Some cities have targeted gang members and seen significant reduction in gun deaths. By treating the disease, they are rediscovering the cure.
- About 74% of inner-city homicides (and other violence) is caused by 1% of the population
- Motivating gangs to not kill works
- The motivation can be peer pressure, intervention or incarceration
The never ending gang backstory
Criminologists have long noted that gun violence tends to be a Big City problem. Subcultures within urban centers spawn violence committed for little good reason. This then creates a disproportionate number of homicides.
But what we have also known all along is that even though America’s gang participation rate is huge compared to non-U.S. cities, the number of gang members in the general population is small. In one report (which we discuss in more detail below) gang members account for less than 1% of the population, though they are responsible for 74% of the homicides (and presumably a similar amount of non-homicide violence). It is worth noting that only a subset of these gang members are homicidal.
The cure has always been to focus intently on that 1%. California voters did that in 1993, and managed to drop the Golden State’s homicide rate from 40% above national averages down to the countrywide mean (all while national violence rates were falling).
Recently, I had two case studies lobbed over the transom, and they confirm that targeting gang members works. The interesting part is that how you target them is less important than getting it done.
I once lived next door to Richmond, California. To put it as politely as possible, Richmond is an arm pit. It is a town located next to an oil refinery, completely urban, graffiti filled and dangerous. A great place if you are looking for either soul food or a good torta … but only during daylight.
Growing sick of non-stop violence, Richmond decided to put boots on the ground. Not cops, but direct outreach to the gang members most likely to murder someone. Incorporating a variety of incentives (including outright financial ones), the city managed to bend the curve on homicides. When compared to cities of similar size and population density, but not in California, we see Richmond homicides dropping while other cities fluctuated or followed national trends.
We have to take Richmond’s “success” with one small grain of salt, for their homicide rate had been rising while national averages were dropping. But without intervention, and without obvious alternate explanations, it is hard to imagine Richmond’s murder rate dropping on its own (really, you have to walk through the town to have an idea of how bad bad can get).
Cincinnati had a more interesting report, given the amount of up-front data they collected before implementing their Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV). Some of the gang stats discovered included:
- 91% of gang members had prior violent crime arrests
- 84% had prior felony charges (60% had collected five or more)
- The approximately 1,000 gang members (less than 1% of the population) was responsible for 74% of the homicides
- 81% of those homicides were done with a gun
- Called the bad actors into a court room
- Showed them how long they could go to federal prison on a gun charge
- Told them that any homicide by any member of their gang would result in a crackdown of the entire gang (establish peer pressure)
- Offered them some social services to provide an escape alternative
- Broadcast on radio that coordinated crackdowns would occur
- Kept their promise when the next few homicides happened
Like Richmond, Cincinnati showed progress. Perhaps the most interesting Cincinnati twist was revival of the old child discipline routine: everyone gets punished if someone breaks the rules. Gangs form in part due to peer pressure, so would a band of thugs who don’t want to do jail for crimes less than murder not put pressure on their homicidal brethren?
The important bit
Criminologist are not surprised by any of this. It has been well established, and for a very long time, that most homicides (and gun homicides) are largely inner-city issues. The Gun Facts project noted that just 20 American cities account for 21% of the nation’s homicides, but only 7% of the population. That clusters of homicides occur within street gangs presents the problem and the solution in one instant.