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.

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