Magazine | July 29, 2019, Issue

A Plan to Cut the Murder Rate That Conservatives Should Get Behind

A Baltimore police officer secures a crime scene with tape in West Baltimore, Md., May 30, 2015. (Jim Bourg /Reuters)
Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence — and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets, by Thomas Abt (Basic Books, 304 pp., $30)

When someone is bleeding out on a gurney, writes Thomas Abt, the doctor doesn’t try to get him a job or housing. The first step is just to stop the bleeding.

And with thousands of young men bleeding out on gurneys across America’s inner cities each year thanks to violence in the streets, Abt counsels the same approach for policymakers: Focus on the violence itself, separately from our endless political bickering over tangentially related topics. Carefully study each city to find the specific people and places most susceptible to violence, and target them intensively with proven interventions.

The immediate actions Abt counsels are not all that expensive, and they are not all that partisan. He claims they could reduce nationwide homicide rates by half in eight years — which might be a stretch. But these strategies would be worth the investment if they achieved even a quarter of that, and they deserve strong support from conservatives. Stopping lethal violence is among government’s most fundamental purposes, and it is a task at which too many governments across the country are failing.

Abt, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, has been involved in criminal-justice issues for years, not only as a researcher but also as a policymaker, a prosecutor, and an adviser to anti-violence groups. He represents a growing consensus among criminologists that the most important thing about crime is how concentrated it is, both in social networks and geographically (a notion I explored in these pages in a 2017 essay, “Less Gun Violence without New Gun Laws,” October 30). And to go along with his mastery of the academic literature and ground-level understanding of how criminal-justice policies operate in practice, for this book he interviewed a wide range of affected parties, from police officials to former criminals to the families of murder victims, whose stories are always important and often heart-rending. And he fits all of this into about 300 clearly written pages that will be easily digestible for the general reader, and perhaps even for lawmakers.

As Abt explains, there are numerous anti-violence strategies that have proven effective in rigorous studies, and they are especially powerful when used in conjunction with one another. Some of these are focused on “hot” places — the tiny share of a city’s geography that usually accounts for a wildly disproportionate share of its violence. Indeed, a quarter of the entire country’s homicides occur in 1,200 neighborhoods that contain just 1.5 percent of the population. Bringing down violence in these places involves putting more police there, keeping track of shifting crime patterns so resources can be moved as needed, building up the legitimacy of the police in the broader community, changing physical locations (lighting, vegetation, etc.) in ways that make crime harder to conceal, and working to remove blight.

New data-analysis techniques have also enabled a focus on violent people. Lethal violence tends to spread through criminal networks almost like a virus — when someone is shot, his friends often retaliate, and so on — and, using arrest records, researchers have been able to outline social networks that, like geographic hot spots, cover a tiny percentage of a city’s population but account for a huge chunk of the violence. 

The message to violence-prone groups, delivered through a strategy called “focused deterrence,” is simple and straightforward: Either we’re going to help you, or we’re going to stop you; pick one. Community members, law-enforcement officials, and social-service providers keep in touch with high-risk individuals through group “call-ins” and one-on-one meetings, often required as a condition of parole or probation. Police threaten to come down on the entire group if violence continues; service providers offer help finding jobs and the like. They follow up persistently. Some cities that have implemented this strategy well have seen enormous reductions in homicide.

There are other efforts as well that deserve further study. In some urban areas, homicide clearance rates — the percentage of cases that are solved — are appallingly low, to the point that the typical murderer has far better than a 50/50 shot of getting away with it. Higher clearance rates would deter future killers, incapacitate active ones, provide justice to victims, and enhance the legitimacy of law enforcement in the eyes of the community. Unfortunately, as Abt notes, there just isn’t very much good research answering the question of how much crime declines when clearance rates rise. Governments and charitable foundations should work together to fund such research. Ideally, one would randomly assign some cities but not others to receive a massive influx of detective talent, and track changes in both clearance and murder rates.

A striking thing about the book, however, is how often Abt has to stress that these efforts work only if they’re implemented just the right way. If hot-spot policing efforts or attempts to target high-risk individuals spread too far or fail to offer carrots along with the sticks, they antagonize the broader community and undermine legitimacy. Cops have to be courteous and respectful when ramping up their activity, particularly when they question people whose behavior sets off alarm bells. “Street outreach,” in which volunteers, often former offenders themselves, try to mediate potentially violent disputes, is even more fraught with pitfalls, as the efforts can cause tensions with police, and sometimes outreach workers aren’t actually out of the criminal lifestyle themselves. Abt also gives detailed instructions regarding how to put his insights into practice organizationally; for example, the various tactics need to be carefully coordinated through networks comprising law-enforcement authorities, researchers, and civilians with “a common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, and regular communication.”

That’s why one should be a little skeptical of the claim that these tactics, used nationwide, could cut the U.S. murder rate in half. Such efforts need to be implemented by human beings, acting within the constraints of their motivations, cultures, and institutions, including dysfunctional local governments. An effort that proves effective in some studies might be less effective over the long term or in different areas; Boston had enormous success with focused deterrence, for instance, but one might be less confident in the local government of, say, Ferguson, Mo. Greater public awareness of these strategies’ potential and a high-profile push at the national level could certainly save many lives, but, as with contraception, “perfect use” of a violence-intervention program is likely quite different from “typical use.”

Sometimes these measures also face political resistance from the left — despite support from Obama-administration veterans such as Abt — for the uncomfortable reason that while violence disproportionately harms minority communities, it is also disproportionately committed by members of those communities. The American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, has challenged efforts to keep track of high-risk individuals in several cities. To an extent, such challenges are necessary to ensure that these efforts are appropriately focused — and not abused by corrupt local-government employees — but they also risk deterring cities from using these techniques at all, especially if lefty judges are overly aggressive in deeming them discriminatory.

Similar problems beset efforts to go after illegal gun-carrying — one of the behaviors most closely related to lethal violence, and a major target of Abt’s initiatives. In a recent piece for Slate, the journalist Emily Bazelon noted with alarm that “black people are less likely to own guns than white people, but the defendants in gun court [in Brooklyn] were almost all black teenagers and young men.” It seems to have occurred to neither Bazelon nor her editors that the entire population of people who own guns, legally or otherwise, might not be the relevant demographic baseline against which to compare the folks hit with firearm charges in Brooklyn. (That said, Bazelon has a point that the sentences given out for these infractions in notoriously gun-hating New York can be excessive.)

Liberal squeamishness in the face of violent crime, though, presents the Right with a real opportunity to address urban homicide in a serious way that goes beyond traditional “tough on crime” tactics and scaremongering. Republican governors, mayors, and legislators could push to expand these efforts in the cities they oversee, further demonstrating the tactics’ effectiveness. And while law enforcement is overwhelmingly a local priority, the federal government already offers numerous subsidies to police departments and local governments that could be retooled to better target the interventions Abt spotlights. Preventing murder is not only the right thing to do, but a way to gain respect in minority communities and to demonstrate that it really is possible to reduce violence without strict measures aimed at those who own firearms lawfully.

Of course, Abt also has a vision for a longer-term strategy to control violence, and his view of gun control’s effectiveness is rather different from mine. But we can fight about that once we cut the murder rate substantially using these other, more pressing strategies.

This article appears as “Murder in the City” in the July 29, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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