Sherman Spears was shot at a friend’s apartment complex in East Oakland in 1989. Someone from the neighborhood had been seeking revenge on his friend, but found Spears first. He was struck by three bullets and hit his head as he fell to the ground, leaving him paralyzed.
As the 18-year-old lay in a hospital bed recuperating, he felt disoriented and scared about his future. His parents were distraught, his friends wanted revenge, and he didn’t feel like he could relate to the doctors and nurses. “I really didn’t have time to process what I was going through,” Spears recalled. “There was nobody I could really talk with about what was happening to me.”
While Spears adjusted to his new life, the experience of feeling lost in those first days remained vivid. A doctor connected him with Youth Alive, then a fledgling violence prevention organization in Oakland. With encouragement from the organization’s director, he began going to the hospital and meeting with other young victims of violence. He talked to them about what they were going through, physically and emotionally, and let them know what to expect. Before leaving, he’d give them his phone number and tell them to call any time.
The idea that Spears pioneered, of mentoring and supporting gunshot and stab-wound victims immediately after they are injured, is today known as hospital-based violence intervention. The approach is now employed in dozens of hospitals around the country, and it’s one of a handful of models that experts say are proven to reduce shootings, particularly those that plague poor communities of color.
Yet for all their promise, programs targeting community gun violence have struggled to win funding and support from local, state, and federal officials. When cities have implemented these strategies, they’ve often done so inconsistently. Activists and organizers of color say there is a clear reason for the shortfall: The gun violence prevention movement, up to this point, has largely been defined by white progressives responding to mass shootings, and the deaths of white victims have overwhelmingly garnered more attention, resources, and sympathy than those of black and brown people. The disparity has left evidence-based approaches to bring down community gun violence lacking political and financial support.
But that may be starting to change as a growing number of states and cities pledge millions of dollars to fund gun violence prevention initiatives in communities of color most harmed by shootings. Last fall, the Republican governor of Maryland signed bipartisan legislation to fund gun violence reduction. In Illinois, crime survivors are pushing for more trauma recovery centers, which connect crime survivors with wraparound services. And in Virginia, lawmakers are marshaling Victims of Crime Act funds to establish hospital-based programs, like the one Spears’ initially conceived, at seven hospitals around the state. Cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Minneapolis have also created offices of violence prevention to oversee and coordinate local efforts to slow shootings.
The shift is particularly evident in California, where in June, Governor Gavin Newsom approved $30 million for California Violence Intervention and Prevention, or CalVIP, a statewide grant program. CalVIP supports local organizations that seek to reduce violence through interventions like mentoring, educational activities, job training, and therapy for black youth who’ve experienced violence. The funding infusion, up from $9 million, marks the largest in the program’s history.
Activists of color say the change is long overdue. “Victims of violence in communities have largely been seen as a problem for black folks, brown folks, poor folks to solve on our own,” said Michael McBride, a Bay Area pastor and director of LIVE FREE, a campaign that aims to stem urban violence and mass incarceration. “We have been for decades trying to raise the kind of strategies that we know, with proper support and funding, could save a lot of lives.”
The nascent investment in urban violence prevention is new, but the methods behind the strategies are not. Ad-hoc street outreach aimed at curbing gang violence in major American cities began more than 60 years ago, and gained attention in public policy circles at the peak of the nation’s homicide epidemic, in the 1990s. In those years, anti-violence activist Eddie Woods used to walk around housing projects in Louisville, Kentucky, trying to “get people not to kill each other.” Woods said he quickly realized to stop shootings, he needed to focus on the shooters. “It dawned on me that doing outreach in the community was like preaching to the choir until I started talking with the young people who carry the guns,” he told The Trace. “Those people weren’t in the room, and we needed to get an audience with them.”
Focusing on the individuals most likely to commit shootings is a core aspect of the evidence-based strategies gaining acceptance today. Three of the main models are hospital-based violence intervention, Cure Violence, and focused deterrence; all are grounded in the finding that in American cities, a small percentage of the population is responsible for the vast majority of violence. Intervening directly with those at highest risk for perpetrating shootings — or being shot themselves — has proven to help crack the cycle of violence and trauma.
