperbole, but how easy were guns to get when you were a kid?

The first gun I ever got was from the bodega around my way. I got it from a corner store. I didn’t have to do some special ops thing. I just went to the corner store and bought it through the slot. I still think it’s easy to get guns. Guns aren’t difficult. They’ve never been difficult. There are more guns in this country than there are people. They’re easy to get because there’s a huge supply.

This nation's inability to really do anything substantial and sensible around guns is because of racism.

You’ve written: “We know that guns kill, particularly Black people. Yet this nation has not cared enough to slow down gun production.” So you think that the failure to enact meaningful gun reform legislation is tied to racism?

Absolutely, I think so. The fact that Black and brown people are dying at these rates by this particular source has not impacted the nation enough. This nation’s inability to really do anything substantial and sensible around guns is because of racism. But I also want to put in a caveat, too, because this nation really believes in guns. I remember when the mass shooting in Newtown happened. I was sitting in the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, and I was like, “Oh, they are going to do something now, because they shot these white kids in a white neighborhood.” And two or three days later, the NRA said, “We need more guns.” And at that point I was like, “Well, this nation’s committed to violence.”

When somebody decides to pick up a gun, it’s because there's something inside that they're dealing with ... Issues with trauma are always at the root before somebody picks up a gun.

You’ve talked about how gun violence is related to underlying trauma, writing, “At the individual and communal level, trauma is at the bottom of antisocial violent behaviors.” What do you mean when you say this?

When somebody decides to pick up a gun, it’s because there’s something inside that they’re dealing with. People think that gang beef is senseless. And there’s some truth to that, but we also forget that individuals in gangs are people who got sh– going on. They have issues. They have trauma. They got family stress. They got abuse issues, drug addiction. All these things are happening. And they bring all those things with them into the gang. And then, with that groupthink mentality that happens in a gang, there’s ample opportunity to act out what you got going on internally. Now you have a reason, you have a cause. A brotherhood. Issues with trauma are always at the root before somebody picks up a gun.

I think I get what you mean by individual trauma. But you’re also talking about trauma at the communal level. Give me a sense of what that means to you.

I think that police violence is a part of the trauma that causes people to do the things that they do. I wasn’t raised to not like police. I wasn’t raised in that type of household. But police, for whatever reason, would see me as a young kid and pick on me, and I wasn’t doing anything at that time. And it not only created this sort of animosity towards them, but it also created this feeling of, “All right, they treat me like a crook, I might as well do crook sh–.” You know what I mean?

And that’s just using police violence as an example. But there are other types of violence on the communal level that are always impacting people. Health disparities and not having adequate access to good healthcare, for example. Those are things on a communal level that people don’t associate with gun violence. But when things are happening within your body or are not being adequately taken care of, it leads to frustration. As an adult, you know how to deal with those sorts of things. But when you’re sixteen and you’re walking up your block, or you’re coming out of your project, and you got these things happening, and somebody looks at you kind of funny, you can snap. And from then on, the thing that was bothering you internally, whatever health issue you were dealing with, that’s no longer a factor anymore. You’re not even thinking about it. Now you just got beef, and that’s the only thing that matters. You’re not thinking about why you had it, what contributed to your mindset in the first place.

In your book, you write: “It’s not excusable for a victim to become a perpetrator, or for the perpetrator to claim victimhood, but they are realities.” How do you balance the harms you’ve been talking about against individual responsibility and individual agency when it comes to criminal behavior?

There should be an acknowledgement that people who do harmful things are reacting to harmful things but, as I said, it’s not an excuse. I always say you don’t absolve people for the harmful things that they do. But we have to acknowledge that perpetrators have been victimized before. I think that’s why restorative justice is on the tips of many people’s tongues now. 

Did you see the horrific thing that happened in Harlem last week? These guys tried to hit on a girl in a liquor store. And she turned them down, from what we can see from the video camera footage. They followed her outside, and they ended up beating her up. They are still looking for these guys. That is horrific. There’s no way to excuse that. But I do have to be able to understand that people don’t wake up out of their beds and just do stuff like that unless there’s some unaddressed mental issues. There’s a build-up to that type of action.

Your book is essentially a plea for prison abolition. The people who committed this act in Harlem … what should happen to them, in your mind? What should the consequence be for this kind of behavior?

That’s always the question. Should they go to jail? Right now, jail is all we got. That’s what we have at the moment. We don’t have any other type of solution to deal with egregious harm. We don’t. But what I am saying is that in order to work towards an abolitionist future, we have to invest in addressing the underlying traumas that people are dealing with in our communities.

I would love for there to be a future in which no one was harmed. But let’s just stipulate for a moment that we aren’t going to completely eliminate bad things from happening. In the future that you’re imagining, what would be a better response than incarceration as a response to egregious harms?

The abolitionist future, to me, is about really investing in resources to address the underlying issues that people have in these communities. Right now, jail is what we got. But we also know that jails are harmful places. Jail is all about get-back and vengeance. Everybody knows jails are f—– up places. They got millions of movies about it. It’s like, “You killed my father, I’m going to kill your father.” That sort of thing. We don’t really think that this person we are sending to jail is redeemable, that a person can change. What does it do to send a person to jail? It doesn’t do anything for them, other than to say we got you back.

You talked earlier about growing up in the stop-and-frisk era. The quote that I highlighted about your relationship with the police from one of your writings was, “I take a personal affront to law enforcement when they speak to me as if I am a toy to be played with.” Has every interaction you’ve ever had with the police been negative?

Of course not. As a professional, I’ve been to One Police Plaza. When I have on a suit and I represent an organization or an issue, obviously the police are looking at me in a different light. But if I come back home in my hoodie around Bed-Stuy, then they don’t know who I am. So, no, every interaction I’ve had hasn’t been negative. I had an interaction recently when I got locked out of my car down here in the Bushwick area. Cops came by and they called somebody who helped me out. It’s not that every interaction with the police is bad. But the most indelible interactions I’ve ever had with police have been bad. And also the most unwarranted interactions with police have been bad. I remember they stopped me someplace in my car, and they were just playing with me. They stopped me for no reason in my neighborhood around the corner from my house. And those are the types of interactions that always make me think about Eric Garner. It’s not so much that all police are bad. That’s a cliché. It’s more that the force they wield in our community doesn’t make me feel safe.

