Last year, the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform examined the district’s efforts to tackle violent crime and offered a scathing assessment. “DC is resource-rich and coordination-poor,” the nonprofit wrote, citing a youth organizer. The report blamed the district for programs that overlap, have not been evaluated for effectiveness and have not reached those most in need and at greatest risk. The officials, to their credit, appear to have taken the criticism to heart and decided to partner with the group that produced the report on an innovative approach to violence prevention.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) recently announced a new government initiative in which 200 people who have been identified as being at high risk of involvement in gun violence will be matched with a specialist team who will work to connect them with services of the city in an effort to get them to change their lives. “We know that a relatively small number of people are responsible for a significant amount of gun violence that occurs in our communities,” Ms Bowser said. “What we do is reach out to these people, listen to them and figure out what they need, and then work with them to get them on a better and safer path.”
By analyzing shootings and homicides and consulting with law enforcement and community organizers, the Criminal Justice Reform Institute compiled the list of 200 people. The Institute’s Executive Director, David Muhammad, told us that initially 230 people were identified but some were killed or arrested, a tragic indication of the accuracy of the list. Specially trained life coaches will try to locate those who have been identified, counsel them and connect them with services ranging from housing and food to job training or behavioral health services. Mr Muhammad was candid about the difficulty of the job, but said relentless awareness, intensive intervention and targeted enforcement can make a difference. A similar program undertaken in Oakland, Calif., showed sustained success in reducing fatal and non-fatal shootings until its work was derailed by the pandemic.
Officials said the DC program had contacted about half of the 200 people identified and some were already engaged in violence prevention programs. Reaching the remaining people on the list will be a challenge. “You can have a name on a piece of paper, but finding a person, hiring them and connecting them to services and getting them to agree to trust us and to accept services is really hard work,” said said Linda Harllee Harper, Director. of the DC Office of Gun Violence Prevention. The fact that Ms. Bowser assigned members of her firm to the inter-agency teams speaks to the importance she places on the project.
Just as the police are not the only answer to the complex problem of gun violence, neither is a program. But officials are right to seek out new strategies, and this one – if executed correctly – shows promise.