ISIH S3 E20 / Gun Violence in America: The Science of Soft Policing

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Celine Gounder: Hi, everyone. This is Dr. Celine Gounder. I’m the host of this show, “In Sickness and in Health.” If you like our approach to health storytelling, do me a small favor. This week tell one friend about the podcast. Just one. Not a big ask, right? It’ll help us bring you more stories… on the big health issues of the day. Thanks for listening. Now… on with the show.

Sirena Cotton: Well, that day Chris and I spent the whole day together. We were all at home and ordered pizza and wings and having a good time just like we normally do on a Saturday night… Then the phone started ringing… so I kept asking, “Who's calling?" … He's like … “just some girl.” I said, “Well, guess what? If the girl calls again, you're not leaving… y'all could go across the street where I could see you because it's almost curfew time.” …so he put some grease on his hair and pushed it up in a ponytail, put his jacket on, got cute and went outside.. 

Celine Gounder: Welcome back to In Sickness and in Health, a podcast about health and social justice. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This season we’re looking at gun violence in America.

Celine Gounder: The woman you’re hearing is Sirena Cotton, talking about her son Christopher… Christopher “C-Snake Boogie” Jones.

Sirena Cotton: I looked outside and I saw Chris sitting on the stairs, and there was three girls standing there, you know, like they were just talking or whatever. I went upstairs… I heard a lot of commotion and first, I was just sitting there, and then I thought about it. I was like, “Wait a minute Chris is still outside.” … I looked out the window, and there was a car parked across the street that was still running, and it was a lot of people outside. … I… ran out the door in just my nightgown. …the one that had the gun… the person was getting out of the truck and coming around the truck, and that's when he pulled the trigger.

Celine Gounder: On November 17, 2007, her 17-year old son Chris, was shot outside their home. He died. Sirena was devastated. And even more so, when she learned why her son had been shot.

Sirena Cotton: The one girl that lied to Christopher, lied to Chris, she got on the stand and told the truth. Her cousin came to fight Christopher because he assumed Chris knew her age. She lied and told my baby she was 16. She was only 12, so that's why her cousin was setting it up to fight Chris, and Chris died not even knowing the girl's real age.

Celine Gounder: Sirena has three other children. Two of them… have also been shot… but they survived. She says they were all good kids. Didn’t do drugs. Didn’t get in trouble… But somehow… they couldn’t escape the violence.

Celine Gounder: It wasn’t until after Chris died that Sirena realized how prevalent gun violence was in her community. And she began to wonder… was there anything… she could do about it.

Celine Gounder: In today’s episode, we’ll look at the science of “soft policing.” We’ll look at the direct and indirect ways in which neighborhood groups can curb gun violence… and why getting the community mobilized around these issues turns out to be so important to the work.

Celine Gounder: We’ll come back to Sirena’s story. But first, let’s take a step back. On this show, we’ve talked about how violence-intervention programs, like Ceasefire or Cure Violence, work with individuals who are at highest risk... of being involved in violence… right now… today… or tomorrow… and what they need.

Celine Gounder: But, what about the next concentric circle out…  of people who are at medium risk? Let’s say, a young teenager… He’s got some risk factors… mom’s a single parent struggling to make ends meet… or dad is incarcerated... but this kid… he’s still in school... and still engaged. He’s not involved in the violence… at least, not yet.

Celine Gounder: Nonprofit and community-based organizations offer social services and other supports that address many of the social drivers of violence. They help prevent violence from spreading, but do so by taking a QUOTE “softer” approach... rather than a “hard” arrest and lock’em up strategy.

Celine Gounder: We’re going to look at one program that seeks to prevent situations... like the one that led to Chris’s death. 

Harold Pollack: …The Becoming a Man program is a program that is run by a local nonprofit in Chicago called Youth Guidance.

Celine Gounder: This is Harold Pollack. He’s a professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. The program he’s talking about, Becoming a Man, is a school-based group intervention for junior high school and high school boys. Becoming a Man teaches the social and emotional skills these boys need to cope with life’s challenges.