We need a hyper-local approach to investing in infrastructure to address issues of violence and also putting people in the community to work taking care of the buildings and parks that are falling apart. We have to engage the people in the community so that they feel like it is theirs, instead of contractors coming into the community from different places.

You’ve written that you think that police are inherently a racist, white supremacist organization. Is it impossible to imagine a police department in a place like New York being led by a Black police chief, with Black leadership commensurate with the size of the African American population in the city, and where street officers actually come from the neighborhoods where they are patrolling? Is it impossible to imagine a police department that is not a racist, white supremacist organization?

It’s not impossible to imagine. But I will say that to believe that corrupt or brutal policing is only enacted by white officers wouldn’t be true to history. The mere fact that we may have more Black folks, or brown folks, or people who live in the community as police officers doesn’t necessarily mean that police will be less brutal. Maybe they will. Maybe. But I also know that there’s evidence to show that they have been just as, and sometimes much more, brutal.

Here’s the thing. Policing, just like any organization, has a corporate culture. You know that no matter where you are, you’re either going to become embedded into that corporate culture or you’re going to be a rebel to that culture. And if you’re a rebel to that culture, well, then your time is going to be either really short or very difficult. Look at Edwin Raymond. You know the officer, the Black guy from Brooklyn who exposed all these bad things happening in the department. He received death threats from inside the police department. So I’m just saying that, of course, we can imagine a future where policing isn’t what we see today, just like I can imagine a world without prison. But I also have a right to say I don’t believe that policing will be the tool that gets us where we need to go. I don’t see policing as an institution being separate from corruption and brutality. I’ve seen police do the same thing in Trinidad, in Jamaica, in Ghana, in South Africa. There is a brutality to that corporate culture that always will clash with civility.

I want to talk a little bit about what we should do now to combat the uptick in violence in New York. You have written: “There is no Batman with a never-ending utility belt of crime-fighting tools. Community based programs aimed at prevention and intervention are the Caped Crusader.” So if we want to reduce community violence, where would you be making investments, if you were the mayor?

We obviously need to invest in community-based approaches to violence. Where we are at, in New York City, harkens back to the late 70s and early 80s in terms of businesses being in shambles, stores boarded up, graffiti everywhere. I think we need a hyper-local approach to investing in infrastructure to address issues of violence and also putting people in the community to work taking care of the buildings and parks that are falling apart. We have to engage the people in the community so that they feel like it is theirs, instead of contractors coming into the community from different places. 

Going forward, we also need to look for ways to reduce the militaristic form of policing. I think about the police and the way they dress, and the way that they look, and the weapons that they carry—those things are meant to intimidate. It’s unnecessary. There’s been an increase in shootings, yes, but this is not a war zone. I think the militaristic nature of the police culture incites an angst inside of these communities. I am thinking about ways to no longer have a need for police. That’s what abolition is, the need to no longer have police. But I’m also thinking about ways to incrementally shift how police approach their business on a daily basis—how they look, how they dress, and the weapons that they walk around with.

I don't think 2021 will be much better in the realm of community violence

A number of the candidates for mayor in New York City have spoken favorably about the Cure Violence model and expressed a desire for more violence interruption. I spoke with Jeffrey Butts at John Jay College not long ago, and he said that while he thinks Cure Violence is worthy of further investment, we are a long way from being able to say that we know for certain that the model works and is evidence-based. He also expressed the concern that Cure Violence has almost become like a religion where you can’t even criticize it. I’m curious, do you feel like people are starting to treat Cure Violence like it’s above reproach?

No, I definitely don’t think that. I even criticize Cure Violence at times for different things.

If you could wave a magic wand and improve one thing about Cure Violence, what would it be?

I think we need a way for the people who are working as violence interrupters to be able to rise out of [these jobs]. I think there’s a lot of re-traumatization happening. As a violence interrupter, I’ve seen that firsthand. Folks shouldn’t stay in those roles beyond a certain amount of time.  

Cure Violence itself is a model of suppression: Stop the violence, move on. You can stop beefs, and that’s obviously huge. You save lives when you stop beef. But you’re not addressing the underlying reason a lot of people have beef in the first place. I think New York has done a good job with trying to take a more holistic approach with the wraparound models. 

I also think Cure Violence has to be aware that it needs to be able to constantly rebrand itself. When I came home a decade ago, Cure Violence was cool. After a while, you just some old dudes, and it’s not as effective. It doesn’t speak to what young people are dealing with now. I can see S.O.S. becoming corny. I can see young people saying, “I don’t want to wear that shirt. That’s old. My father used to be down with that.” That’s another reason why violence interrupters need to be able to be moved up and out into other and bigger things.

Part of the goal of this series is to try to bridge the research-practice divide and make sure that researchers are asking the right questions about community violence in New York City. Are there questions about community violence that you wish you had answers to but don’t right now? Where should folks like Butts be focusing their energies?

I think we need a lot more [knowledge] about the education space and the interactions with school and community. How do you mitigate and eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline? At what age should we be engaging young people? What’s really bothering them?I think those of us who’ve been in the criminal justice space don’t really understand what education leaders understand. I think that’s a major piece of the puzzle that we should look into and interrogate.

Anything that I missed? Anything else you want to say on this subject?

Actually, yes.I don’t think 2021 will be much better in the realm of community violence. I was walking outside early this morning, and I was looking at streets that I know. And they’re barren. The stores are boarded up. And I see graffiti and all that sort of stuff. And I thought to myself, “If I was sixteen, how would I react to this store that’s just shut up?” And it seems like a field day right now. Because people aren’t really doing anything. There’s nothing for people to do. There’s also less money around. So young people are congregating in weird places with alcohol, with weed, and with all these different types of opiates now. When you have those sorts of things clouding your mind, it can lead to a lot of really opportunistic harm. I just think that it could become a little bit more dangerous this year because of that.

You started this last statement by talking about graffiti and boarded-up buildings. To my ears—

No, it’s not broken windows.

