In February 2023, four Black-led national anti-violence organizations embarked on an ambitious initiative to reduce community gun violence. The Coalition to Advance Public Safety, the collaborative effort they launched, began with a cohort of four cities: Baltimore; Indianapolis; Newark, New Jersey; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 

CAPS’s mission is straightforward but challenging: enhance the effectiveness of local violence reduction efforts through better resource allocation, coordination, and technical support. CAPS invests $500,000 in each city, sub-granted to community-based organizations. These funds are complemented by comprehensive training, technical assistance, and strategic hospital-based interventions, designed to build long-term capacities and sustainability over five years.

A year after launch, each of the participating cities has seen decreases in gun violence. But leaders from the organizations that make up CAPS — Cities United; the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention; the Community-Based Public Safety Collective; and the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform — are careful not to take full credit.

“They know how to do the outreach work, and they know how to do the intervention work,” Anthony Smith, the executive director of Cities United, a member of the coalition focused on eliminating violence in American cities, told me. “They were asking, ‘How do I grow his organization? How do I get more capacity? And then how do I make sure I have the right growth plan in place?’”

With lessons in hand, CAPS is preparing to extend its initiative this year to a second cohort — Atlanta, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Oakland, California — aiming to replicate and refine its model of community-driven violence reduction. I spoke with Smith to explore the intricacies of the CAPS implementation, its challenges, and the tangible successes it has achieved in reshaping public safety strategies so far.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What lessons did you learn from your first cohort of cities that you’re going to take to the second?

All of them saw reductions in violence. Some saw larger reductions than others. We are not taking credit for the full reductions. We came in and supported and were able to be a partner in it.

Baton Rouge saw an 8 percent reduction. Baltimore, in the Western District, saw a 45 percent reduction. Newark saw a 7 percent reduction. And then Indianapolis, where David Muhammad and the National Institute on Criminal Justice Reform have been in there for a few years, saw a 32 percent reduction.

In the first four cities, there was a lot of good work happening. It was just not coordinated, not funded, and not recognized. There’s still a lot more coordination that needs to happen on the ground. How do we identify what’s going on, support the build-out and the capacity building? How do you make sure that that’s happening so this work can have a longer, bigger impact, but also be more sustainable? 

While it’s not a new thing, a big lesson for us was that organizations are so under-resourced, and we had to figure out how to get more resources on the ground. So making sure that we are partnering with not only other foundations, but also thinking about the federal government, and making sure that we can help folks write grants and get those things done. 

And this is not a cookie-cutter thing. Although we know what works, we also have to understand what the city is doing and how it’s moving. How do we help mend relationships or build relationships on the ground?

Most cities saw declines in homicides last year, but what’s it going to take to get violence down further?

It’s going to take more investment. We have had record investments that we’ve never had before, but we all know that’s not enough. We go into a lot of these cities, even the ones that have strong, robust systems, knowing that it’s still not enough — not enough to get to every person. The intervention piece has got to be fully funded in every city in a way that’s long term and it’s not just trickling in; it’s an investment. 

We also have to start looking upstream. We have started doing some of the prevention work, but we have got to make sure we get to young people who are in the pipeline sooner. We want to make sure that these young folks are not being pushed out of school, that they have opportunities to go to work and all the things that we know that would help us prevent this issue from happening.

We have to have more political will at the state and local level for cities to truly invest in this, in this part of their public safety ecosystem, at the same levels that they would any other part of the public safety ecosystem. We need more policies that identify the offices of violence prevention as key.

We can’t just do this day by day. We’ve got to say that this is what this needs to look like over the next 10 years. This is what the investment needs to look like, and this is what the policy structure needs to look like. Folks need to treat this as the public health crisis that it is, and make sure that they put the right resources behind it.

Resources are the biggest thing. People have to invest. We have to invest time, we have to invest money, we have to invest our platforms, all the things that we know that will change this.

We can’t just do this day by day. We’ve got to say that this is what this needs to look like over the next 10 years.

