Tony Luong

This Man Says His Anti-violence Plan Would Save 12,000 Lives

Why aren’t more cities using it?

On a chilly evening in early May, Mitchell Thomas, a Buffalo, New York, police lieutenant, pulled his patrol car away from an East Side district station to lead a three-vehicle caravan on an unconventional policing mission.

Thomas and his team of four Buffalo cops and an FBI agent were making home visits, a form of intervention that Buffalo police had recently begun relying on more heavily to head off imminent violence. These meetings alert likely victims or shooters that they are at risk of death or arrest unless they choose a different path. If successful, the police get invited back with social workers offering an array of services—GED classes, job training, counseling, rehab—in a bid to prevent recurring cycles of violence.

One stop had been added at the last minute. Earlier that day, a drive-by shooter had fired multiple rounds at a 21-year-old from a rival gang, who scrambled unhurt into his aunt’s house. Police investigating the incident had come and gone. As Thomas approached the encounter with the would-be victim, Darnell Clark, he brimmed with optimism. “This guy could be dead right now,” he said. “Maybe after this shooting, he’s like, ‘Man, I need to change my life.’”

Twenty minutes later, Thomas returned to his patrol car proclaiming the meeting a qualified success. He told me later that Clark had been nonchalant at first but eventually opened up a bit, and that Clark’s mother, who’d also been there, had listened to Thomas’s spiel about connecting the family to social services that might keep her son out of danger or criminal trouble, and then gave Thomas her name and number to be contacted again. (Clark’s name has been changed at the police department’s request, for his and his family’s protection.) That, Thomas concluded, constituted progress. “They get to see the police in a different light,” he said, “that we’re there because we’re concerned and we want to help.”

(Left to right) Officer Michael Beavers, Lieutenant Mitchell Thomas, Officer Mark Alberti, and Officer Sheila Suggs-Barrons of the Buffalo, New York, Police Department complete a home visit. (Tony Luong)

That’s their hope, at least. The reality can be messier, as I found out when I spoke with Clark’s mother. (Clark, who ended up in jail 10 weeks later on unrelated charges, didn’t respond to a letter requesting comment.) She told me that she distrusts the Buffalo police so much that the whole interaction had struck her as “fake,” and was impossible to see as the start of something good for her family. “That’s not how our Buffalo police work,” she said. “They really do not do that. They don’t come out; they don’t speak to people. That never happened in Buffalo, and I’ve been here 46 years.”

This disconnect underscores one of the central challenges of reducing urban violence in the neighborhoods most in need of help, where alienation from police runs high. The overall U.S. homicide rate has plunged by half since a peak in 1991, and yet it remains one of the highest in the world’s wealthy nations, with many cities struggling with alarming spasms of violence. While mass shootings in random public places grab attention in the press, homicides are much more often the result of personal squabbles among small groups of young men. Just last year, three of the U.S. cities suffering chronic neighborhood violence—Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia—lost more lives on their streets than the number killed nationwide in the past half century in the most feared types of shooting rampages.

Because street violence is so much more common, it has yielded a solid body of empirical evidence of what works to prevent it. Those Buffalo police found themselves on Clark’s doorstep owing to a grant program in New York that encourages cities to use the best evidence-based strategies for reducing urban gun violence by paying for the necessary resources. Buffalo could use the help. Until this year, five years into the program, its street-shooting numbers hadn’t budged. Thomas’s boss, Carmen Menza, admits that the police don’t yet know if the new approaches work. But, he says, “at least we’re trying to do something, rather than just wait for the violence to happen.”

It’s that kind of resolve that inspired one of the architects of the New York grant program, Thomas Abt, to want to teach more cities how to start using—and how to stick with—the best violence-reduction strategies. His thinking breaks from political orthodoxy on both the left and the right: The main reason violence is so persistent in the United States, he believes, isn’t that gun laws are too weak (a common argument among liberals) or that police critics have hamstrung tough street-clearing tactics (an often-stated conservative belief). It’s that not enough cities, whatever their political leanings, are properly using basic strategies that are known to persuade would-be shooters not to acquire guns, and not to use them on one another, in the first place.