It sounds an awful lot like broken windows.

Well, here’s the thing about the broken windows theory. The reason why it was wrong was the way it was implemented, or the way that [former New York Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani spoke about it. It said that police had to come in and they’re the ones that are going to take care of things from a law enforcement perspective. I think we need to take care of the boarded-up windows and such, but not through enforcement. What I’m saying is that we should invest at a hyper-local level and get people in the communities who have a vested interest involved in taking care of things. I think that approach is different, and you are more likely to get buy-in from it.


Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).

Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


Previous At the Crossroads interviews:
At The Crossroads June 10, 2021

“True Equity Means Everyone’s Life Has Equal Value”: A Conversation with Shani Buggs

By Greg Berman

Dr. Shani Buggs
Dr. Shani Buggs

In 2019, The New York Times discovered a new trend: “Gun Research Is Suddenly Hot,” the paper of record declared. One of the up-and-coming gun researchers featured in the story is Shani Buggs, an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis.

Dr. Buggs completed her doctorate in health and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. In Baltimore, she studied community-based violence prevention programs and measured public attitudes about guns and the criminal justice system. She also worked with the Baltimore mayor’s office, the police department, and other city agencies to enhance local violence reduction strategies and policies. This work has led to her growing visibility in the field, including a recent call to consult with White House Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice and other Biden officials about how to reduce gun violence.

The following conversation took place in late March, not long after violent incidents in Boulder, Colorado, and Atlanta returned mass shootings to the front pages of newspapers around the country. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Greg Berman: What is your origin story? How did you get involved in this field?

Shani Buggs: Prior to my current career, I spent a decade in corporate management. I found myself working for a healthcare firm in Atlanta that began to venture into the workplace-wellness space. I was helping individuals with lifestyle change and behavior modification. I decided that public health was absolutely where I wanted to be and that I wanted to obtain a master’s in public health. So, I enrolled in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This was the summer of 2012.  

I arrived in Baltimore with a heightened awareness of violence in the city, because as I was moving from Atlanta, people expressed concern about my safety based on The Wire. And then, just a couple of weeks into my program, a gunman shot up a movie opening in rural Colorado, and the national media was transfixed by that tragedy. I was very aware that there were regular shootings happening in Baltimore and that it was not even garnering local attention. And so I was really shocked and outraged by the disproportionate attention and response to shootings depending on who was shot, where they were shot, and who the media and policymakers and the general public saw as being deserving of sympathy and attention. 

I happened to be at Johns Hopkins, which at the time was the one academic institution in the country that had a research center devoted to gun violence. And so I shifted my focus to gun-violence prevention. This was 2012, and the conversation about gun violence as a public health issue was still very much a fringe idea. I shifted my graduate studies and ultimately my entire career. I decided to stay at Hopkins beyond my master’s program. I was accepted to the doctoral program and continued to train and work with folks in Baltimore thinking about violence reduction and prevention. For a couple of years, I worked in the mayor’s office, helping the city to coordinate their violent crime reduction strategy.

We know that some types of violence increased in many American cities over the past year. But my sense is that the pattern is not uniform—some places it’s up a lot, some places it’s up a little bit, and in some places it’s flat. Have you taken a step back and looked at the city-by-city numbers? What jumps out at you?

I think the thing of greatest interest is how consistently violence has spiked in cities around the country. Gun violence increased while we started to see lower rates of theft and lower rates of robbery and lower rates of rape. To your point, the data is still coming out, and we know that every city did not experience the same rate of increase, but many cities saw large spikes.

Where we saw spikes in gun violence were places that had previously experienced higher than average rates of gun violence and that had all of the social factors that are associated with gun violence —high rates of unemployment, high rates of poverty, high rates for criminal justice contact, housing insecurity, food insecurity.

There’s a lot to unpack, and it will take months or years for us to really be able to untangle all of the many factors that were associated with last year’s increase. I have some theories and some ideas, but it is going to take some time before we’re able to really understand what was at play.

Don’t make me wait. Give me a theory or two.

So, where we saw spikes in gun violence were places that had previously experienced higher than average rates of gun violence and that had all of the social factors that are associated with gun violence —high rates of unemployment, high rates of poverty, high rates for criminal justice contact, housing insecurity, food insecurity. The pandemic and the shutdown severed social ties and economic ties for many individuals. Different from other economic downturns, the pandemic really hit certain employment sectors and certain subpopulations differently. We’ve seen higher-income positions bounce back better than what we’ve seen for individuals who are at the lowest rung of economic opportunity and financial stability. And you also had social supports that were basically shut down. Violence intervention strategies were curbed. Job training, subsidized employment, mentoring, case management, financial assistance, social assistance—those were all shut down. And then the fear and anxiety and frustration over the coronavirus and the lack of trust in institutions among communities of color—I think all of those things came together in a perfect storm kind of way.

I wonder whether you could talk for a second about what you see as the links between a history of discriminatory policy making and the communities where we see high rates of gun violence?

There’s a direct through-line. We have not invested in communities of color for decades. There’s been research done on the relationship between redlining and the discriminatory housing practices of the 1930s and 1940s and how that relates to gun violence today. We continue to see that relationship, but we have not done enough research into that relationship. Increasingly, there are more people starting to connect historical factors to contemporary phenomena, particularly as they relate to structural racism. The communities that have been the least invested in and the least supported through financial opportunity, through housing stability, through quality educational systems, and through the development of our children—those are the same communities that are experiencing high rates of gun violence today.

I’ve seen some data that suggests that there’s been an increase in gun sales over the past year. Do you think that has any relationship to increases in gun violence around the country?

It’s an important question that we don’t yet know the answer to. We know that gun sales have increased, but the data available do not tell us anything about who’s buying the guns. Researchers are trying to better understand if the increase in gun sales translates to increases in gun violence. I think that’s still to be determined. What we do know is that in the communities that are experiencing high rates of gun violence, firearms are still far too prevalent, including firearms that were illegally possessed, illegally sold, and trafficked into these communities prior to March of 2020. We don’t yet know how many more guns there are in these communities, but it was a problem before last year.

