Opinion: How D.C. targets high-risk individuals to prevent violence

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By the Editorial Board

The National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform last year took a look at the District’s efforts to combat violent crime and offered a scathing assessment. “DC is resource rich and coordination poor,” the nonprofit wrote, quoting a youth organizer. The report faulted the District for programs that overlapped, were not evaluated for effectiveness and did not reach those who are in the greatest need and who present the highest risk. Officials, to their credit, seem to have taken the criticism to heart and have decided to partner with the group that produced the report on an innovative approach to violence prevention.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) recently announced a new government initiative in which 200 people who have been identified as being at high risk for involvement in gun violence will be matched with a specialized team that will work to connect them with city services in an effort to get them to turn their lives around. “We know that a relatively small number of people are responsible for a significant amount of the gun violence happening in our communities,” said Ms. Bowser. “What we are doing is reaching out to those people, listening to them and figuring out what they need, and then working with them to get them on a better, safer path forward.”

Analyzing shootings and homicides and consulting with law enforcement and community organizers, the criminal justice reform institute came up with the list of 200 individuals. Institute Executive Director David Muhammad told us that, initially, 230 people were identified but some have been killed or arrested, a tragic indication of the accuracy of the list. Specially trained life coaches will try to locate those who have been identified, counsel them and connect them to services that run the gamut from housing and food to job training or behavioral health services. Mr. Muhammad was candid about the difficulty of the work but said relentless outreach, intensive intervention and focused enforcement can make a difference. A similar program undertaken in Oakland, Calif., showed sustained success in reducing fatal and nonfatal shootings until its work was derailed by the pandemic.

Officials said the D.C. program has made contact with about half of the 200 people identified and some are already engaged in violence prevention programs. Reaching the remaining individuals on the list will be a challenge. “You can have a name on a piece of paper, but finding a person, engaging them, and connecting them to services and having them agree to trust in us and accept the services is really the hard work,” said Linda Harllee Harper, director of D.C.’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention. That Ms. Bowser has assigned members of her Cabinet to the interagency teams signals the importance she places on the project.

Just as police are not the singular answer to the complex problem of gun violence, neither is one program. But officials are right to look for new strategies, and this one — if executed properly — shows promise.

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