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.

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