Let’s turn to Baltimore, and let’s start by talking about Cure Violence. This is a violence prevention model that has generated a lot of excitement in recent years. It is also a model that can be challenging to implement. How has the model fared in Baltimore?

The Cure Violence model, and the theory behind it, we don’t know if it actually works in every community and every city. I think what we saw in Baltimore is that there were some communities where the nature of the violence fit that model, but other communities within Baltimore where it did not. 

The Cure Violence model was designed in the 1990s with the understanding that violence is contagious. It was also designed with the understanding that if you can intervene with group leaders, you can then use the social and political capital of those leaders to help curb violence among their followers. 

Violence has evolved in a number of different ways since the 1990s. The Cure Violence model may not fit the times any more. In many cases, you don’t have structured, hierarchical groups with traditional leaders. That’s not what we see today. You have much more loosely formed, smaller groups that may be fighting against each other, even though they’re under the bigger umbrella of a known gang or group. 

Individuals carry today because it's better to be caught with a gun than to be caught without a gun. People carry weapons because they perceive that the system doesn't keep them safe.

On the other hand, there are elements of the model—having credible messengers to mediate conflict and connecting individuals to services and supports to address trauma and help create lifestyle change—that are absolutely important and should be strengthened and used more widely, in my opinion.

I think in many ways, where Cure Violence had success in Baltimore, it was really on the strength of the individuals leading it and doing the frontline work. There was little city investment up until the last couple of years. The program had been supported by grants, which meant that Cure Violence was a program rather than a network of services and support. It was just kind of operating on its own. There has to be greater support, and the city just didn’t provide that for the longest time. That is changing. I’m optimistic and hopeful. Because whether it’s Cure Violence, or focused deterrence, or a hospital-based violence intervention program—none of these programs can really be successful at creating sustained violence reduction without a broader infrastructure of support.

You were part of a team that did some survey research about the underground gun market in Baltimore. One of the findings that stood out for me was how many of the respondents said that they carried guns for protection because they felt vulnerable.

We did not ask for people’s status, but many of these were individuals who were very likely to be legally prohibited from carrying firearms. The fact that so many carry is alarming. They carry because they do not feel safe in their communities. And they carry despite knowing that there are legal risks if they get caught, although some of the research that we’ve done suggests that the legal consequences of carrying in Baltimore are inconsistent. But we have also learned that increased penalties for gun carrying do not necessarily impact day-to-day behavior. The research coming out of Chicago and coming out of the Center for Court Innovation in New York has been consistent: Individuals carry today because it’s better to be caught with a gun than to be caught without a gun. People carry weapons because they perceive that the system doesn’t keep them safe. That’s the real story.

You’ve expressed some skepticism about the deterrent effect of policing. You’ve also talked in other forums about the harms that over-policing can do. I’m wondering whether you think that there is a role for police to play in attempting to respond to the recent increase in gun violence.

I believe that people should be held accountable for their actions. I believe individuals who do harm must be held accountable. There needs to be deterrent effects for risky behaviors, such as carrying a firearm. I also have healthy skepticism that policing, as structured today, is the appropriate deterrent for what I’ve just described.  

We have handed over the idea of public safety to police. All the police can do is respond after something happens. Or they can occupy a neighborhood and be visible to deter crime. But that’s not what keeps a community safe. I live in Sacramento. The police aren’t keeping my community safe. My community is safe because homes are stable, the environment is healthy, and there are opportunities for youth and for families. I’m not trying to paint this rosy, idyllic picture, but it’s true. 

We also need to be investing in researchers who are engaging in community-based, participatory research that is not just extracting information from the community or studying individuals in the community as subjects.

I think the conversation needs to focus on the fact that policing is not serving communities equally. What we have seen, over and over again, is the harm done by unethical policing. We need to be thinking about how to invest in the kinds of supports that allow for communities to stay together and stay safe and healthy. But it can’t be an either/or conversation, because we still have harm being done today. And we don’t have alternate systems right now other than law enforcement. If someone is harmed right now, the only number that I can call is 911. I can’t access a credible messenger. I can’t access a community paramedic. I can’t access non-traditional mental health workers who can deescalate or support someone who’s having a mental health crisis. So we have to talk about the systems that we have today, but we also need to recognize that police don’t prevent violence, police respond to violence.

So we’ve talked about the need to reform the criminal justice system. I’d like to pivot and talk about the ways that your field needs to reform going forward. How do researchers need to change in order to stay relevant and to pursue an agenda that’s truly responsive to the problems on the ground?

I’ll start with policing because that’s where we just left off. There are communities of color that have for decades said the police do not keep us safe. We have ignored that. And even today in the conversations around what we do about policing, we’re continuing to ignore a non-trivial percentage of the population that are saying these people that you keep sending my way don’t help me feel safe and they actually cause more harm. Ignoring those voices is effectively saying we don’t value you in the same way that we value these other voices that say keep sending the police. That has to change. True equity means everyone’s life has equal value. We need to recognize that we have not valued a large number of people in our community. There are a number of researchers who have been centering community voices, but the field overall has not. And there are a number of reasons why that may be true. The ivory tower is a barrier in and of itself. There is also the fact that we have focused on criminal justice outcomes, as they relate to violence prevention, rather than on health and wellbeing. If all we’re doing is looking at whether the homicide numbers went up or down, then we’re not thinking about the societal costs of the interventions.  

There’s also a problem with one- or two-year grant cycles. Some of the problems we are dealing with are decades in the making. We’re not going to solve these problems with some quick studies and some quick intervention. So we need to have long-term investments in longitudinal studies that allow for community-based, community-driven strategies to gain footing, to have growing pains, and to really support the community in ways that are healing and transformative. We also need to be investing in researchers who are engaging in community-based, participatory research that is not just extracting information from the community or studying individuals in the community as subjects.

One of the things I have learned from doing community-based work is that communities don’t speak with one voice. Within any given community, you’ve got people who hate the police. And you’ve got people who want more police. So engaging the community is not a simple matter because the community is not going to speak uniformly about issues like safety and policing that are incredibly complicated. In the desire to listen to the folks who say “The police aren’t making me safe,” we shouldn’t compound the error by ignoring those who say, “The police do make me safe.”

