For Cecilia Ashe, 2021 was a bad year in Wilmington, Delaware. Gun violence in the town of 70,750 was out of control, and the local media described the record number of people killed by that violence as a “wave of assassinations.” Ashe, at the time Inspector of Operations in the Wilmington Police Department, knew her city had already been labeled “Murder Town, USA.”
“We also had the highest propensity for juvenile violence,” she said. “And we knew that our traditional style of policing was not working. We had distrust [of the police] within our communities.”
Ashe, now the Police Chief in Milford, Delaware, was one of three law enforcement experts on gun violence who participated in a recent National Institute of Justice podcast on evidence-based, scientifically sound methods to reduce gun violence in communities. The experts, all alumni of NIJ’s Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science (LEADS) Scholars Program, have championed the use of science and evidence to reduce gun violence victimization.
The podcast was moderated by criminal justice expert Tamara Herold, a senior advisor to NIJ Director Nancy La Vigne. Herold, an associate professor in criminology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, noted that Ashe and the two other policing professionals in the podcast have direct experience in reducing gun violence using the data and science approach.
“These gun violence experts serve in different roles and across different jurisdictions,” Herold said as she opened the podcast, and as LEADS Scholars they help current and emerging police leaders use science and data to reduce gun violence and advance justice. Each of them, she said, “has advocated fiercely for evidence-based gun violence interventions.”
Ashe was joined in the podcast by Lt. Matthew Barter, chief of staff for the Manchester Police Department in New Hampshire, and Jason Schiess, the analytical services manager for the Durham Police Department in North Carolina. Like Ashe, both Barter and Schiess faced surges in gun violence in their communities and used evidence-based approaches to connect with the individuals most likely to be involved in the violence, both those perpetrating the violence and victims.
Focus on the People
When confronted with the gun violence in Wilmington, Ashe said, “We started to focus on the people. Everything is based on human contact. Whether it’s intelligence-led policing with human contact, or engaging in social services, it’s human contact.”
The increase in Wilmington’s violence occurred, she said, “because we lost that human contact, because we stopped [due to COVID-19] having our call-ins engaging with these people who had the highest propensity for violence.”
By using the Group Violence Intervention (GVI) approach championed by the National Network for Safe Communities based at John Jay College, New York City, the Wilmington police shifted to working with social service agencies and others in the community to engage directly with the people who had the highest propensity for violence.
The GVI program contacted almost 250 of these individuals, Ashe said, and “what we were doing is having the police, the community and everybody else coming together and saying, ‘we’re not going to tolerate this violence anymore.’” The program took direct action to help people who had, in many cases, felt hopeless with the government and justice systems.
“It’s really about a holistic approach,” Ashe said. “We’re not going to police our way out of this. It’s about how we make something sustainable. It’s not one chief – or not one person – who’s going to give us the solutions. It’s going to be all of us working together.”
Community Collaboration, Strategic Problem Solving
At the Manchester Police Department, Lt. Matthew Barter worked with the National Policing Institute, which emphasizes a science-based approach to combating violence. Barter said his department adopted the CompStat 360 model that, according to NPI, emphasizes community collaboration, responsiveness, and strategic problem-solving to reduce violence.
“Gun crime, and violence in general, is not a police problem in and of itself,” Barter said. “It’s a community issue, and everyone in the community needs to partner on that.”
That approach led to the police department “engaging with our community partners to look at the drivers of the problem, and then look at the gaps,” Barter said. “And we recognized that a gap we had was that we weren’t connecting, especially with the youth population, the youth who were most at risk for gun crime.”
The police joined with My Turn, a Manchester nonprofit organization that describes itself as working with “the forgotten half,” economically, socially and educationally disadvantaged youth in poorer neighborhoods and communities. My Turn had relationships with disadvantaged youth in the city and could “connect with youth in a way that we just couldn’t as a police department or as police officers,” Barter said. “So, what we worked on with them was using the social network analysis to identify those influencers – those key people involved in gun violence.”
The idea was to start talking with the most likely participants in gun violence, Barter said.
My Turn’s “Project Connect” program reached out to the youth, “some of it literally through cold calls by outreach folks . . . and one-by-one, they gained credibility and trust. We’re not there yet with having police officers have connections with these youth in the same manner, but having that in-between connection has been really, really helpful.”
