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Future Hindsight is a weekly podcastthat takes big ideas in civic life and democracy and turns them into action items for everyday citizens.

Jan 18, 2020

Focus on Violence First

Abt’s central thesis for solving violence in urban areas is fairly straightforward: focus on the violence—and not other factors—first. Exposure to violence may be the central mechanism that keeps poor children poor because it inhibits their ability to escape poverty. Violence occupies the brain with lifelong repercussions. Studies have shown elevated rates of cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses based on childhood trauma. Trauma also impacts the ability to sleep, focus, and behave, all of which impact academic and job performances. By reducing violence first, we can provide a measure of safety and stability, which makes it easier to improve education, health outcomes, and attract business investments in a community.

Focused, Balanced, and Fair

Successful urban violence reduction efforts need to be focused, balanced, and fair. Urban crime “sticks” to certain locations, such as a liquor store or a gas station; certain high-risk individuals; and certain behaviors, such as the illegal possession of weapons. Tightly focusing on high risk areas, behaviors, and people, is key to reducing violence. A balanced mix of tactics includes increased policing as well as increased violence prevention programs. This carrot-and-stick method offers success consistent with human nature. Fairness builds trust between law enforcement and marginalized communities. When people don’t trust law enforcement and institutions, they’re less likely to use them to solve disputes, leading to an increasing cycle of violence. Law enforcement also overburdens many of these communities with constant policing – think stop and frisk – but underserves them because they are still not safe.

Targeting Behavior

The people who are on the giving or receiving end of violent urban crime are usually heavily traumatized individuals. Constant trauma and violence lead to a condition known as hypervigilance, an elevated flight-or-fight response. Those who are hypervigilant can go from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye, which makes it difficult to function in a normal setting. By targeting trauma-caused behavior through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), we can help them achieve the results they want. CBT addresses anger management, interpersonal problem-solving, and future orientation issues. It’s hard to work with a young man who cannot visualize that actions today might have long ranging consequences when he doesn’t believe that he’s going to live longer than another two or three years. Once these behaviors are identified and addressed, opportunities such as job placements are easier to utilize, and success is easier to achieve.

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Thomas Abt is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, and was previously Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Development. He formerly served as Deputy Secretary for Public Safety under New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Chief of Staff to the Office of Justice Programs at the United States Department of Justice, and founding member of the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative.

Bleeding Out is his first book, focusing on evidence-informed approaches to reduce urban violence. It argues the best way to reduce violence is through direct action against violence first, before treating deeply rooted societal issues like poverty.

You can follow Thomas on Twitter @Abt_Thomas