Absolutely. It’s messy like democracy is messy. But we have to give equal voice and equal attention to the many different voices in our community and the values that they’re expressing, presuming that these are anti-racist and equitable values that they’re expressing. As it relates to research, it takes time to do community-based participatory research.

I’m hopeful that for the first time, we will have large-scale investments at the federal level into communities, specifically for violence prevention that doesn't look like more law enforcement, more punishment, more oppression.

It takes time to engage communities in a meaningful way. If people are saying, “I absolutely want the police,” we need to be asking them what they are getting from that safety and have an honest conversation about that, but we cannot ignore the people who say, “The police don’t keep me safe.”

Are you feeling optimistic or pessimistic as you look to the next year or two in terms of gun violence? You started off by saying that you were attracted to this field, at least in part, because you saw that some victims got more attention than others. Arguably we’re seeing that dynamic play out right now with a lot of attention to recent shootings in Boulder and Atlanta and not so much attention to the more quotidian victims of violence in places like Baltimore, Chicago, and New York.

Unfortunately, it feels like we haven’t learned lessons from last year. If you look at Atlanta and Boulder, I already know more about the victims in Boulder than I know about the victims in Atlanta.

Why is that? I don’t hear the media talking about that. I don’t hear them talking about the 15 people shot at a pop-up party in Chicago last weekend, or the five people shot in Philadelphia over this weekend. The mass shooting conversation that’s happening right now is maddening to me because the definition that is being used—four or more killed when the shooter is perceived to be a stranger—erases the trauma that is experienced from shootings that don’t meet this criteria. When multiple people are shot in any given experience, regardless if four or more die, the experience of everybody involved is not trivial. It matters. There needs to be attention and resources placed there. I’ve been disheartened by the way the last couple of weeks have played out in the media. The shootings in Atlanta and Boulder have just dwarfed the conversation about community violence. 

But there are glimmers of hope. There are conversations happening at the federal level with both the White House and Congress around investing in community violence prevention. I’m hopeful that for the first time, we will have large-scale investments at the federal level into communities, specifically for violence prevention that doesn’t look like more law enforcement, more punishment, more oppression.

Different cities around the country are thinking about how to do safety differently. How do we actually invest in people’s safety rather than invest in their failure? It gives me hope. I’m hopeful that we can continue to think more broadly about what safety looks like, who deserves to be safe, and how we hold everyone accountable for wrongdoing, including those who were supposed to be in charge of making policy that keeps us safe.


Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).

Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


Previous At the Crossroads interviews:
At The Crossroads May 13, 2021

“We’re Losing a Sense of Accountability”: A Conversation with Richard Aborn

By Greg Berman

Richard Aborn
Richard Aborn

Richard M. Aborn has been a player in the New York City criminal justice world since 1979, when he began his legal career as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. In the 1990s, Aborn served as president of Handgun Control, Inc. (now the Brady Campaign) and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, using these platforms to advance gun control legislation. In 2009, he ran unsuccessfully for Manhattan District Attorney.

Aborn currently serves as the president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization that works with law enforcement, government agencies, community-based organizations, and academia to improve public safety through innovation. He is a managing partner of the law firm Constantine Cannon.

Much of Aborn’s work over the years has focused on reforming the New York City Police Department. In 1999, he was commissioned to conduct an investigation of the NYPD’s disciplinary system, as well as its response to civilian complaints of misconduct. He was also commissioned to investigate the NYPD’s disciplinary decisions concerning the officers involved in the 1999 fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo. 

As he surveys the current landscape, Aborn is deeply concerned about the rising levels of violence in New York City—and the negative impact of the movement to defund the police.

This At the Crossroads conversation between Aborn and Greg Berman, the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, is framed around two inter-related crises now facing New York City: the urgent need to improve both public safety and police legitimacy. The discussion, which took place in mid-April, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Greg Berman: We’ve gotten to a point where no one really denies that there is a problem of increased violence in New York. But we’re now dealing with a war of competing narratives about how to explain the increase in violence. I’m hoping that you can help me parse the conflicting stories. You’ve got Mayor Bill de Blasio blaming the courts. You’ve got the NYPD pinning it on too much criminal justice reform. You’ve got the advocacy community saying, “Don’t even suggest that bail legislation was responsible.” You’ve got everyone pointing the finger at COVID. What’s your sense of what’s really going on out there?

The expression that we have a ‘problem’ with violence is really an understatement. I think we are now getting close to a crisis of violence. It is obviously well past a blip.

Richard Aborn: Nothing like starting out with an easy question. First of all, I think the expression that we have a “problem” with violence is really an understatement. I think we are now getting close to a crisis of violence. It is obviously well past a blip. The current trend is exceeding the trend from last year, which was already a sharp reversal of the declines from previous periods. So I think we’re in a crisis moment, and I’m very worried about it.

The truth of the matter is that no one knows what the real cause of the rise in violence is. It probably has multiple causes. In thinking about the rise in crime, one needs to go back to mid-2019, so that’s pre-pandemic. And we begin to see some uptick in serious crimes. Not a sharp rise, but a definite rise. That uptick comes down when we go into lockdown and then goes right back up as we start to come out of lockdown in mid-2020. And then we get these terrible shootings that start, which continue unabated, and in fact are increasing to this day.

The bulk of the conversation about criminal justice in New York City in recent years has been about much-needed reforms—what laws are we getting rid of, how are we reining in police behavior, what cases shouldn’t be prosecuted, where is jail no longer being imposed? All of these reforms are geared towards de-emphasizing the involvement of the criminal justice system. Now a lot of that is very healthy, but what I’m concerned about is whether this de-emphasis on accountability has signaled that we’re taking our foot off the gas on violent crime. If you commit violent crimes, the system should respond.

We have lost some of that, both in reality and in the narrative. And I think that’s one of the things that’s leading to the rise in crime. This goes back to 2018 when we started decriminalizing marijuana, de-emphasizing quality-of-life enforcement, talking about bail reform, closing Rikers…. We did all of these things which sent a message of decreased accountability. If one believes in deterrence theory, in essence, it means you believe that people engage in a risk analysis before they commit crime: “Is there a high likelihood that I’m going to be apprehended and punished if I engage in criminality?”