The Project Connect staff also anticipated violence and tried to head it off. If a video advocating violence appeared on social media, or incidents occurred that pointed to possible violence in the street, the staff would make phone calls to the individuals involved, with the support of the police. The project and the police were most focused on a social network that consisted of 109 people, which included some of the most at-risk youth involved with gun violence. They hadn’t all committed offenses, Barter said, but they had some involvement in incidents of violence.
“The biggest eye-opener was the reduction in victimization among the group,” Barter said. Before the program started the “influencers” involved in the gun violence culture were victims of violent crime about five times a month, “which for us, in a smaller city, was pretty significant,” he said.
But because of the street outreach, “we saw that drop to zero,” Barter said. “That was significant for us because not only did we see reductions in police involvement with suspects, but the biggest point was they weren’t victims of crime anymore.” The violence interruption aspect of the outreach meant that even when conflict happened it didn’t trigger a cycle of violence and retaliation. “That was very significant for us to see,” Barter said.
“We found that in that group, arrests declined by 32% compared to the pre-intervention period,” he said. “Significantly, victimization in that network declined by 73%, and any involvement in a crime, whether they’re a victim or a witness, declined by 40%. That was really significant and proof that if we target these influencers, not just for enforcement – but also for outreach and making them better – that’s going to make those around them better, as well.”
A Coordinated Approach
As the analytical services manager at the Durham Police Department, Jason Schiess defines gun violence initiatives in terms of how data are gathered and used.
“We do a really good job in law enforcement of identifying problems and then developing solutions very quickly,” Schiess said. “That might work well for a tactical scenario in field operations, but for strategic and operational analysis, maybe not so well.”
Schiess described how Operation Bull’s Eye, a multi-year effort to identify specific areas where gun crime was concentrated in Durham, evolved into a broader program. The operation began as an effort to identify where “shots fired” calls to the police were most often located. Schiess and his team determined a two-square-mile area in East Durham to be the focus of those calls.
He then overlaid violent gun crime data on a map of the “shots fired” calls. They were essentially on top of each other. “We took the last known residences of validated gang members, and, lo and behold, the center of that was almost right on top of the other two,” he said.
That area made up just 2% of the city but was home to 20% of the violent gun crime. Police typically would have a “suppression-only response” without using other resources to address issues in East Durham. In response to the police data and Schiess’ efforts, the Durham city manager “challenged every department with the city to identify specifically what they could do to help contribute to solutions within this two-square-mile area,” he said.
Instead of standard police crime suppression, the city intensified efforts in street maintenance and the identification of vacant and abandoned properties, and it implemented a systematic rental inspection program.
“It was a coordinated approach,” Schiess said, and “by the end of year four we had cut violent gun crime by half [in that area]. The takeaway was that by being willing to look at local risk factors, work with partners, and realize that in order to achieve long-term change, those partnerships have to exist. It’s not just the police.”
The Importance of Buy-In
Schiess, Barter and Ashe agreed that for those advocating for evidence-based gun violence reduction, persistence is critical.
“We need our cops to have a growth mindset and to think more broadly about these things,” Barter said. When there are slip-ups and crime happens, despite the outreach efforts, it doesn’t mean the program is a failure.
“You have to have buy-in,” Schiess said. “You have to talk to line officers, sergeants, corporals. This is where the work happens.” If the officers in a department are viewing a program as a mandate without understanding the reason behind it, “they’re less likely to engage,” Schiess added.
By talking about evidenced-based policing at roll calls and command staff meetings, Barter said, “By constantly beating that drum until it becomes part of the culture,” police departments can change. “I know we’ve had success when I hear a captain or somebody else use the words ‘evidence-based’ when talking about their expectations from their officers.”
“What I would say to other police executives and people trying to forge the way to evidence-based strategies is stop the guessing game,” Ashe said. “You don’t have to have all the answers. Really look at what is out there because there is research that can be fit to your agency.”
And remember, she concluded, that when police analysts and others are talking about numbers, “the reality is these are people’s lives. These are people’s sons, daughters, mothers, sisters, and brothers – not just numbers.”
LEADS: Increasing Research and Science in Law Enforcement
The National Institute of Justice’s Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science (LEADS) Scholars Program was established in 2014 through a partnership between NIJ and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The program is focused on developing the research capacity of mid-career law enforcement officers who are committed to advancing and integrating science into law enforcement policies and practice.
In 2019, NIJ added academics to the LEADS program to strengthen the connection between researchers and practitioners, and it also included law-enforcement civilians in the program to help them use data-driven strategies and locally tailored research in their agencies.
Today there are more than 100 LEADS Scholars in the network, including law enforcement officers, civilians, and academics. Read more about the program.