David Kennedy, a criminologist and the architect of focused deterrence, noted that the models also share a few other things in common. They aim to “interrupt the street dynamic of retaliation and vendetta, and they try to mobilize the capacity of communities to establish norms and prevent violence.” They also try to keep participants safe and address their trauma.
“Not all of them work with law enforcement,” Kennedy added, “but the most effective do, and also work to build trust between communities and law enforcement and to minimize enforcement as much as possible.”
Focused deterrence was piloted as “Operation Ceasefire” more than two decades ago in Boston, where Kennedy and other researchers worked with police and outreach workers to identify groups of high-risk young men. They then addressed those men at “call-ins,” during which cops, service providers, and others conveyed that the violence needed to stop, and that they could connect them with support if they wanted it. The approach was credited with a dramatic drop in youth homicides and gun assaults, a decline that became known as the “Boston Miracle.”
Since its inception in 1996, focused deterrence has been implemented in dozens of cities. But funding is “almost always inadequate and temporary,” said Kennedy. As an example, he noted the budget troubles of Project Longevity, Connecticut’s version of the model, which operates in New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford. In New Haven, the approach has been associated with a 73 percent reduction in group-related shootings. Despite those numbers, Project Longevity has endured funding cuts over the past five years. In 2017, the state’s financial crisis left the group with no operating budget at all, forcing staffers to either quit or work unpaid for seven months. Just last month, the state restored full funding under pressure from legislators and advocates.
In Philadelphia, focused deterrence contributed to a 35 percent drop in shootings in three police districts, but it has received a small portion of the city’s overall violence prevention budget. Local journalist Larry Platt, writing after a brutal June weekend in which five people were killed and 23 others were shot and wounded, reflected on the lack of unified support among elected officials for proven approaches to curb violence, even as dollars flow to everything from mural painting projects to a boxing gym. “Philadelphia spends over $45 million on violence prevention programs of dubious effectiveness, yet Focused Deterrence, which pretty clearly works? We spend $130,000 on it,” wrote Platt.
There’s no mystery regarding which programs are most effective in reducing urban violence; the research has been around for at least 20 years. Kennedy offered an explanation as to why funding doesn’t follow the data. “It’s for a variety of reasons,” he said. “I think the primary one is that most victims are poor people of color. And, fundamentally, the country does not care very much about poor people of color.”
He offered a data point: Three weeks after last year’s mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the state budgeted nearly $100 million to “harden” schools. “The overwhelming proportion of victims of gun violence in Florida are young men of color,” Kennedy said. “Florida is not spending $100 million on their safety.”
Where evidence-based models have gained a foothold, it’s often been due to organizing and demands by people from communities most affected by gun violence. Over several years of false starts, Oakland tried to implement its own version of focused deterrence, but not in a sustainably funded, organized, or truly collaborative way. Finally, faith and community activists forced the city to take it seriously. In 2012, Oakland launched a new, coordinated strategy, which included the focused deterrence model. Over the next five years, the city experienced a 50 percent decline in shootings, and a 42 percent drop in homicides.
“The community brought the strategy to Oakland, and it was the community that kept it there,” said Reygan Cunningham, formerly the director of Oakland Ceasefire, at an annual conference held by the National Network for Safe Communities in June. “They’re the ones that made this important to elected officials.”
Since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, a handful of larger activist groups have driven much of the national conversation about gun violence prevention. Broadly, the missions of Brady, Giffords, and Everytown for Gun Safety have been to strengthen gun laws, including closing loopholes in the background check system, banning assault weapons, and promoting political candidates who support firearm regulations. (Everytown’s nonprofit arm provides grants to The Trace). Community-based strategies for reducing urban violence have not been among their highest priorities.