Two of the people that I’ve talked to so far for this series, Jeffrey Butts and Marlon Peterson, are very dismissive of the idea that people on the street are making the kind of nuanced calculation that you just described. Are people really saying to themselves, “Oh, I wasn’t going to carry a gun, but I just read in the New York Times that bail reform passed, so now I’m going to carry a gun”?

I think that the would-be offending population is actually quite aware of what’s going on. We do know from the research that visible policing can act as a deterrent to crime. If visible policing does act as a deterrent, that reinforces the notion that if people perceive the risk of apprehension, they’re not going to engage in criminality. Why do they perceive the risk of apprehension? Because they see cops out there doing their job. My worry now is that we’re focused strictly on reforms, plenty of which I’ve supported and many of which are very necessary, but some of which go too far. I think we’re losing a sense of accountability.

Is the 2019 bail legislation an example of a reform that goes too far?

Some of the problems with that particular piece of legislation have already been fixed, but I think one of the big mistakes we made was not giving judges discretion to consider dangerousness to the community, as is done in the federal system. I think that part of the bail statute needs to be amended. The bail reform discussion is a classic example of what I’m talking about. Because I think a lot of people perceive that there’s no longer bail for any offense, that you just get arrested and you get released. I think that’s a common understanding.

Violent crime is now reaching a crisis level. I’m using the word “crisis” with precision. People are becoming very alarmed about the rise in violence.

One of the narratives out there is that what we’re seeing is the consequence of police retreating from proactive policing. Do you think that’s a factor in the rise in violence?

Virtually every time we’ve seen an uptick in crime, we hear this argument. And the true answer is that, I don’t know. I don’t know if the cops are pulling back or not. But let’s be honest, the police have been the target of an enormous campaign against them. The New York City Council is trying to make their job harder to do. There’s been a big effort to undermine their funding. Whether that is right or wrong, the police are going to personalize that. They’re human beings. We see record numbers of senior officers leaving the NYPD in droves. That’s a big problem. The experience is going out the door. It’s happening because cops are getting fed up with the amount of abuse they’re taking. 

Parenthetically, I should say that the cops have brought some of this on themselves. The cops need to change their behavior. I have no doubt about that. But at some point, the cops are going to say, “Enough is enough.” I mean, how much abuse can they take? Does that result in a slow down? It could.

You ran for Manhattan District Attorney a few years ago. I’m sure that you are following the current race for DA closely. I’m curious whether you share my sense that crime has not been a major issue in either the DA race or in the mayoral race thus far.

I think that would have been a fair characterization at the beginning of these races. But I think there is a shift taking place.Violent crime is now reaching a crisis level. I’m using the word “crisis” with precision. People are becoming very alarmed about the rise in violence. As we are having this discussion, we are now into our fifth week of a mass shooting having occurred in each of the preceding five weeks. And we’re doing this on the 14th anniversary of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, where some 32 people were killed. So the violence is very much in the air now, and I think you see a shift taking place among some of the candidates, both at the mayoral level and at the DA level, because people are getting very worried. 

I speak with a lot of the mayoral candidates and their staff and a lot of the DA candidates. Not all, but a lot of them. And I do detect a change in their attitude. I get more and more questions about how to respond to the sharp rise in violence. People are asking whether we have gone too far with reforms, whether we’ve gone too far with cutting back on cops. I’m getting many more of those questions now than I was getting three or four months ago.

Some of the criminal justice system’s most vocal critics don’t believe that we should be turning to police to help curb violence. Do you think that there is a role for the police to play in addressing violence?

One hundred percent. I think they’re the first line of defense. They absolutely have a role. If we’re talking about responding to violent incidents and trying to deter violence, of course they have a role. Do they have the sole role? No. I think the responsibility for curbing violence is a city function and that all of the relevant city agencies need to be involved with that, not just the police. But I do think the police will continue to have the primary role for the foreseeable future. I think we need to think about how we structure the police. I think that needs to undergo significant reform. But I really don’t see the police being taken out of this role.

My read of the research is that the evidence is pretty strong that proactive policing makes a difference. Do you have a different take on the research?

Neighborhoods want cops, they understand the safety that comes from having cops, but they want much more respectful policing to address things like bias and over-aggressiveness.

Not at all. I think the research around visible policing, hot-spot policing, and precision policing all show effectiveness. But I think the second layer to the conversation has to be asking the question: How much harm is done in the execution of what the police do? And I think that’s where we’ve gone astray. The NYPD generally gets pretty high marks for helping with violence, but very low marks on bias questions. And I think that’s the problem we need to address. As I move around different communities, I don’t hear a big cry to get police out of neighborhoods. What I hear is that neighborhoods want cops, they understand the safety that comes from having cops, but they want much more respectful policing to address things like bias and over-aggressiveness.

So let’s pivot and talk a little bit about the challenges of police legitimacy. What are the signs that indicate to you that there is a crisis of legitimacy for police right now?

I’ve been saying now for close to a year that we’re experiencing twin crises. We have a crisis of rising violence and a crisis of legitimacy. That’s a toxic mix. The political manifestation of the crisis of legitimacy is when the New York City Council starts to defund the NYPD. They’re doing that because the police have lost their legitimacy with the public—

Let me just interrupt you there. The political class in our city has shifted to the left, and the movement to reduce the budget of the police is one indication of that. But I have some questions about how much the opinions of the general public have actually shifted on this issue. 

Well, one can only know the answer to that question at the next election—or by very astute polling. But what we do know is that elected officials generally engage in conduct that they believe is reflective of the desires of their constituencies. So at the very least, I think [the Council’s move to reduce the budget of the police] is reflective of where some people are.

Biden coming into office has created space, because the president's been saying ... that we have to engage in reforms, but we're not throwing out the cops while doing it.

I think the position of the public keeps shifting because of the rise in violence. I don’t think that the public dislikes or rejects the police as much as the actions of the City Council would indicate. But I do think there’s deep concern within communities about police legitimacy, and that’s being reflected. Political leadership will respond to the loudest voices. And the loudest voices right now are all about denigrating the ability of the police department to do the work that it needs to do. 

