For Violence Prevention, A New Science Emerges
At its ten-year mark, the National Network for Safe Communities reflects on how a growing police-community partnership uses proven strategies to stop violence
Author: Michael Friedrich
When it comes to addressing urban violence, 10 years has made a world of difference.
The National Network for Safe Communities was launched at John Jay College in 2009 with a mission to help cities reduce violence, minimize the use of arrest and incarceration, and build trust between law enforcement and communities of color.
Begun as an action-research organization, the NNSC boasted a pair of promising interventions recognizing that serious crime is driven by a very small number of high-risk groups and people, and that a partnership of law enforcement, community members and service providers can identify those groups and people, keep them from hurting others, support them, and keep them safe—all with far less use of enforcement. A cohort of practitioners across the country had been putting them into practice, but many in the field remained skeptical about how effective these partnerships could be.
Today, the NNSC stands at the leading edge of a widely accepted science of violence prevention. “The approaches we’ve developed, and the empirical and policy analysis that they’re built on, have become mainstream,” said criminologist David Kennedy, who co-founded the organization with former John Jay College President Jeremy Travis. Research from the Campbell Collaboration and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine now shows “focused deterrence,” the formal strategy behind the NNSC’s approach, is the most effective method of reducing violent crime. Major cities including New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Oakland are implementing that approach with help from NNSC advisors.
In recent years, the NNSC has also worked to develop a process of reconciliation between police and minority communities. Forming police-community partnerships is central to the success of violence interventions. But, in the communities most beset by violence, that’s easier said than done. Often, distrust of police has been calcified by histories that date back to slave-catching and take shape today in tactics that lock up young men of color while failing to make neighborhoods safer.
“We cannot have effective public safety, or effective relationships between police and communities, without attending to the very real history of oppression and harm that the law has been responsible for in this country,” said Kennedy. Drawing from international transitional-justice commissions, like the ones in post-apartheid South Africa, the NNSC’s reconciliation process asks that police acknowledge the harm they’ve done, listen to community narratives, conduct a historical fact-finding process and then change their policies based on what they learn.
The NNSC first tested the process on a citywide scale through the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a project begun in 2015 under the Department of Justice to implement reconciliation—alongside methods for police departments to improve procedural justice and reduce implicit bias—in six pilot cities. That project concluded this year, and the Urban Institute will soon release a comprehensive study measuring its impact. According to Kennedy, the findings show that police experienced “meaningful shifts in belief and attitude and behavior,” while community members saw “real increases in their confidence in and feelings of legitimacy toward the police.”
The National Initiative was a step in a longer process, one Kennedy hopes will form a model for public safety partnerships between police and communities. “The National Initiative is coming to an end, but our work on reconciliation is not,” said Kennedy. The NNSC recently launched a project to carry that work forward by engaging other cities in large-scale reconciliation processes.
Ten years on, the NNSC’s mission remains steady. “Our fundamental commitment is to public safety,” said Kennedy, “and we’re really committed to the most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable settings.” This summer, the organization’s national conference will be an opportunity to reflect on these advances in the field of violence prevention alongside its growing network.
“Tremendous progress has been made,” said Kennedy. “We’re now posted for a new phase and a new standard of theory and practice, and I think it’s tremendously encouraging.”