Top: When a state violence-prevention program came to Buffalo, New York’s second-largest city, officials found social conditions known to breed violence, and a crisis of community-police relations that was hindering crime prevention. Bottom: Buffalo’s troubled East Side has been the focus of innovative policing strategies paid for with an annual state grant. (Tony Luong)

Abt turned what he learned in the past two decades in law-enforcement jobs, and now as a Harvard crime researcher, into a how-to manual published in late June called Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence—And a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets. Written for a mainstream audience, the book translates complex violence-reduction science into paint-by-numbers simplicity, even to the point of predicting, unusually, how many lives would be saved by following his formula. He told me, “I wanted people to put the book down and be like, ‘Okay, let’s go do this.’”

Abt, a 47-year-old with tousled, professorial hair, a neat graying beard, and chunky glasses, is a self-described “crime nerd.” He had a sheltered upbringing in the affluent college town of Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the son of an MIT-educated father who founded the social-science research firm Abt Associates and a Harvard-educated mother who is a banking and economic-development consultant. But turning 18 in 1990, when U.S. handgun homicides had nearly doubled since five years earlier, meant reaching adulthood, Abt said, “precisely during the time when America was most violent and when we never knew whether it would ever get any less violent.” Even though violence began to drop in the 1990s, Abt saw its tenacious hold on cities up close in an experience during law school at Georgetown University, when he taught a civics class in a Northwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood and lost a favorite student to murder, and again in his first job out of law school, as a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, where he spent four years.

After Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Abt was working on the administration’s transition team when he was introduced to Laurie Robinson, the assistant attorney general overseeing the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which conducts and finances criminal-justice research. Before long, Robinson installed Abt as a key aide. Intent on steering the office’s programs toward a reform agenda rooted in the science of crime reduction, Robinson entrusted Abt with a start-up project spreading expertise to cities struggling with youth violence.

The partnership with Robinson exposed Abt to the growing confidence among crime scientists about the proven effectiveness of a handful of law-enforcement and crime-prevention strategies focused on targeting concentrated violence—among a tiny number of people, in a tiny number of places. But the more he learned, the more frustrated he grew with the lack of a clear road map showing cities what to do. Cities with many resources and sophistication, such as New York and Los Angeles, had mastered data analysis and the latest interventions against gangs and guns, and had seen violent crime drop. But too many other cities needed help catching up. “I felt like everything we needed to know was out there, but no one had put it together,” he said.

Thomas Abt returned to his hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to develop ideas at Harvard that had germinated in his years of work in criminal-justice posts at the local, state, and federal levels. (Tony Luong)

In June 2013, Abt left Washington for Albany to oversee New York State’s criminal-justice agencies. There, he helped revamp a moribund 10-year-old grant program that had an annual budget of $13 million to underwrite local anti-violence enforcement efforts. The program was renamed Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE), and its mission was to help the state’s smaller cities replicate New York City’s dramatic success at reducing violence using evidence-based strategies.

A Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence study from 2017 singled out New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut for extending such aid to their cities, though it called New York’s program “unique” for its focus on gun violence. California recently tripled a similar program’s budget to $27 million, and Illinois officials hope to plow legal-marijuana tax revenues into anti-violence programs. The Council of State Governments Justice Center, a crime-policy think tank, has helped Oklahoma, Missouri, and Ohio devise plans to reinvest savings from shrinking prisons into violence reduction.

But for all the talk of evidence-based violence prevention, Abt said, “that’s really more a matter of appearances than reality.” He feels cities too often improvise changes to the strategies that undercut their effectiveness, and drop programs without giving them a fair chance to work. Reneé Mitchell, a co-founder of the four-year-old American Society of Evidence-Based Policing, agrees that too few police departments use the best strategies effectively or extensively enough. The result, she says, is that the movement her organization seeks to spark has barely begun. “By not using evidence-based policing, I think we waste taxpayers’ money,” she says. “And I think we harm our communities.”