Harold Pollack: One of the most important challenges they face is violence prevention, avoiding being the victim or the perpetrator of violence, which in Chicago of course is a very significant problem. 

Celine Gounder: Part of Harold’s job is to evaluate how effective violence prevention programs, like Becoming a Man really are.

Celine Gounder: Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. We’ve talked before about how most urban violence in the U.S. is driven by a very small group of people… adult men… who’ve already been heavily involved with the criminal justice system… not high school-aged youth. Ceasefire and Cure Violence are about the here and now.

Celine Gounder: BAM is relevant to long-term violence reduction because of the type of work they do with teenage boys. The key here is that you’ve got to target the right people… at the right time… with the right intervention.

Harold Pollack: We all have scripted behaviors that we use to get through the day…

Celine Gounder: Most of our interactions with people in our day-to-day lives are pretty automatic. It would be hard to get through the morning if we had to stop and carefully analyze every situation before responding. So… we’ve developed these scripts.

Harold Pollack: They often work pretty well for us but that sometimes can go really badly if we're reacting automatically in a situation where, if we were just a little bit more reflective and stopped to think, we might behave quite differently.

Harold Pollack: Let me put you into the headspace of a…17-year old Chicago high school junior. 

Celine Gounder: Many of the teenagers Becoming A Man works with are used to putting up a tough-guy front. 

Harold Pollack: I've got this tough exterior that I used to deter people from trying to take advantage of me and trying to hurt me.

Celine Gounder: That becomes their script. One they use to interact with other 17-year old boys. In many cases, it’s a defense mechanism that has served them well… at least ’til now. A tough-guy script may, for example, signal to a bully at school that he’s not to be messed with. 

Harold Pollack: Now, let's think about how that automatic script can go wrong. So I walk in late into English class, and my English teacher gets in my face, and she's mad because I'm late. …she's in my face… in front of my friends, she's kind of humiliating me and treating me like I'm a little kid.

And of course, I've got this script of how I respond to other 17-year olds, and I'm also a 17-year old boy, I have testosterone pulsing through my body… I have testosterone pulsing through my body, I'm a normal adolescent young person. I curse out the teacher, and I go storming out of the classroom. … If I could have stopped myself, slowed myself down a little bit, I might have been able to navigate that situation better…

Celine Gounder: And that, Harold says, is what Becoming A Man helps them do.

Harold Pollack: What I need in that moment is not somebody lecturing me like, "Don't curse out your teacher." I kind of already know that. But, it's how do I, in that moment, execute that and remember, "Oh yeah, it's a really stupid idea for me to curse out my teacher right now when I'm pumped and about to act impulsively."

Celine Gounder: BAM kids what they often need is an adult man to say, "Uh, yeah, that's a tough situation. Let's game out how you can get through that. Let's think about what was really going on in that teacher's mind when she was in your face.”

Celine Gounder: Becoming A Man helps students consider the situation from the other person’s perspective.... and consider all the choices they have before reacting. It gives them a positive male role model… in essence… a new script.

Harold Pollack: I want this kid to learn, "How do I feel my emotions?" understanding that emotions have a place, there's nothing wrong with being angry. There's nothing wrong with the emotions that you feel, but when your emotions control you, and they prevent you from thinking strategically in important situations, they can do you a lot of harm.

Celine Gounder: If what drives urban gun violence is interpersonal conflict… emotions running high... people making rash decisions and reacting badly with a gun… then what Becoming A Man offers these kids are powerful tools that can, hopefully, serve them in the long-run… if they ever find themselves in triggering situations.

Celine Gounder: Becoming A Man participants meet once a week with a coach… usually a young man, perhaps of a similar background to theirs. Someone students can relate to. During each session, they do a series of exercises and reflection. On day one, the first item of business… is the golf ball exercise.

