Failing conventionally on gun violence reduction

In the last few days, Philadelphia unveiled a new Roadmap to Safer Communities in response to the Mayor’s call for a plan to drastically reduce the city’s burgeoning gun violence problem.

The plan claims to represent a “comprehensive plan establishing a strategy for gun violence prevention and to reduce the rising gun violence rates. This plan takes a public health approach to violence that uses science and data to better understand the problem. We believe these recommendations will dramatically reduce shootings and homicides in the city over the next five years.” (emphasis added)

The plan is certainly comprehensive, in that it entails a classic approach of “everything but the kitchen sink” on the public health side. The first recommendation is to “Promote community health and well-being by prioritizing the reduction of structural violence through unpacking and addressing the physical and programmatic inequities that exist in the communities at the highest risk of violence.”

I am still trying to figure out what that means.

The second recommendation relates to the “Philadelphia Police Department’s Violent Crime Reduction Strategy ‘Operation Pinpoint,’ which is a combination of intelligence-based and community-oriented policing.” To the police department’s credit, there is an evidential basis to their plan to target the worst offenders and neighborhood crime attractors. For example the Philadelphia Policing Tactics Experiment saw significant violence reductions when police focused on serious, repeat offenders. And the largely ignored work of my colleague Caterina Roman and her collaborators on the city’s Focused Deterrence reduced gun-related homicides 35 percent and noticed the importance of crime attracting sites.

The overall problem with the Roadmap to Safer Communities is that we will never know if it worked.

But surely if violence goes down, it worked right? – I hear you say. But as Helen Ubiñas pointed out the plan isn’t new. So how do we know the existing efforts didn’t inadvertently cause the increases in shootings we’ve witnessed over the last year or two? Crime fluctuates for a variety of reasons, only some of which are understood.

We spend tens of millions on violence prevention programs with zero evidence that any of them work, and the city seems unwilling to instigate any kind of accountability. It was recently announced that a foundation will teach a few local non-profits how to evaluate their own impact. First, why does a city with as many universities as Philadelphia need consultants from Connecticut? And of more concern, an agency evaluating whether it should remain at the “public trough of violence prevention funding” is a recipe for research manipulation. External and independent evaluation is the only truly ethical way to regulate taxpayer funds.

What the city should have done is trialed these initiatives in different parts of the city, and not in others. This is the only way to have a true comparison. This is how the medical field has doubled human life expectancy over the last 200 years. “That’s unethical!” I hear you scream; “People are dying!”. Yes they are, but what is really unethical is spending millions to try and save them without knowing if you are actually helping. Good intentions are no substitute for good programs.

As I’ve recounted elsewhere, a senior officer once told me “you can fail in policing, as long as you fail conventionally”. The road to hell is paved with crime prevention initiatives that everyone “knew” worked. But in the end, good science and an evidence-based approach showed that DARE, Scared Straight and gun buy-back programs are all ineffective.

Ironically, the city has a GovLabPHL, a multi-agency team led by the Mayor’s Policy Office tasked with “developing innovative, data-driven and evidence-based practices across @PhiladelphiaGov to address municipal challenges”. What bigger challenge than our gun violence problem, right? But no evidence of their involvement. Well, they were able to confirm that when it comes to rubbish, “less trash receptacles increase[s] the amount of litter“.

So there’s that at least.