To launch GIVE in 2014, Abt and Mike Green, the executive deputy commissioner of New York’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, visited nearly all of the 17 upstate and Long Island cities in the program. What they saw in Buffalo, New York’s second-largest city, made a strong impression—though not in a good way. It has levels of concentrated poverty and segregation that almost invariably equate to higher crime.

But some of the city’s problems were self-inflicted. The police had a legacy of misconduct and heavy-handed tactics—multiple beatings and excessive arrests for low-level offenses—that had bred resentment in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, and they had not completely shed their bad reputation. A “strike force” unit that conducted widespread stop-and-frisks and warrantless home raids epitomized the department’s brutish enforcement tactics. GIVE’s strategies sounded to some like a radical departure. On top of that, Green and Abt observed bureaucratic backstabbing in lieu of cross-agency collaboration. Abt said of the new approach, “They weren’t necessarily opposed to it, but they just weren’t aware” of how well these strategies had worked elsewhere.

To enlist local support, Abt and Green sold their idea as a supportive, not dictatorial, endeavor. They were prescriptive, though, when it came to forming an anti-violence strategy. In return for annual grants for each county, ranging from less than $200,000 for the smallest counties to nearly $1.7 million for the largest in the program (Erie County, which includes Buffalo), New York police departments and other agencies had to pick at least two strategies from a list of four, and had to use the strategies exactly as described by Green’s agency.

Those four strategies, which had consistently earned top ratings for effectiveness, were: hot-spots policing, in which officers saturate areas prone to gun violence; focused deterrence, in which law-enforcement officials warn high-risk people of the consequences of continued violence, while social workers swoop in with services such as mental-health counseling; crime prevention through environmental design, involving improvements such as adding streetlights and cleaning up vacant lots so they won’t serve as crime magnets; and street outreach, in which “violence interrupters”—not officers but civilians, often former gang members themselves—mediate disputes and counsel high-risk people. The strategies were infused with principles of procedural justice, which hold that police and other justice officials must use fairness and transparency to win community support in order to reduce crime.

Beyond reimbursing cities for their hard costs and footing the bill for a network of sophisticated crime-data centers, Green’s agency created the Criminal Justice Knowledge Bank, which shares innovative practices and news about research while connecting police with researchers.

After receiving a GIVE grant in July 2014, Buffalo police began using all of the endorsed strategies, but leaned most heavily on deploying saturation police patrols to the department’s two most violent districts, both in the city’s East Side neighborhood. The patrols had one overriding focus, says Joseph Gramaglia, the deputy police commissioner overseeing the GIVE project: “Guns. Everything is guns.”

But after all of Abt and Green’s work to persuade Buffalo to adopt GIVE, something upsetting happened: Having hit a recent low point in 2013—the year before GIVE—shootings bounced back to a disturbingly high number of more than 200 a year. (In 2018, New York City, with a population more than 32 times greater than Buffalo’s, had fewer than four times as many shootings.)

And even though GIVE grants come with a mandate for police departments to balance tough enforcement with measures aimed at winning back citizens’ trust, one police-reform advocate, the State University of New York at Buffalo law professor Anjana Malhotra, says the department’s continued strained relationships in the most violent neighborhoods show that the police still favor hard-nosed tactics over fence-mending. “There’s a community consensus that they want to reduce violence, but there’s a serious distrust issue with the police,” says Malhotra, who co-authored a 2017 study documenting claims of racially biased policing in Buffalo.

By 2018, four years after GIVE began, the shooting numbers still hadn’t declined. The mayor’s choice to replace his retiring police commissioner was a Buffalo Police Department veteran who had been on the job for more than 30 years, Byron Lockwood, a decision easily interpreted as a vote for the status quo. But Lockwood promptly abolished the strike-force unit, launched an ambitious community-policing program, and promoted Gramaglia, a strong GIVE supporter, to deputy commissioner.

