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Tackling Gun Violence as a Community Issue

Notes From the Field
Date Published
February 15, 2019

Consider the trajectory of a 15-year-old boy who grows up in a household with an absent father, unemployed mother, and four siblings. Gang members sell crack cocaine in an abandoned warehouse down the street and a 6-foot pile of garbage stands across the street from his house. Imagine that this boy gets caught shoplifting, so juvenile services puts him through a program that teaches him not to steal. It’s a great program — it could be the best program in the world — but when he finishes the program he returns home to the same environment, with the crack house, absent father, garbage pile, and no support mechanisms.

In Miami-Dade County, we have seen younger and younger kids picking up and using guns over the past decade. As director of the county police department, my top priority has been to address gun violence, specifically involving youth. When the police arrive to the scene of a shooting, it’s already too late. The handgun has been picked up, the trigger has been pulled. Someone has already been injured — maybe killed — and there’s a person who will go to jail. After a shooting occurs, it’s too late in the game to divert an individual’s path away from gun violence that will ultimately result in incarceration. The role of the police, at this point, is purely damage control.

Engaging the Community: All Hands on Deck

Police are just one part of a larger community, and we can’t drive down violent crime on our own. Over the past few years, we’ve made a huge push toward community partnerships, engaging the community as much as possible in an effort to prevent gun violence at an earlier stage. When we think about societal problems like gun violence, it’s not us versus them — it’s all of us together. When we partner with the community to have all hands on deck, we are better able to enact meaningful change.

The Miami-Dade Police Department does everything we can to engage grassroots organizations. Every district major in Miami-Dade follows the philosophy of engaging the most vocal voices in a community, listening to them, and assisting them with their vision. We send officers to community events to strengthen bonds and relationships. With a dedicated social media unit, we engage people on platforms like Facebook, NextDoor, Twitter, Neighbors, and others. We let the public use our police conference rooms for meetings, and we join these meetings whenever we can. We listen. Often, we hear solutions that we couldn’t come up with ourselves.

Just one example of these partnerships is with Miami’s Circle of Brotherhood, a group of individuals who have touched the criminal justice system themselves. Some have been convicted of crimes, even murder, and are now out of prison and working to help others avoid similar paths. Members of the Circle of Brotherhood walk the streets with our officers, knocking on doors, engaging with the community, and helping us gain access and trust in places that we couldn’t reach alone. Often, their voices resonate more powerfully than ours in the community. We’ve also found that messages jointly delivered by police officers and community members often have more credence than messages delivered by either group alone.

Youth Outreach Unit: Thinking Outside of the Box

Our traditional methods of fighting crime haven’t been effective enough, which has prompted us to think outside of the box about how we approach gun violence. Last year we launched a Youth Outreach Unit (YOU), which pairs 50 officers with 50 at-risk youth. Our officers mentor these kids, follow up with their teachers to make sure their grades and attendance are on track, visit their households to identify other services they need, and then work with government and community organizations to connect the kids and their families with these services. The program addresses areas outside of the typical crime-fighting message, working closely with the local Juvenile Services Department to try to catch kids before they go into the state juvenile or adult criminal justice systems.

The YOU program is for kids that have already been in contact with the criminal justice system because of previous criminal behavior. Miami-Dade’s Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC) is part of the county’s Juvenile Services Department and keeps records on every kid taken into custody. Whenever possible, JAC puts kids in programs to divert them away from the criminal justice system. Depending on the year, between 80 and 90 percent of the kids that go through these programs are successfully diverted and don’t reoffend. The remaining 10 percent concern us. JAC’s records include information on each kid’s background, where they come from, whether they are in a single-parent household, if a parent has been incarcerated, any history of trauma or abuse, their school attendance, and many other factors. Drawing on years of trends, JAC is able to analyze these data to identify high-risk kids. These are kids that haven’t picked up a gun yet — but the data show us that they have a high probability of doing so. Knowing this information is a huge opportunity to divert their path, and these are the kids that we target with the YOU program.

Data and Tracking

Just as important as trying innovative ideas is collecting data to track whether they work. In Miami-Dade County, we had 10 kids killed due to gun violence in 2017. We’ve had zero kids killed due to gun violence in 2018 so far. While it’s too soon to draw definitive conclusions, these numbers show promise that what we’re doing is having a positive impact. We’re committed to tracking these statistics to ensure that the programs we’re implementing don’t just make us feel good, but that they are also truly driving crime down.

Beyond overall gun violence statistics, we are carefully tracking the trajectories of youth involved in the criminal justice system due to criminal behavior, to see what happens to them over time. We want to follow the trajectories of these kids over the course of their lives, to see if they have repeat contact with the juvenile justice or criminal justice systems years down the road.

We only began implementing the YOU program fully in February 2017. This is a long-term strategy, and it’s still too early to see its impact. So far we’ve seen short-term success in kids who bring up their grades and improve their school attendance. We’ve also helped some kids get summer jobs and have heard anecdotal reports of attitude adjustments and improved behavior. While this is heartening, we need to track these kids for years before we can begin to draw conclusions about the impact of the program.

In Miami-Dade County, our approach to reducing gun violence has had a full focus on community engagement. As with the YOU program, this sometimes means engaging the community in ways that are far outside the traditional scope of law enforcement work. Decades of data confirm for us that our traditional approach isn’t effective. We have to start thinking outside of the box to prevent kids from falling into the prison pipeline that we see in many of our communities.

A community includes citizens, police, public works, public health, other criminal justice actors, and many other members. Gun violence is a problem of all these community members. Consider again the 15-year-old boy who is arrested for shoplifting. The police will likely come into contact with this kid many times over the course of his life. But the police alone cannot change his trajectory. When the community comes together to change a child’s environment, we create the opportunity to divert that child’s path. If we can eliminate the crack houses and clean up the trash, we start to change that kid’s physical environment. We can connect his mother with the services she needs, enroll the kid in a youth mentorship program, and check up on him regularly to make sure his grades and attendance are on track at school. When I say “we,” I don’t mean just the police — it’s the community working together as a whole.

About “Notes from the Field”

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the “Notes from the Field” series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

“Notes from the Field” is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by law enforcement executives and other on-the-ground leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about law enforcement issues.

Date Published: February 15, 2019