Harold Pollack: You pair off the kids. So, you know, Harold and Frank are paired off and the mentor gives Frank a little golf ball, and he says, "Harold, your job is to get that golf ball. Go."

Celine Gounder: Most kids, Harold says, will inevitably start hitting one another, wrestling for the ball, until the mentor stops the fight. 

Harold Pollack: Then, the mentor says, "Stop, stop, stop." And then he says… "Harold. Did you ask Frank for that ball?"

Celine Gounder: He says often the kids are surprised.

Harold Pollack: “Well, you didn't tell me that there was like rules or anything."  … Harold's like, "I'm bigger than Frank's so I could get it." Or Harold says, "Yes, I asked him. I said, 'Give me the blanking ball.'" Of course, Frank said, "Forget it." And so then it escalated from there. The mentor turns to Frank, and he says, "Frank, how would you respond if Harold just said, 'Hey, Frank, can you just hand me the ball for this exercise.'" And Frank is like, "I would have given him the ball what’s the big deal?”

Celine Gounder: After the ball exercise, kids are given an assignment to find an adult in the school building, and get them to do something that they want him or her to do. A favor. They then come back to class and let the group know who and how they persuaded to do this favor.

Celine Gounder: It may sound simple, but the exercise teaches them important lessons they haven’t learned before.

Harold Pollack: It's getting people to think about what other people need to get out of situations, getting the kids to appreciate, "Hey, I was reacting automatically in a way that wasn't necessary, and If I ask someone for a favor in a way that is disrespectful or trying to be dominant over them, they're not going to do what I want them to do."

Celine Gounder: There have been several studies of Becoming A Man and other programs like it. According to Harold, the results in terms of violence prevention... are pretty encouraging. 

Harold Pollack What we found in that study was roughly a 40% reduction in arrests for violent offending among the young men. We also found other benefits like kids were more likely to stay on track for graduation…

Celine Gounder: Harold was surprised.

Harold: In a way, I found that actually very sad because BAM is a once a week group counseling intervention, and if the kids were living in an environment that were meeting their needs, we would not have seen a 40% reduction like that. To me that was a symptom of how much these kids need, that we have failed to give them.

Celine Gounder: Becoming A Man costs about $2,000… per kid. It’s a relatively inexpensive program, as far as these things go. This means it’s accessible and relatively easy to scale up. And for Harold, this is key.

Harold Pollack: I think it's really important to give people a sense of realistic evidence-based optimism, that we can do something about the violence problem. Everyone across the political spectrum is sad about the high level of violence that we see in many cities across America, but I think that many of us are not convinced that we have available feasible strategies that can really do much about it.

Celine Gounder: There are lots of youth programs out there… midnight basketball, for instance, which helps take kids off the streets… but most don’t teach the social and emotional skills these kids need to survive… and that’s what makes Becoming A Man special.

Celine Gounder: But there are other indirect ways in which local organizations can help curb gun violence, engaging a broader swath of the community.

Patrick Sharkey: organizations that look out across a community have the capacity to see what is happening in the neighborhood before it happens. To see if the space looks like it's becoming a space where problems emerge, where people are not safe, where kids are hanging out unsupervised…

Celine Gounder: This is Patrick Sharkey. He’s a professor of sociology at New York University, and does research on urban policy, equality, and violence.

Patrick Sharkey: All of these organizations can get directly involved and directly try to reduce violence, but they also play a role just looking out over public space, making sure that everyone who enters that space is cared for, making sure that violence cannot emerge, drug distribution doesn't emerge, and this can be a very indirect process. 

Patricia Rogers: Hello, Dominican Center.

Celine Gounder: Uh, yes, hi, this is Celine Gounder, calling for Patricia Rogers.

Patricia Rogers: This is she.

Celine Gounder: Hi, Patricia. How are you doing this evening?

Patricia Rogers: I'm okay. How are you?

Celine: I'm good. I’m good. Thank you so much for making the time to talk to me today.

Patricia Rogers: Sure.