Buffalo Police Department’s Carmen Menza (left), a district chief, commands the day-to-day work of a state-funded anti-violence program that is a centerpiece of efforts by Commissioner Byron Lockwood (center) and Deputy Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia (right) to develop effective, evidence-based enforcement strategies that don’t further antagonize residents. (Tony Luong)

That June, however, Malhotra and others sued the city over the use of highway checkpoints and traffic enforcement that fell disproportionately on minorities. The lawsuit is ongoing. The department, Malhotra says, still has further to go to repair relations in heavily policed nonwhite neighborhoods. “There’s a distinction between the formal approach and the reality of what’s going on,” she says. “On the ground, we haven’t seen much change in police practices.” By the end of 2018, homicides totaled 57, marking the city’s worst year since 2014.

In response to Malhotra’s criticisms, Gramaglia notes the emphasis that Lockwood has placed on his new community-policing program. Still, he concedes, “it’s a day-by-day process, and building bridges takes time.” As for the violence-reduction strategies, Gramaglia’s immersion in GIVE training—which was informed by Abt’s thinking—made him feel confident about staying the course. “We’re not foolish enough to think that we’re not going to have spikes again,” he says. Rather than abandoning the strategies the department had been using, Gramaglia decided instead to adjust them.

Alarmed by 2018’s homicide surge, he knew one plausible solution was trying a heavier use of call-ins, a form of focused deterrence in which likely shooters and victims get summoned to a group sit-down with cops and social workers. Those interventions target parolees and probationers, using readily available lists of men likely to comply with orders to show up. But targeting those who have already been convicted of crimes misses those who have no criminal record.

At a GIVE-sponsored seminar in October, Gramaglia was struck by an idea while hearing talk of making home visits—essentially the same intervention as a group call-in, but with a single high-risk person. Targeting Facebook gun flashers and men suspected of having gang affiliations could reach the young men and teens who lacked criminal records and who were driving much of the violence. Gramaglia’s officers had tried this tactic sporadically already and saw it as promising. “They fully expect to be shot,” he says of the youths they visit. So the mission is “to go there and try to help you and show you a better way.”

Starting in November, Gramaglia streamlined the process into initial police-only visits, which open the door, if possible, to a more formal group visit with social workers on hand. “The end game is no violence,” he says. “A real win is we get you to be a productive member of society. We get you a job, we get you back in school, we get you on the right path.” But Gramaglia will settle for those youths falling off the police radar. “Which means you’re not out shooting anybody. You’re not out carrying a gun.”

Green, who oversees the GIVE program statewide, makes the case that cities such as Buffalo with chronic violence problems need patience. “We try not to put too much emphasis on one year’s numbers,” he explains. In Buffalo, he says, “I see very promising things that are moving in a direction steadily over time that I think bodes very well.” Using a new program for six months or a year is one thing, he says. “It gets harder to sustain and incorporate into your way of doing business over a period of time. I think Buffalo’s done a nice job with that.”

Lieutenant Mitchell Thomas reviews social-media posts for signs of guns and gang activity, part of an intelligence-gathering operation that helps focus the police in their one-on-one interventions with young men at risk of getting shot or shooting others. (Tony Luong)

Abt believes that one reason so many cities fail at violence prevention is that they lurch from crisis to crisis, pulling solutions from the air and then trying something else after the next inevitable surge in violence. In Chicago, the birthplace of the Cure Violence street-outreach program, a series of public-funding lapses from 2004 to 2015 interrupted the program, capped by a complete loss of state funding from 2015 to 2017. The organization closed all but one of its offices during what turned out to be a nationwide spike in gun violence, led by Chicago.

