Last week the Santa Ana Police Department announced they will nearly double their deployment of anti-gang units in response to the rising homicide rate. The common response to increased homicides from cities across the country has been to double down on suppression resources to “eliminate the problem.” Indeed, targeted suppression efforts are a necessary part of the solution. But policing these areas is no easy job. We should not expect police to do this work alone. Santa Ana and Orange County must invest in comprehensive violence reduction strategies and coordinate with a range of partners in addition to law enforcement to produce sustained declines in the deadly violence.
Urban Peace Institute (UPI) works with cities and communities across the nation to address gang-related violence through the implementation of ground-level and public sector safety strategies. This includes engagement with and training of law enforcement to implement relationship-based policing approaches that build community trust and increase police legitimacy. Our Comprehensive Violence Reduction Strategy brings together residents, public safety personnel, and elected officials to take action to reduce violence.
We join city leaders and residents in calling for an end to violence. We also join the wide range of Santa Ana leaders who recognize the need for a comprehensive approach. Over the last 10 years, cities like Boston, New York, Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles have abandoned their heavy-handed, suppression-only model for a public health approach. These cities have all achieved measurable drops in violence. Santa Ana can as well.
Urban Peace Institute’s work with the City of Los Angeles is instructive. In 2007, we released a foundational report, A Call to Action, which was a 30-year audit on LA’s war on gangs. The findings indicated that, despite years of intense and costly suppression efforts, violence fluctuated from year to year and gang membership was at an all-time high. Additionally, we found that maintaining an anti-gang suppression focus was counterproductive and strengthened gang resilience.
On the other hand, focusing on addressing violence led to improved safety outcomes. These findings led to the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) which targeted investment in gang prevention (services for at-risk youth and their families) and intervention (services for gang-involved young adults and their families) in Los Angeles’s most impacted neighborhoods. Currently, there are 23 GRYD zones throughout the city that receive comprehensive services which have led to significant declines in retaliatory shootings and homicides. In addition to the creation of GRYD, the Los Angeles Police Department has stepped up their efforts to engage communities differently by creating Community Safety Partnership programs in seven housing developments. These relationship-based policing efforts have resulted in dramatic increases in public safety in neighborhoods that had previously suffered some of the nation’s highest rates of community violence.
From 2014-2015, this place-based approach led to a 43% reduction in retaliatory shootings and saved the city $110 million. Additionally, prevention services produced a 57% reduction in risk factors for youth joining gangs. GRYD programs such as Summer Night Lights operate in 32 parks throughout Los Angeles and establish safe spaces previously claimed by local gangs for all residents (including gang members) to enjoy food, activities, and resources for the duration of the summer. This coordination of community, public sector, and law enforcement partnerships has led to the lowest homicide rates Los Angeles has seen since the 1960s.
But unlike the cities who have found ways to successfully reduce community violence, Santa Ana and Orange County currently invest public safety dollars almost exclusively in law enforcement and suppression. While there is consensus among city leaders that a comprehensive approach that includes prevention and intervention is needed, there is no concurrent investment. Instead, the county and city doubles down on police gang units and misguided suppression tactics like gang injunctions – tactics that inevitably lead to more gang cohesion and less trust in law enforcement. An analysis of Santa Ana and Orange County budgets conducted by the Advancement Project found that Santa Ana spends $12,000 per year for each youth arrested but only $119 per youth on youth development. Orange County spends an astounding $121,000 per year on each youth arrested and $308,000 per year on each youth incarcerated, but spends only $21 per youth on youth development.
Additionally, the small amount of available prevention and intervention funds are spent on youth programs led by law enforcement. These programs can be effective, but funds must also be made available to community-based agencies committed to serving the at-risk and gang-involved populations. While Santa Ana has its own reputable violence prevention and intervention organizations, no organization working alone has the capacity to turn around decades of violence. To be successful, violence reduction efforts must include community organizations that can generate neighborhood-level support while law enforcement builds trust with community partners. This kind of coordination requires the leadership of county and city governments.
Santa Ana and county leaders can follow the lead of cities who have been successful at reducing violence by integrating community-led organizations to support public safety efforts. Through a public health approach that includes local government leaders, relationship-based policing, and investment in independent organizations providing violence prevention and intervention services, unprecedented decreases in community violence are possible. This includes support for increasing organizational capacity and coordinating efforts with law enforcement and other government agencies ensuring accountability and utilizing data to determine effectiveness. However, as long as city leaders continue to rely on traditional suppression-only tactics that have failed to address the problem, lives will continue to be lost.
Fernando Rejón is Executive Director of the Urban Peace Institute. UPI staff members Eric Lam and Sean Garcia-Leys contributed. Urban Peace Institute is a non-profit, social justice organization committed to addressing community-level violence through implementation of violence reduction strategies and smart justice policies to achieve community safety.
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