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NEW REPORT: Over-Policing and Under-Protection Fueling Gun Violence in Communities Across America

  “In Pursuit of Peace” reveals a cycle of distrust & violence between vulnerable communities and law enforcement agencies 

January 21, 2020 — A comprehensive new research report from Giffords Law Center reveals how cycles of community violence are connected to cycles of distrust and disengagement from law enforcement. The report explores the spike in gun violence in major American cities between 2014 and 2017 that occurred in part as a reaction to police violence and growing distrust between law enforcement and many communities. This new report,  In Pursuit of Peace: Building Police-Community Trust to Break the Cycle of Violence , also debunks dangerous myths about policing and violence and details how cities and police departments that understand the importance of community partnerships have been able to implement meaningful reforms, build community trust, and promote significant reductions in violence.

“Just and effective law enforcement work is built on a foundation of trust,” said Ari Freilich, State Policy Director at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Grieving witnesses and survivors need to be able to rely on their police forces to keep them safe, treat them fairly, and respond to their communities’ priorities, or else a desperate few will resort to vigilante violence instead. But the simple truth is that for millions of Americans, especially communities of color, the status quo is failing to earn that trust or deliver safety or justice. But change is possible. This report highlights the progress being made where communities and law enforcement agencies have, together, made a serious commitment to reform what isn’t working, refocus law enforcement resources, and build community trust to break the cycle of violence.”

 The report also underscores how our country’s gun violence epidemic is connected to racial inequality and racism. Over the past decade, over 125,000 Americans were intentionally shot and killed by another person. It’s estimated that at least five times that number were hospitalized or treated in emergency rooms after surviving serious, life-altering gunshot injuries. The vast majority of those shot by another person were people of color.

In too many communities, a lack of faith in law enforcement and the justice system keeps significant numbers of people from reporting violent crimes to their police departments or participating as witnesses in investigations and trials. After high-profile instances of police brutality, distrust worsens and 911 calls to law enforcement plummet. As a result, law enforcement agencies become less informed and less effective, leading to falling homicide arrest rates and spikes in vigilante violence. Through research, stories, and examples of progress underway, In Pursuit of Peace delves into the causes of cycles of distrust and explores how communities and law enforcement agencies can begin to chart a better and safer course forward together.

Major takeaways from the report include:

  • Our country’s policing and justice practices are failing communities of color and contributing to enormous levels of murder inequality. Too often, the conversation around gun safety ignores the enormously unequal impact and trauma of violence on communities of color. For example, in 2016, violence was responsible for 4% of deaths among young white men and boys aged 15–24, 20% of deaths among young Hispanic men and boys, and 50% among young black men and boys.
  • Our nation’s lack of strong federal gun laws are part of the problem, as are public safety policies and practices that leave many minority communities both over-policed and under-protected. Over-policing of minor offenses and under-protection from lethal violence both contribute to a deep lack of faith in law enforcement that keeps many Americans from engaging with their police. Nationwide, nearly one-third of Americans who were seriously injured in crimes involving weapons never reported that crime to the police. As distrust of law enforcement increases, witness cooperation and engagement with officers diminishes, policing becomes less informed and less effective, more shootings and murders go unsolved and unpunished, and more people turn to vigilante justice to substitute for the failures of the justice system to keep them safe or hold their attackers accountable.
  • A destabilizing feedback loop of distrust, disengagement, and fear can leave whole communities scarred by the violence of a desperate few. A tiny fraction of the average city’s population is responsible for a majority of homicides and nonfatal shootings. Recent research shows that, on average, a majority of homicides and nonfatal shootings are perpetrated by and against members of street groups that constitute less than 0.6% of the population. Within that high-risk population, a much smaller number of people actually pull the trigger. Policing strategies that treat the remaining 99% of the population as victims, witnesses, and critical partners in addressing violent crime, instead of part of the problem, are essential to effectively solving murders, deterring vigilante violence, protecting those at highest risk, and building trust with the community.

Despite overwhelming challenges and longstanding rifts in trust, a number of cities have proven that progress is possible. In cities like Camden, New Jersey; Stockton, California; and Minneapolis, Minnesota; concerted efforts to refocus law enforcement resources around the prevention of violence and to infuse community policing and trust-building efforts throughout all officers’ work are making a major difference. While these efforts are still very much underway, these communities have already seen pronounced results: For instance: in 2012, Camden, suffered 67 homicides. By 2018, there were 22.

Other cities seeking to improve their criminal justice and policing strategies should bolster investment in community-based violence intervention initiatives and group violence intervention strategies, encourage cities and law enforcement agencies to adopt the recommendations made by  President Obama’s 2015 national blue ribbon task force for 21st Century Policing, and commit to critically analyzing all gun violence prevention proposals for their potential impact on the criminal justice system and underserved communities.