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Mike McLively is one of those leading the new charge. Around 2011, he read Don’t Shoot, Kennedy’s memoir about his work to reduce violent crime in urban neighborhoods. McLively was intrigued, and when he joined Giffords as a staff attorney a few years later, he asked the leadership if they worked on similar initiatives. “The response was basically like, ‘We are aware of it and we’re interested, but right now we don’t have the bandwidth to really support that work,’” he said. In 2015, representatives of Brady and Everytown told ProPublica that they supported strategies like focused deterrence, but that those programs didn’t fall in their purview.
McLively kept reading and thinking about the strategies, and had his chance to share them in a report on urban gun violence for Giffords in 2016. That report marked the start of the group’s formal support for community-based urban violence prevention, and was followed by others on the importance of public funding for such programs and a deep dive on Oakland’s remarkable turnaround. Giffords and Everytown now champion and amplify strategies for reducing community gun violence and are working to educate lawmakers and the broader public about them.
“Historically, our policy work has primarily focused on supporting gun safety legislation and opposing bills that would weaken gun laws,” said Everytown’s Sharon Cromwell, who joined the organization last year as its first city gun violence prevention manager. “We’re increasingly adopting a more comprehensive policy agenda that includes supporting victims of violence and programs that break the cycle of violence.” Boosting funding for CalVIP was one of Everytown’s top priorities in California this year. The organization says it’s also developing a website designed to help mayors and other civic leaders identify programs that might be a good fit for their locations.
“The movement as a whole is starting to realize how important urban violence prevention is, and make it a priority,” said McLively. “I think you’re going to start to see that more.”
At the same time, political candidates are also describing the gun violence issue in new terms. During the Obama administration, black faith leaders pushed Democratic lawmakers to make urban violence one of their issues, and were disappointed to be brushed off. But during the first Democratic debate this past June, when asked about assault weapons, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker deliberately framed their answers to focus on community violence. Booker and other candidates have mentioned plans to address the costs and trauma of urban gun violence as part of their policy platforms.
While they welcome the increased focus on urban shootings, advocates of color note the racial disparity that persists in who is leading, managing, and defining the discussion. “We as national black and brown-led organizations are left out of the national dialogue on the regular,” said Anthony Smith, executive director for Cities United, which helps mayors and cities create safer and healthier environments for young black men and boys. “You hear about Everytown, Giffords, and March for Our Lives. You don’t get to hear about Cities United, Good Kids Mad City, and LIVE FREE.”
Amber Goodwin was a former Capitol Hill staffer working at Americans for Responsible Solutions (which has since rebranded as Giffords) when a white supremacist armed with a Glock murdered nine black parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina, church, in 2015. After the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel, she began to look more closely at the racial dynamics of the movement. At the time, she said, she was one of the few people of color on the organization’s staff. “People who look like me are the ones who are dying,” she said. Yet, “we didn’t really have either our own table, or a seat at most of the decision-making tables.”
A year later, Goodwin started the Community Justice Reform Coalition, a nonprofit that champions people of color as leaders of the movement, along with policies that take the experiences of black and brown people into account. Goodwin and other advocates who spoke with The Trace acknowledged the movement’s progress, but also said there’s a long way to go. “It’s improving, but I don’t think we’re where we need to be,” said McBride. “Let’s say we’re on the 20-yard line — we haven’t crossed the middle of the field yet.”
In June, the National Network for Safe Communities hosted its annual conference on gun violence prevention in New York. McLively and Cromwell were there, along with hundreds of other local advocates and leaders. Speaking on a panel, McLively said that what he hears most often from community activists is that they lack funding. He said he hopes groups like Giffords can play a role in pushing lawmakers to secure more resources for them. “If we as a large national movement care about gun violence prevention, we have to also understand and be ambassadors for these strategies,” he said. “Politicians listen to us. We have this platform to educate them.”
At one point during the panel discussion, McLively looked into the audience, filled with a diverse array of longtime advocates from all over the country. “We’re late to the party, which we apologize for,” he said. “But here we are.”