There’s no question that until relatively recently, there’s been a bit of a binary in the public dialogue: Either you’re pro-cop or you’re anti-cop. There hasn’t been the room to say that there are reforms that are very needed while still arguing that there’s a legitimate role for police. I think that window is now opening up, which is healthy. I find reporters asking more balanced questions. And I notice more and more of what they’re printing tends to be a little more balanced. I also think, frankly, that Biden coming into office has created space, because the president’s been saying what many of us have been saying, which is that we have to engage in reforms, but we’re not throwing out the cops while doing it.

One of things that the NYPD is famous for is CompStat, their computerized system that uses data to identify problem areas and promote precinct-level accountability. Is CompStat part of the solution or part of the problem when it comes to the crisis of police legitimacy?

When it was first introduced, CompStat really was a game-changer. When Commissioner [William] Bratton came in, he understood that centralizing power at police headquarters was not an effective way to control crime in the streets. Instead, he sought to empower precinct captains who knew their own crime patterns best and give them control over the deployment of their own resources. CompStat became the way to recognize crime patterns but also to hold police leaders accountable for the extra authority they had been given. So yes, they had been given much more authority, but they were then held accountable for getting results. CompStat became a way of creating a results-driven organization.

CompStat is one of the best ways to drive change, but it’s got to be measuring actual activity that’s taking place. CompStat can be a way of articulating the values of a police agency by articulating what it’s going to measure. In policing, the famous mantra, “inspect what you expect,” reigns supreme.

I've long been a proponent of expanding the metrics so that the police department measures the things that we really want police to do to build legitimacy … And I don't believe that's being done, at least not in any systematic way.

So would your argument be that we need to change what the NYPD is counting?

I’ve been saying that for years. Metrics are very important in policing. Policing agencies are quasi-military organizations. The cops are going to do what you ask them to do. If you measure the number of summonses, arrests, et cetera, that’s what you’re going to get. I’ve long been a proponent of expanding the metrics so that the police department measures the things that we really want police to do to build legitimacy. Things such as positive interactions with the public, the ability to de-escalate conflicts, and the ability to engage in developing joint remedial plans with neighborhood leadership, et cetera, et cetera. We need to develop metrics that allow the department to take into account those sorts of police activities in addition to measuring the more traditional things that the department looks at. And I don’t believe that’s being done, at least not in any systematic way.

You’ve written recently about the differences between having a police force and a police service. If the NYPD were to become a police service, what would the implications be out on the street?

I think it could be huge. At the core of converting from a police force to a police service lie two notions. One, that policing agencies should be much more service-oriented, and secondly, that we need to change the composition of who we are recruiting into the agency. In a police service, in addition to looking for enforcers, we would also recruit people that have a variety of skills that are very relevant to urban policing. We would look to bring in people that understand conflict resolution, that have training in de-escalation, that understand family dynamics. We would bring in people that have mental health backgrounds. We would bring in people that understand urban architecture. We would bring people that have social work backgrounds. We would bring in skills that are much more people-centric, much more focused around resolving issues rather than strictly enforcement. 

The reason that I think that would have a beneficial impact is that we know from data that training around police bias can impact the knowledge that police have towards bias, but that it doesn’t necessarily change behavior. What does change behavior is facilitating positive interaction between different groups, in this case, the police and communities of color. In the model that I’m proposing, you’d have much more interaction in a much more positive way. We know the same thing about aggressiveness: The more you interact with a given group, the less likely you are to be aggressive with that group.

There are long-term issues that the police can't address. They can't fix housing. They can’t fix the schools. But there are short-term issues which the police can be trained to identify and then act as a coordinating agency to bring in the other agencies of government.

The third piece, which is premature to move forward at the moment because there is so much concern about the cops, is that I would also get the police more focused on prevention. Of all the agencies of city government, the police probably have the most consistent and in-depth look at the issues that are driving crime. Why? Because they’re responding to them day in and day out. And they are interfacing with individuals that commit crimes and with the families that those individuals come from, on a daily basis. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched a notion for police to begin exploring the short-term drivers of crime. The causes of crime are embedded in deep, long-term social issues: homelessness, food insecurity—

Pause there for a second. I hear versions of this argument a lot—that what causes crime is poverty. But we’ve just undergone a dramatic transformation over the past 30 years in New York. Public safety has improved dramatically during those years, but we haven’t made significant progress in reducing poverty. Does that complicate the idea that what’s driving criminal behavior is poverty?

I think if you look at where crime is coming from in New York, it tends to be the more impoverished areas. So I believe there’s absolutely some connection [between crime and poverty]. You have youth that have suffered deep trauma because of the violence they have seen. You have schools where there is violence and instability. You have acute joblessness and an acute lack of hope.

I don’t disagree with any of that. But I guess I am skeptical about the notion that we can’t make a meaningful dent in crime unless and until we somehow magically transform society and end racism and poverty and a host of other ills.

That’s good, because if you did believe that, you’d be wrong. Over the last 20 years, we have sustained reductions in crime through some very tough economic conditions in New York. What I’m suggesting is that there are two levels. There are long-term issues that the police can’t address. They can’t fix housing. They can’t fix the schools. But there are short-term issues which the police can be trained to identify and then act as a coordinating agency to bring in the other agencies of government.

Do you worry that the vision you’re articulating can be read as essentially expanding the remit of the police at a moment when many people want to defund the agency?

That’s exactly why I say it’s premature right now. But what we have failed to wrestle with is that no matter how many reforms we do, the cops are still going to be there. We’re not going to disband the police department. I’m sorry, that’s just not going to happen. So we really better focus on how police agencies are structured, because if we don’t do that, I promise you, ten years from now, we’ll be having this exact same conversation.

I’m somewhat optimistic that in the next few years we will see a bunch of criminal justice reforms put in place. I think that we’ll see significant movement toward improving police practice and shrinking the negative footprint of the police. But I guess my concern is that many people will look at this as a failure, because it will read as incremental reform rather than transformative change.