Celine Gounder: Sister Patricia Rogers is the Executive Director of the Dominican Center in the Amani neighborhood of Milwaukee. Before that, Patricia was a teacher at an alternative school for girls, and had long been interested in education and community engagement. She says it’s thanks to her mother..  

Patricia Rogers: That's where my activism really came from… It's been kind of ingrained in me…

Celine Gounder: Patricia remembers growing up in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Her mother was an active member of the NAACP and would take her kids with her to marches and demonstrations. She would check in on sick neighbors on her way home from work, and would open her home to other kids in the neighborhood at mealtime:

Patricia Rogers: ...the women that I grew up around, just didn't see a limit between their families and the next family. They were all part of the same fabric. 

Celine Gounder: The Dominican Center was founded in 1995, by two Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters. Sinsinawa Dominicans believe that relationships are at the heart of their ministry. In the beginning…

Patricia Rogers: ...It was just women that they worked with. They did art. They did dance. They did poetry. And, just to find out what the women in the community were liking, what were their wishes?

Celine Gounder: And they soon found out that what the women in Amani really wanted... was to become homeowners. So the Dominican Center shifted its work to support Amani’s women in working towards that goal.

Patricia Rogers: Through that, there was a real relationship that they built throughout this neighborhood. 

Celine Gounder: And that’s why the Dominican Center now teaches homeowners how to repair their homes… bring them up to code… and how to prevent lead exposure in drinking water and paint. They teach financial literacy… about taxes, insurance, maintenance and utilities. They’ve even got a landlord training program.

Celine Gounder: A few years ago…

Patricia Rogers: We were doing a project that was called Painting with a Purpose.

Celine Gounder: Neighbors wanted to address urban blight in Amani.

Patricia Rogers: The whole idea behind the program was to not just have the houses boarded up, but to at least try to make them look as if maybe someone lived there. On the houses… It would be a plywood board laid over all of the windows, and they would paint the boards so that it looked like curtains were on the windows. And then, they would put plywood over the doors, and paint those as if it was a door. The whole idea was to try to cut down on vandalism in those houses and at least give the appearance in the neighborhood that, you know, it wasn't as bad as it seemed that something was happening to these houses.

Celine Gounder: Beyond making old houses look beautiful, what Painting With A Purpose did... was to give the community control… to empower them to take back their neighborhood.

Patrick Sharkey: …who's in charge of a given street, or a block, or any public space? 

Celine Gounder: Patrick Sharkey again.

Patrick Sharkey: You get a sense of that when you walk through a neighborhood, and get a feel for whether it's a space that is outside the control of any neighbors or police officers, or security officers, or whatever it might be. Or whether there's some element of the community that kind of takes responsibility for that space.

Celine Gounder: One way of taking responsibility for that space, says Patrick, is through broken windows policing.

Patrick Sharkey: Yeah, so the original broken windows theory argued that when there are signs of disorder…

Celine Gounder: like broken windows…. overgrown weeds in an abandoned lot… or litter...

Patrick Sharkey: ... then that space becomes more vulnerable.

Celine Gounder: Vulnerable to violence and other crimes. People come to believe that no one is looking out… and that in that space, anyone can get away... with anything.

Patrick Sharkey: The big question, then, is how that translates into policy, and I think the big problem with broken windows theory is that it was translated into a policy that focused on the police. 

Celine Gounder: Broken windows, Patrick says, shouldn’t be about cops policing, but about self-policing. When neighbors… community groups.... and local organizations… do the policing… the community reaps the benefits.

Patrick Sharkey: 31:52: That action of taking steps to make sure that public spaces are cared for in very visible ways, that has a potential to really maintain a community to create stability, to make sure that it doesn't become a space… where problems might emerge. A space that becomes out of control, a space where violence can happen.

Celine Gounder: The Dominican Center was making small changes to the environment where people lived… and doing exactly that. 

