Four years ago last week, police in Louisville, Kentucky, shot and killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor. Her death, the murder of George Floyd by police two months later in Minneapolis, and a long history of police killing Black people — and facing few consequences — sparked unprecedented demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice in 2020. But the protests sparked something else, too: a newfound wave of momentum for alternative approaches to public safety that don’t involve police.

Since then, there’s been massive investment in community violence intervention, from the federal level to states and local governments. The 2021 American Rescue Plan Act provided billions that cities and states could use for violence prevention, and the 2022 Safer Communities Act allocated $250 million specifically for community-based efforts. The funding has been used to support street outreach teams, hospital-based violence prevention initiatives, and other efforts to defuse violence.

Yet the work for advocates of CVI is ongoing. Though gun violence is down considerably from the highs it reached in 2020 and 2021, it still plagues communities across the country. Community Justice, a Black-led nonprofit that supports community-led violence prevention, recently published its 2023 Violence Prevention Index, a report that scores how 100 cities across the U.S. are doing at implementing comprehensive violence prevention. It found that local governments made progress last year, and that more municipalities are adopting offices of violence prevention.

Community Justice has been instrumental in expanding CVI nationwide. The organization pushed the White House and congressional lawmakers to expand funding for these strategies and launch a White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention. Community Justice’s former executive director now serves as the deputy director of that White House office.

I spoke with Amber Goodwin, who founded Community Justice in 2016, to get a sense of where the field of community violence intervention is today and where it’s going. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Chip Brownlee: Community violence intervention has been around for a long time, but the calls for it got a lot louder in 2020, along with calls for police reform. But the political momentum for police reform has fallen off. Do you think the momentum is still there for CVI?

Amber Goodwin: Absolutely. CVI was happening way before 2020. There have been people for decades screaming about this, but many of the voices of CVI workers and people on the ground were silenced for a very long time. In 2020, our voices were finally heard, as a result of people understanding what a public safety ecosystem needs to look like. I was just on a call with people in Bexar County, in the heart of Texas. They were talking about getting additional CVI funding with the commissioners’ support. We’re not slowing down by any stretch of the imagination. We’re only maintaining and expanding what we’ve already done. And when we talk to policymakers, when we talk to people in the community, and they learn about CVI, they’re excited about it. Part of our job as an organization, and our partners, is to continue to educate people and bring them in, especially during an election year, to understand what CVI is and how it works. 

What do the 2023 Violence Prevention Index’s findings say about the overall state of CVI today?

More municipalities and communities are taking comprehensive approaches to violence prevention, and that includes first and foremost working with the folks on the ground, front-line workers, and survivors. It’s a step in the right direction. The index just proves that there’s a lot of work that’s happening comprehensively across the board locally. 

I live in Austin, Texas, and we just got our first Office of Violence Prevention a couple of years ago. You can see people finding out and using best practices from cities and municipalities across the country. People are working together and thinking comprehensively about preventing violence: What are the root causes of violence? How are we addressing that? And how are we holding folks accountable to make sure that everybody has a part to play in preventing violence?

One of the conclusions that stood out to me in the index, though, was that “the vast majority of cities across the country are failing substantially to invest in a holistic public health approach.” Can you explain what led to that determination?

We’re just not there yet. You can see a disparity — there’s the top 10 or top 15 cities, and then you see a drop in other cities. We still have a long way to go. There’s been such tremendous, historic investments, but this index doesn’t just talk about funding. There’s a ton of money that’s out there that either hasn’t gotten to the ground or needs to get to the ground. This means that more cities need to take a comprehensive approach that addresses these root causes of violence.

With the increased investment in CVI, I felt like I was going to see the score increase a little bit more than it did. What do you think explains that?

Any increase is a great increase, because I think that an increase in a score here is lives saved. That’s the goal of all of this work collectively: to save lives and to make our communities safer through a public health approach. But a lot of the federal funding streams that lead to comprehensive approaches are just now being implemented. Or, in some cases, the money hasn’t hit the ground yet, whether it’s earmarks or statewide funding for CVI. We’re looking at these approaches, but also knowing that some of the funding is still yet to come.

Some funding, like that from the American Rescue Plan Act, is going to expire eventually. How do cities prepare for the ongoing sustainability of these programs?

Part of our goal is to hold policymakers accountable for continuing funding. The index is not just about who gets one-time funding or who gets ARPA dollars. It’s looking at communities that are sustaining funding. And so that’s the goal of a lot of this work, to make sure that CVI funding is in general funds — that it’s just part of the public safety ecosystem, the same way that we think about other parts of public safety ecosystems. 

We still have time to implement a lot of pilots and other projects through the ARPA dollars. We can expand upon the model. By the end of this year, the money needs to be allocated, but doesn’t need to be spent for two more years. There is an urgency, though. Millions of ARPA dollars still exist out there that have not been allocated. So that’s going to be a lot of our charge, and our partners’ charges across the country: to make sure that the ARPA money is allocated, and it’s adequate for what is needed in the field.

That’s the goal of all of this work collectively: to save lives and to make our communities safer through a public health approach.

What do you think are the most critical steps for policymakers and community leaders to take at this point?

Continue to listen, first and foremost, to the field. We’re going to continue to work with policymakers, but our job is also to hold them accountable. We will continue to have those conversations and make sure that they are implementing what they said they would and help them do that. Especially given that there is an election year coming up, we want to make sure that community violence intervention and all of the public safety ecosystem continues to have a North Star of CVI — that CVI is part of the infrastructure that is built into city, county, state, and federal government as we continue to move forward.

What’s at risk if policymakers aren’t held accountable, or if they don’t make CVI a priority?

We will continue to see the loss of life. We will continue to see entire generations of families have to deal with the trauma of violence in our communities. This isn’t a Chicago thing. This isn’t an Austin thing. This isn’t a Bexar County thing. Part of the public health approach is to know that this is a communitywide challenge — but it’s also a communitywide opportunity to do the right thing and move forward. It’s not just CVI because CVI is part of an ecosystem. 

Reducing violence takes everybody, and it’s at risk if we do not take CVI as seriously as we do other parts of the public safety system. If it’s not funded or if it’s not taken seriously, or if people think that it’s something that needs to just happen as a one-off, then it’s going to be dangerous to the entire community. This year and for the years to come, we’ll continue to be educating people but also holding them accountable to make sure that the needs of the folks on the ground are met. We need to make sure that elected officials, policymakers, and just the general community feel compelled — we need their help now.