I think there’s another factor that will be part of the calculus about whether we succeed or not and whether your optimism is warranted.It is not happenstance that all the efforts that we’re currently experiencing around police reform have occurred at a moment when crime was at a record low.It’s not a coincidence. What I’m concerned about is that many of the good reforms that we’re putting into place will be lost if violent crime continues unabated. I think you will then see a backlash and we could see many of the reforms reversed. Already the number of people that are getting bail instead of being released on violent offenses is going up.

But given your concern that bail reform went too far, wouldn’t your argument be that this increase is appropriate?

I’m not knocking the increase. If people are getting bail in appropriate violent offenses, I don’t have a problem with that. But people are saying we should get as few people at Rikers as possible. What I’m saying is that you can’t achieve that if violent crime continues to go up. What happens with violent crime over the next three or four years will have a lot to do with setting the pathway forward. 

What’s been lost in the public debate, because we have very short memories, is that, because of the good work of groups like the one you used to lead [the Center for Court Innovation], and numerous other nonprofit organizations, going into 2019, we had record low numbers of arrests in the city of New York, record low numbers of people at Rikers, and record low numbers of state prisoners. All of the data was trending in the right direction. Cooperation between the cops and the community was going up. The neighborhood policing program was catching on. Contrary to all expectations, cops were applying to be in that program. Things were really going in the right direction, and then it just blew up. We’re now a full year into rapidly rising violent crime. Right now, violent crime is up 20% over last year, and last year was up 50% over the previous year.

[Do] people perceive that the criminal justice system writ large—police, prosecution, courts—is responding in the way it should. Or has accountability been lost?

What do you think is the biggest misconception that the public or the media has about the uptick in violence in New York City?

I don’t think they have a misconception. I think they are perceiving the uptick quite accurately. We see crime rising on the subways. We see numerous more cases of shots being fired. The murder rate is rising. People are also correctly perceiving that we’re seeing a record number of illegal guns being seized in the city. Now does that mean there are a record number of illegal guns in the city, or is it just that more guns are being seized? We don’t know. But we do know that 2020 was a record year for gun sales nationwide, and generally as gun sales go up, we see more illegal guns in New York. And 2021 is continuing to see that record rise in the sale of guns. So that’s a big issue. I think people are correctly perceiving all of that. I think the question around correct perception is whether or not people perceive that the criminal justice system writ large—police, prosecution, courts—is responding in the way it should. Or has accountability been lost? I think you’re seeing a rise in the sense that people can act with impunity in New York. And that’s problematic, but that’s something that can be reversed.

I think there’s a social justice analysis, which I largely buy into, that argues that the criminal justice system has been a tool of oppression against Black people in this country, that it has been the sharp end of the stick enforcing an unjust social order. I also think there’s a lot of truth to the argument that there are conditions in the world—poverty, racism, mental illness and such—that contribute to criminal behavior. And then there’s the reality of the criminal justice system, which operates on a case-by-case basis, having to assess the criminal responsibility of each individual defendant. And I feel like those two things are in tension with each other. We are asking those within the criminal justice system to hold individuals to account, but also keep in the back of their mind these larger systemic issues. How should the history of racism in this country—or the fact that, through no fault of their own, some people are poorly educated or come from dysfunctional families—how should that influence the individual cop’s behavior on the street, the individual prosecutor’s decision whether to bring a case, and the individual judge’s decision about whether to detain a defendant?

You know, I actually don’t think they’re in tension. I believe that a system that is perceived as being just, transparent, and legitimate is a system that will be more highly respected and will encourage greater compliance with the law. I think when the system is perceived as being unfair and unjust, you see increased levels of criminality.

The more we can filter out racism in policing and the criminal justice system, the fairer the system will be both in reality and in perception. The more we can inject legitimacy and transparency into the system, the more the system will be accepted.

You’ve talked about the need for people to understand that they can’t act with impunity. But there are many who believe that any administration of punishment is essentially racist. Maybe I’m caricaturing this argument slightly. But only slightly. I do think there are many people who feel that if the system administers a punishment, that it’s doing a moral wrong.

If that’s what they’re really saying, then I sharply disagree. I understand the notion that a history of racism and injustice undermines the moral integrity of the system. The challenge is to address racism and restore justice. I think it’s very important for people to understand that bad acts have consequences; accountability is important. I think that’s a fundamental precept in keeping order in a society. Consequences must be proportional, swift, evenly applied, and hopefully remedial. Prison should be a very last resort, reserved only for those where necessary. Consequences must be administered in a fair and just manner, without regard to race. The more we can filter out racism in policing and the criminal justice system, the fairer the system will be both in reality and in perception. The more we can inject legitimacy and transparency into the system, the more the system will be accepted. That in turn makes the individual administration of justice easier to do. I think the effort to instill justice, legitimacy, and transparency into the system reinforces the ability to treat individual cases individually and fairly. The justice system really should be about individual rights and individual responsibility. Decisions should be made on an individual basis. If we’re starting to make those decisions because of fear of political repercussions or out of a desire to be politically correct, then we’re undermining fundamental justice.

Does how government discusses public safety impact public safety?

One last question: Are there areas where you think we need more information, more data, more research? If you had an army of criminologists at your disposal, where would you point them?

We started this conversation by talking about competing narratives. I’m fascinated with the intersection between narrative and crime. I think one of the interesting areas for someone to do some really good research is to start exploring more precisely the connections between narrative and rises or falls in crime. Put slightly differently, does how government discusses public safety impact public safety? For instance, in a time of heightened focus on reform and curtailing police activity, if government rhetoric is exclusively around reform and the ills being addressed by the reforms, and neglects to also discuss that, simultaneously, government is keeping a sharp focus on violent crime, does this negatively impact public safety? In my view, we’ve lost some of the foundations of deterrence, but the research around deterrence is mixed. Deterrence is based on a high likelihood of apprehension, i.e., the police doing their job, the certainty of prosecution, the administration of firm and swift justice. Not an emphasis on severity, but an emphasis on swiftness and certainty. We’ve lost some of that. What impact does that have on crime? I’d like to know the answer. If the way we narrate criminal justice policy has an impact on criminal behavior, we really need to understand that, and we need to make sure that we create narratives that have the highest likelihood of both serving justice and increasing public safety.


Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).

Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


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