While Abt generally eschews the political debate about gun control, he does see evidence for limiting the supply of guns through laws requiring permits to purchase handguns. In 2007, though, legislators abolished Missouri’s 86-year-old permit law, a move that has been blamed for helping lead to a 27 percent increase in firearm homicide rates in St. Louis, the state’s most violent city. In Los Angeles, complaints about racially biased enforcement tactics forced the city this year to scrap a data program it had used since 2011 to target its hot-spots-policing work.

The crime-control theorist who devised the focused-deterrence strategy, David Kennedy, filled his memoir with tales of frustration when cities prematurely pulled the plug on the strategy due to political or bureaucratic squabbles. Even in the strategy’s birthplace, Boston, where it was credited with reversing horrific youth-violence rates, Kennedy’s Operation Ceasefire lasted only four years, a victim of a turf battle among Boston police leaders. In other cases, cities improvised changes to the strategy that undercut its effectiveness, or simply panicked when street violence flared. “I know we can control the bad guys,” Kennedy wrote. “The bad guys are not the problem. I don’t know how to control the good guys.”

There are numerous other barriers to achieving widespread, consistent use of the best strategies. Much research remains locked inside scholarly papers that defy easy translation into an action plan by officers on the ground—many of whom see policing as an art, not a science. In surveys in the police departments of Sacramento and Richmond, Virginia, only a quarter of officers said they’d heard of evidence-based policing. “A lot of cops think research is Google,” says Mitchell, of the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing.

The Trump administration’s spending priorities have leaned more on George W. Bush–era tough-on-crime programs, while axing a number of Obama-era prevention-focused programs, including Abt’s youth-violence initiative.

Abt faults all of these barriers for the slow progress of evidence-based practices in violence prevention. But he sees an underlying cause as well: a lack of political will to help those threatened the most in the remaining pockets of gun violence. “Violence concentrates among the least politically powerful among us—poor communities of color.”

GIVE had barely begun in 2014 when Abt left the running of it to Green’s staff and moved to his current job, as a senior research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The GIVE experience had shown him that it was possible to steer troubled cities toward evidence-based strategies and teach them to use the strategies effectively. But after a decade of work aimed at spreading this science, Abt still wasn’t seeing widespread adoption.

Abt had been fond of reciting a criminology truism, “We know what works.” Then it hit him: “Who is this ‘we’?” he said he wondered. “It’s actually a very small number of people … I realized that we had sort of been talking to ourselves.” This nagging concern, and research he did at Harvard documenting how evidence of effective violence prevention had grown to more than 1,400 studies, led Abt to start work three years ago on what would become Bleeding Out. This book, he decided, should take a starkly different tone than the piles of research papers that had largely gone ignored. With a blunt title focused on everyday urban violence—“First you stop the bleeding, because unless you stop the bleeding, nothing else matters,” he writes—Abt prescribes specific strategies, complete with forecasts of what they will cost and how many lives can be saved.

Abt suggests a dozen different evidence-based approaches, including the popular ones used by New York’s GIVE program. He also recommends a concerted effort to solve more homicides, and various family and substance-abuse therapies. The interventions are geared toward the particulars of a potentially violent situation. For example, teenagers at potential but not imminent risk of harming others can be reached through a preventive measure such as cognitive behavioral therapy. As someone’s risk level goes up, he might be in need of the violence interrupters who work in street outreach, a focused deterrence intervention, or even incarceration.

Abt does the math for the 40 U.S. cities that together have the worst homicide rates and numbers of killings. If these cities adopted his plan, at a combined cost of $900 million over eight years, he claims, more than 12,000 lives would be saved. Chicago, which has consistently had more murders than any other U.S. city in recent years, would save 1,500 lives using programs costing $112 million over eight years. (A Chicago police spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, bristles at the suggestion that the city ignores evidence-based strategies, saying it has done “some of the most advanced work” in the nation and has lower homicide numbers since 2017 to show for it.) Nationwide, Abt estimates that the investment would pay off not just in lives but in costs avoided: $120 billion in medical expenses, criminal-justice costs, lost wages, and reduced quality of life.

