On the last day of 2016, a solemn procession made its way across Chicago. Hundreds of mourners and their supporters marched together, carrying 762 wooden crosses — one for each victim of the year’s terrible homicide toll.
Had the marchers ended the demonstration by planting those crosses at the site of each murder, they would have clustered in a few areas of the sprawling city, creating a haphazard array of miniature cemeteries. This is because many of those homicides, 90 percent of them shootings, occurred on a handful of blocks, in a handful of neighborhoods.
The hyper-local nature of crime, violent crime in particular, is a revelation to very few in the law enforcement community. Indeed, any cop worthy of the badge keeps track of the usual suspects and trouble areas in the neighborhoods he or she serves. Only recently, however, are we beginning to seriously question how that knowledge informs our response to crime. And, while many in the “law and order” crowd use place-based data to support raids, sweeps and other targeted policing, new research suggest it's community development efforts — layered onto smart policing — that actually bring about lasting reductions in crime.
New research is establishing how most shootings and other violent crimes occur at “hotspots,” or on certain city blocks. In Boston, for instance, Yale University sociologists documented that 50 percent of gun crimes were carried out on less than three percent of blocks in particular neighborhoods. An analysis by our organization, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, found a similar trend in Chicago: half of the most serious crimes occurred on just seven percent of blocks.
There are powerful, well-tested strategies that focus on how violence clusters. They include group violence intervention approaches based on the Operation Ceasefire work done in Boston in the 1990s, as well as the Cure Violence model that emphasizes street level intervention. Hotspot policing is another familiar strategy applied by police departments across the United States. These strategies are an essential part of putting a stop to bloodshed, but they fall short of addressing exactly what makes certain locations fertile ground for violent crime in the first place.
Since violent crime tends to bunch in discrete locales, interventions need to zero in on those places, partnering with the people who live and work nearby to understand the root causes of chronic crime. Additionally, flooding particular areas with services and investments that align with local needs and priorities provides the preventive medicine to stanch the flow of violence.
Our organization has supported this kind of crime reduction work for 20 years. We have seen how variations in crime across neighborhoods correlate with the physical environment. Blight, vacant land, access to transportation all have bearing on how a place might drive crime. We’ve also seen the positive effect of place-centric efforts on public spaces, when residents and law enforcement join forces to shut down crime hotspots — a nightclub, say, with a history of violence, or an abandoned property where drug dealers set up shop — and replace them with new affordable homes, an active community garden or a community center.
The results of this kind of investment are cause for real optimism. In the low-income Eastern North section of Philadelphia, for example, a playground had become a notorious and dangerous hotspot. Several years ago, the park was renovated, police enforcement intensified and — especially important — residents organized and began stewarding the park, which they christened Rainbow de Colores. Over time, violent crime decreased a full 40 percent. Similar work helped bring about a 32 percent drop in homicides in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.
Not surprisingly, these strategies are effective in areas plagued by non-violent crime, too. In the Olneyville section of Providence, Rhode Island, quality-of-life crime dropped 41 percent after police, community development organizations, city agencies and residents collaborated to renovate parks, build housing, renovate blighted properties and institute more sensitive and active policing.
Of course, part and parcel of this approach is fueling local economies and creating good jobs. Neighborhoods with access to work and transportation, with strong community cohesion, quality housing and schools simply do not suffer from high rates of gun violence. Still, each year, hundreds of billions of dollars go into running the criminal justice system, much of that on incarceration. But barely a fraction goes toward rebuilding neighborhoods to offer tangible benefits to the people who live there.
Looking at the micro-places within neighborhoods where violent crimes cluster demands that we look at the people caught up in those webs of violence. When we do, what we find are human beings who want to live lives of safety and dignity the way everyone does. By working with communities to deploy customized, place-based solutions to crime, we can keep our blocks from becoming de facto cemeteries and help make safe, functioning neighborhoods the norm for all.
Maurice Jones, former Housing and Urban Development deputy secretary, is president and chief executive of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a non-profit group that helps struggling communities. Julia Ryan directs LISC’s community safety and health initiatives.