Charles: I think there's been some focus on the environment, but limited…

Charles Branas is the Chair of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

Charles: ...there could be some very important opportunities for preventing gun violence if we made actual changes to environments that are promoting it in the first place.

Celine Gounder: When we think about gun violence from a public-health perspective... and compare it to an infectious disease… Charles says we often think in terms of hosts, agents, and vectors… it’s an idea we’ve explored in prior episodes. But, Charles says, we should also be looking at the environment. As with the spread of disease... when looking at gun violence, changes to the environment... matter.

Charles: Others who come through the space also see that the space has been cared for, and then we'll do likewise. That spreads around that neighborhood… the neighbors don't want public drunkenness or some sort of a disorderly conduct in these spaces, and they will ask those who are violating this to move on or to not do that. 

Celine Gounder: Charles and a team of researchers conducted a 32-month study in Philadelphia where vacant or abandoned lots in neighborhoods throughout the city were selected at random, and restored. The study found that… not only did the neighbors’ perception of crime, vandalism and danger decrease after the lots were revitalized… but crime rates actually went down, too.

Charles So if you do make a change to an environment, you gain the benefit of having it universally protect all those in that environment, including those who are at high risk, who cycle through the environment and those who are not.

Celine Gounder: But, Patricia points out that changes to the environment tend to work best if these changes are led by the community itself… because a community can only police... what it controls.

Patricia Rogers: Just for an example, there was an empty lot. The city has been talking about beautifying these empty lot for a couple of years now. And so, one empty lot, here were fruit trees, put on the empty lot. It's one of the things that the people really didn't want because it brings racoons and everything else.

Celine Gounder: The city went ahead and planted fruit trees. And...

Patricia Rogers: The lot was beautiful. 

Celine Gounder:  But...

Patricia Rogers: Nothing happened with those fruit trees. That to me was really a no-win situation. No one took care of them. They just went to waste. That was wasted money right there.

Celine Gounder: What the community really wanted, according to Patricia, were basketball hoops for younger children, who were too little to use the ones in the park.

Patricia Rogers: One man in the community did that with his lot, and it's used all the time. For me, that's the difference.

Celine Gounder: In her experience, when programs are led by community members, not only do they better address the real needs of the neighborhood, but they’re also... more sustainable.

Patricia Rogers: There's a lot of money that comes into Amani, but the organizations… they never ask the community, if it's what they want, if it's what they need, if it's being implemented in a way that's going to be sustainable, those questions are never asked. People look at the statistics of this neighborhood, and they say, “Aha, we know what you need. We're going to bring it in,” and usually the programs last for three years, and then people are gone. The program's gone, nothing else is happening because no one in the community was really brought in and said, “Okay, you're going to lead this, and we're going to see how you want this money spent, what's the best way to do it, how to approach it, and what families really need with this.”

Celine Gounder: The Center works because it encourages neighbors to get involved.

Patricia Rogers: …you have to build relationships, first of all, and you have to be patient. You have to believe that the people know what they need, and that they have the capacity to also... do the things that's necessary for them to meet those needs.

Celine Gounder: And… by bringing people together… the Dominican Center helps create a sense of solidarity in Amani.

Patrick Sharkey: Social cohesion is what happens when the people who use a space trust each other, when they believe that if something happens on that street, on that block, that their neighbors will step in…

Celine Gounder: The community is encouraged to not only take ownership of its public spaces… their neighborhood… but also… of its people.

Patricia Rogers: Parents and people have to work, they have children that have to go to school and do other things when they're not around. The village has to look out for those children. And we're in the shape that we're in now because the village has started to think that it's just my children that I have to look out for.

Celine Gounder: And in a way… this idea of taking ownership of her space... of the people in her neighborhood… that’s exactly what Sirena Cotton wanted to do after the death of her son.

Celine Gounder: It wasn’t until Chris died that Sirena began to notice how often young people were dying of gun violence. Her son Darius, the only one who hasn’t been shot, wrote a song one day listing everyone he knew who had been shot. The song had 44 names.