Abt advocates for progressive ideas such as limiting or excluding the involvement of police when using street-outreach counselors. But he also bucks the dogma of the left that crime’s principal root cause—poverty—must be made the priority, and that policing needs curtailment instead of reform. “Violence is not simply a manifestation of poverty; it is a force that perpetuates poverty as well,” he writes. “Poverty might precede violence, but reducing poverty requires working backward, beginning with violence itself.”

Such notions, says Jeffrey Butts, the director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, may skew the violence-intervention focus too far into short-term preventive tactics driven by law enforcement. “He claims the moral high ground by dismissing people who talk about fundamental causes and long-term solutions,” says Butts. He adds that Abt’s use of numbers shows an “aggressively overconfident” precision that can give people a false impression of how likely these outcomes are. Butts also questions Abt’s theory that a book can bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners where other tools haven’t worked. “It’s hard to change someone’s behavior just by telling them stuff,” he says.

Abt said he’s all for addressing social and economic root causes of violence, so long as they don’t substitute for “life-saving policies that can be implemented today.” He also said he was careful to label his numbers on projected lives saved and costs as estimates, and called them conservative estimates at that.

Because the book is aimed not just at policy makers and police but also at the general public, its accessibility gives it an advantage, says the Harvard sociologist Christopher Winship, who has worked closely with Abt and on violence-reduction research of his own. Once citizens read it, he says, “are they calling up the local police department, the chief, and saying, ‘How come you’re not doing this?’ That seems to me to be where the book potentially has some real leverage.”

After Gramaglia’s epiphany in the fall, Buffalo police greatly expanded their use of home visits. In the first half of 2019, they attempted the tactic 241 times, compared with 10 and 15 times in the same period of 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Any social scientist would caution against drawing a causal inference about whether it has worked, especially with so many other overlapping efforts in play. But a notable drop in shootings in 2019 signals that something crucial has changed. Citywide, the number of shooting victims fell by nearly one-third from the same six months in 2018: to 78 from 115. In the two patrol districts that see the majority of Buffalo’s shootings and where GIVE concentrates its work, the drop in shooting victims has been about 40 percent.

Officers Mark Alberti, Sheila Suggs-Barrons, and Michael Beavers (left to right) after conducting a home visit (Tony Luong)

In the case of Clark, the young man whom Lieutenant Thomas’s GIVE team visited hours after he was almost shot, the outcome in the weeks after the meeting turned into an encapsulation of the potential, and frustrations, of trying to police in a different way in a place where community trust is frayed.

One of the detectives on the home visit later said that he and an FBI agent did some investigating on their own and found a teen who said Clark had threatened him with a gun. The attempt on Clark’s life had apparently been retaliation for that provocation. The investigators returned to Clark’s house the next day. Under questioning, Clark broke down in tears. Yes, he’d flashed a gun. He’d even fired back when he got shot at. Then he walked the officers into the house and handed over a .357-caliber revolver.

The police opted not to charge Clark with gun possession, or to revoke his probation on an earlier gun conviction. “You can’t work with someone to get a gun off the street and then turn around and arrest him,” Gramaglia says.

But according to the Erie County probation commissioner, Clark landed in jail in July for failing to report to his probation officer and for allegedly trying to smuggle drugs into a prison, and his probation was revoked anyway. Chief Menza, Thomas’s boss, acknowledges that the attempt to change Clark’s life had not been “a great success story.” Still, he feels the department’s only option is to stay the course. “We’re trying,” he says. “There’s no simple answers here.”

That kind of persistence is key, Abt argues in his book. Rather than letting short-term successes or failures dictate policy choices, he writes, science supports setting a solid plan in motion and sticking with it. “You’ve got to accept that there are going to be some bad times,” he told me. “If you’re remarkably successful in your city and you reduce homicides by 75 percent, you’re still going to have a bunch of tragedies. There’s still going to be, every once in a while, a child shot. And it will still tear your heart out. So you have to find a way to have this blend of hope and resiliency—which is not easy.”