21st Century Cities Initiative brings Harvard analyst Thomas Abt to Baltimore

By WILL EDMONDS and KATERINA FRYE | September 12, 2019

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 COURTESY OF WILLIAM EDMONDS

Abt urged policymakers to consider his research in studying ways to combat and prevent urban violence.

Thomas Abt, senior researcher at the Center for International Development, presented the findings of his book Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence — and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets at the Bloomberg School of Public Health on Tuesday. 

Abt addressed topics such as the effects of violence on city residents, where the city violence is concentrated and how it can be diminished. He likened treating urban violence to any other kind of disease, saying that both require assessment, diagnosis and treatment.

He summarized his treatment for urban crime in three points, under the labels of focus, balance and fairness.

Law enforcement, Abt emphasized, needs to focus their resources on policing hotspots, balancing the use of police with community voices and treating all citizens with greater respect. 

Abt’s understanding of urban violence comes from his review of over 1,500 studies on the subject and 50 interviews with law enforcement officers and former lawbreakers. According to his research, crime tends to concentrate among a small number of so-called hotspots. 

“In any city, less than one percent of your population is going to be responsible for 50, 60, 70 percent of your shootings and killings. And about four percent of your street blocks are going to account for more than 50 percent of your overall crime,” Abt said. “If you are in these hot spots, working in consultation with these communities in a very focused way, not stopping everyone but only the people who you already have concrete intel are involved, the community is much more receptive and you have a much bigger crime fighting effect.”

If these hotspots are to be cooled down, Abt suggested that police should be stationed in the immediate vicinity. Cities should then strive to work on place-making, removing blight and restoring city services to affected areas. However, Abt emphasized the distinction between this work and the broken windows method of policing. Instead, police should aim to modify and reduce behaviors that lead to crime. 

“We need to treat urban violence in this nation, and in particular in this city, like we would a gunshot wound in an emergency room. We need to stop the bleeding,” Abt said. 

Abt found that this proverbial bleeding affects more than just the direct victims of criminal violence. He noted that children in unsafe cities have more difficulties concentrating and behaving, to the detriment of their school performance and ultimately their economic mobility. 

A single homicide, Abt also discovered, can generate societal costs of anywhere from between $10 million and $19 million. Furthermore, he found that business and property values decrease in these neighborhoods, which continues the cycle of poverty and inequality.

“Crime and violence also perpetuate concentrated poverty, and therefore segregation and ultimately racism. But you need safety to get to poverty and to get to inequality,” Abt said.

To combat urban crime, Abt suggested a multifaceted treatment plan. He noted that citizens in hotspots are reluctant to cooperate with police as witnesses or even report instances of crime. 

“When someone beats up your cousin you don’t call 911, you call your boy. You call your friend from around the corner and you handle it yourself. Then a beating becomes a shooting and that shooting leads to a killing and so on and so on and so on,” Abt said.

Abt told the audience that this can be alleviated by training police officers to treat citizens with greater consistency and fairness. He also proposes implementing street outreach programs that enlist the help of respected community members to lessen hostilities.

“Doing street outreach often means using former offenders, people with legitimacy or street credibility in their communities, to mediate disputes and conflict,” Abt said. 

He admitted that this method has had mixed results, but pointed to a Los Angeles street outreach academy as an example of success. Abt said that at this academy, potential candidates participate in six months of training to become certified street outreach providers. 

Additionally, Abt endorsed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of treatment that helps individuals realign misguided thinking and teaches them better behaviors. He suggested first identifying individuals who are at risk for becoming offenders and then working with them to manage anger and build more effective problem-solving skills. 

“A lot of kids say, ‘Why should I do this? I’m not even going to be around in a few years. I’m not going to make it past 18 or past 20.’ CBT is one way to build future orientation, to think further ahead, to think about the consequences of your actions today,” Abt said. “For the strongest of the programs, which is one in five of the programs that were studied, they’re generating over 50 percent reduction in recidivism.”

Throughout his research, Abt discovered that both “soft-on-crime” and aggressive approaches were effective in preventing violence. He advised using a balanced method when dealing with hostile situations, one that incorporates both the carrot and the stick. 

Mimicking a hypothetical phone conversation with a suspected offender, Abt gave an example of what an officer may say.

“We know you’re doing the shootings, it needs to stop. If it stops, we will help you. If it doesn’t, we will stop you,” he said. 

A virtue of his proposals, Abt asserted, is that they are practical. They all require few changes to existing law, and work with most departments’ existing budgets and even their current internal structures. In sum, his proposals could all be implemented with the stroke of a policymaker’s pen. 

Community member and business owner Mary Alexander, who attended the talk, told The News-Letter that she felt Abt could not understand Baltimore’s issues without having spent time living in Baltimore.

“You need to rethink the way you approach us,” Alexander said. “I would want him to reference more people of color who did research too.” 

When asked what Abt could have done to make his talk better, Alexander suggested that Abt show more humility and empathy when discussing the victims of gun violence in connection with his research.

“Be humble about it,” Alexander said. “I’m not suggesting that he’s lying, but he doesn’t know my truth.”

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