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Nothing Works As Well To Reduce Urban Violence As Focused Deterrence

Memphis has a gun problem and a gang problem – too many guns in the wrong hands, including criminal gang members more than willing to engage in gun violence.

In 2019, data from the Memphis Police Department (MPD) reflected 5,188 reported incidents involving guns, which was 60.5 percent of all reported violent incidents. One incident can involve multiple offenses. For example, three victims in one incident would count as three offenses. According to preliminary figures from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, there were 9,346 reported offenses involving guns in Memphis in 2019.

The number of individuals age 24 and under actually arrested for major violent crime (murder. rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) went down slightly in 2019 compared to 2018, both in Memphis and all of Shelby County (1,116 arrests in Memphis and 1,274 countywide). However, the number of juveniles (age 17 and under) charged with major violent offenses went up by 18.1 percent, from 419 in 495 in 2019. And the number of violent offenses for which they were charged increased by 32.4 percent, from 627 charges in 2018 to 830 in 2019.

Curbing violent crime requires a concentrated effort, especially gun violence. It becomes even more of a challenge with juvenile offenders. The Safe Community Plan calls for effective implementation of a Violence Intervention Focused Deterrence model in which multiple prosecution and law enforcement entities team up with community leaders and social service providers to deliver a “carrot and stick” approach to curbing gun violence.

Pioneered as Operation Ceasefire in Boston during the 1990s, a focused deterrence strategy has a strong evaluation record as an evidence-based practice that produces good results. When implemented properly, such an approach has consistently demonstrated that gun violence can be dramatically reduced. It involves the partnership of prosecutors, law enforcement, community leaders, and service providers engaging directly with a targeted group of individuals with a record of violence, who have sway over others as leaders, and who are assessed as likely to continue down a path of violence absent some intervention. Through a “call-in,” the partnership communicates clearly to the targeted group a credible moral message against violence, clear notice about the consequences of further acts of violence, and a genuine offer of help for those who want it.

District Attorney Amy Weirich has taken the lead in launching Operation Comeback as a focused deterrence initiative in our community, with partners including, but notlimited to, the Multi-Agency Gang Unit, TN Department of Correction, MPD, Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Attorney’s Office, FBI, various community leaders such as Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, and providers of job training, education, housing and other services.

Through the end 2019, there had been two call-ins, with both focused on adults. Thefirst call-in occurred in February of 2018. Of the ten targeted participants, six remained on track after 18 months, meaning they were in substantial compliance and had not been caught with a gun, been convicted of a violent crime, or otherwisebeen re-incarcerated due to violation of probation or parole. The second call-in occurred in November of 2018. Of the nine participants, seven remained on track after one year. (One participant is now deceased.)

Two recently published books note the success of the focused deterrence approach if implemented properly.

In “Uneasy Peace,” New York University’s sociology professor Patrick Sharkey notes that criminal activity is carried out by a limited group of people linked together in a tight network of victims and offenders. (Today’s victim can be tomorrow’s offender and vice versa.) He advocates “. . .interrupting exchanges of violent activity that account for a large share of gun violence.” He goes on to note that focused deterrence call-ins must convey to individuals a warning and an offer. “The warning is unflinching: If you continue to engage in firearm violence, you will face serious, uncompromising prosecution. But the offer must be equally sincere: If you choose a different path, you will be supported with all the resources and assistance that the community . . . can muster.”

In “Bleeding Out,” Thomas Abt, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, notes, “Homicides occur in predictable places, driven by identifiable people, and triggered by well-understood behaviors . . . .In the United States, nothing works as well to reduce urban violence as focused deterrence.” He goes on to note that an approach that focuses on those individuals we have reason to fear can build strong support among law-abiding citizens in neighborhoods most affected by violence, stating, “The principle of focus recognizes that, even in the most dangerous areas, the peaceful are many and the violent are few. This is essential to building and maintaining community support.”

The Safe Community Plan embraces the focused deterrence approach advocated byboth Sharkey and Abt. Operation Comeback is a recognition that a relatively small number of offenders – probably a few hundred – can have a disproportionate impacton the level of violent crime, both directly and indirectly. In order to have a significant impact on the level of violent gun crime in our community, Operation Comeback will need to be (1) scaled up to include more individuals and (2) applied to juvenile offenders as well as adults. That will involve a commitment of more resources in the coming months. However, as Abt notes in “Bleeding Out,” concentrating on dangerous individuals rather than casting a wider net arguably means fewer resources are ultimately required, even considering that sustainability requires that those resources remain in place.

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