Celine Gounder: Sirena created an organization called “Roc the Peace,” and every year, on the anniversary of Chris’s birthday, she organizes the Roc the Peace Festival. The festival brings the community of Rochester together––that’s the “Roc” in “Roc the Peace”––to honor victims of homicide... and to promote peace throughout the community.

Sirena Cotton: It's a day where we can memorialize our family members or friends or loved ones, I'll say, and it's a day where you can just enjoy yourself. It's free food. The whole thing is free. We have a stage where there's live entertainment and speakers and different organizations come together and be a part of this.

Celine Gounder: Sirena also visits schools and meets with students. She talks to them about her experience losing her son… and listens to them talk about their own experiences with gun violence.

Sirena Cotton: What I noticed with going into the schools and just speaking to people in general, we have a lot of angry children or young adults. It's like they're lost. This is why I started a group for kids where it focuses on children that lost their parents or siblings to violence either by death or prison. ...a lot of these young folks are losing their parents and their siblings, and they're angry, and they are taking their anger out on anyone. It's like they don't care.

Celine Gounder: Violence prevention is most effective... when it’s in partnership... with community. That goes for “hard” law enforcement… the cops… or “softer” policing... like social services and community based-organizations.

Celine Gounder: But, building these close ties is often easier for groups like Roc the Peace, The Dominican Center, and Becoming A Man… than for the police. These groups often come from the community... or are community-led. Neighbors get the services and supports they need.

Celine Gounder: Which means… the “softer” side has a competitive edge in getting community buy-in… which is what’s needed to be most effective at curbing gun violence.

Celine Gounder: And yet...

Patrick Sharkey: These types of organizations have never had the sustained commitment that we as a nation have given to the criminal justice system and law enforcement, as a way to deal with violence…

Celine Gounder: Historically, we’ve relied on the police and prisons to address the problem of violent crime… but there are limitations... and consequences to that old-school model.

Patrick Sharkey: That is starting to sink in. That we can't just continue to build prisons and continue to imprison millions and millions of Americans as a way to deal with the problem of violence. That just doesn't work anymore. …and the big challenge is generating sufficient support and sufficient commitment to really invest in these types of organizations, to deliver the next model to deal with the problem of urban violence.

Celine Gounder: Patrick is an optimist… because research shows these organizations play an important role in violence prevention. He looked at data from the early 90s… when the rates of violence nationwide plummeted.... and onwards. This drop in violence is often attributed to massive growth in the criminal justice system. But Patrick’s research shows... there was another factor.

Patrick Sharkey: We developed a method… to identify the causal effect of the expansion of the non-profit sector. 

Celine Gounder: It was also that residents mobilized... and formed... local… community-based organizations.

Patrick Sharkey: And what we found is that on average, now this varies by city, but on average across the country. Every ten of these organizations reduces the level of violence by somewhere between 6% and 9%.

Celine Gounder: Patrick hopes his research will help us see that “soft power” works… and that community organizations and social services… are worth the investment.

Patrick Sharkey: I don't argue in favor of funding for community organizations instead of the police. I'm actually arguing for new investment, large scale investment, to deal with violence, and that should take multiple forms.

Celine Gounder: I do think we need extensive investment in law enforcement to do their job differently. Police can be very effective at confronting violence, but there has to be extensive training in how to create strong relationships with communities, to build trust, to build legitimacy… but we need those investments to make sure that law enforcement can do their job differently than they've done in the past. 

Celine Gounder: The role of law enforcement? That’ll be next time… on “In Sickness and in Health.”

Celine Gounder: Today’s episode of “In Sickness and in Health” was produced by Virginia Lora and me. Our theme music is by Allan Vest. Additional music by The Blue Dot Sessions.

Celine Gounder: If you enjoy the show, please tell a friend about it today. And if you haven’t already done so, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find out about the show! 

Celine Gounder: You can learn more about this podcast and how to engage with us on social media at insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. That’s insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This is “In Sickness and in Health.”