And lastly, we have to change the narrative of what we’re talking about. So I try my best not to use “crime” when I’m talking to folks. This is around saving lives. This is reducing homicides and shootings of men and women who are most at risk, and they’re at risk because of the systems that they live in and the environments that they live in. It’s not just because they wake up one day and decide to do something.

Trying to change the language and the narrative is also going to be a big piece of how we move this work forward, because if we can get folks to see the people we’re talking about and the humanity of those folks, then we can get folks to invest differently.

Is there a possibility of a new normal where the violence is much lower than it was before the pandemic?

Yeah, because it wasn’t that low then. Those numbers were still too damn high. At the end of the day, our goal should be moving towards zero, knowing that that might be an impossibility. But if we truly believe, could it not be possible? The goal is to get it as low as you can in each city. And you want to see a reduction every year that’s moving you in that direction.

I live in Louisville, Kentucky, and when I started working in the Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods in Louisville, we had a number of homicides anywhere between 45 and 65 a year. In the last three years, we averaged about 170, which is the wrong way. But that’s because we didn’t invest in the office that we set up. That’s because we didn’t invest in changing the narrative. That’s because we didn’t push policy to change things. We just kept allowing things to get worse.

Getting back to pre-pandemic numbers does not mean we have done our job. That means we’ve saved more lives, but we have got much more work to do. 

So when we start talking about investing in these models, and people start seeing reductions, and then if they start moving on to something else, the numbers will start climbing back up again. Policy has got to be done, offices have got to be secured, and dollars have got to be invested. And it’s got to be invested for five- or 10-year stretches, and not just year by year. You should not have to fight for a budget every year to do this work. 

So often you see that a city will come in and start a program or put up an office, and then, like you were saying, not invest in it.

It becomes a political football. Folks can say, look what you did, it didn’t do anything. But you only gave it a year. You gave it a year with one person, but you expect these big things to happen. Meanwhile, on the other side of public safety, you invest consistently.

I don’t want us to be police, but I think the police have a system in place. Every city you go into, they’ll tell you, “This is how many officers we’re supposed to have,” because somebody’s got some calculation, and then how many they don’t have, right? But they always get a budget for how many they’re supposed to have because they’re hoping they can get those people. I would love for us to get to a place like that.

Getting back to pre-pandemic numbers does not mean we have done our job. That means we’ve saved more lives, but we have got much more work to do. 

We have got to start giving people numbers of what they need in each city to get to that small number of people who are most at risk. That’s going to cost us a little bit upfront, but it’s going to save us a whole lot of lives and pain and money at the end of the day. If we truly want to stop violence, we need to invest, and invest now, and understand that there’s going to be a return on investment. Lives are saved, families are whole, and the city will save more money. 

We’ve been losing young Black men and boys for over 40 years to this issue. And we have not changed the way we address this issue until three or four years ago.

And we’re still not truly invested in it for real, we just know about it now. More people are giving more money to it. But we’ve not truly changed. This is an epidemic or a pandemic just like COVID was. And if we truly cared, we would shift. And I think we’re coming around to care more, but it’s going to take a lot more of us pushing for it.

What does success look like for CAPS?

Success looks several ways. One, is the CVI ecosystem more robust and more connected and coordinated. Because a part of this for us is not just that we’re seeing reductions in numbers, but we’re helping to build the ecosystem that’s on the ground, so that it can work the way it needs to. We’re trying to make sure that cities understand how much they need to invest in the work. An increase in investment for us will be a success and will be a win.

The CVI ecosystem capacity getting built out will be a win. Making sure that the city has an office of violence prevention or community safety that is supported and up and running. Making sure that there’s more coordination amongst the city and community-based partners as they do their work.

But at the end of the day, the big number for us is a reduction in shootings and homicides over those five years. And if we can see a 20 percent reduction in the first cohort over five years, that means that we’ve been doing some work. But we have to build up to that.