Violence Prevention Efforts in California Cities Continue Strong Despite Challenges

Ten California cities — nine longtime participants in a statewide gang prevention network, plus newly added Long Beach — gathered a few weeks ago to share practices and develop a 2013 policy agenda.  Despite prevailing challenges such as resumed high rates of violent crime, significant turnover among mayors, chiefs of police, city councils, and diminished police forces, and fewer resources than ever, commitment to working together as a network remains strong.

Several cities cited recent signs of progress.  Two cities have embedded leadership for public safety initiatives in mayors’ and city managers‘ offices.  At the ballot box in November, voters approved new or extended tax measures to provide targeted funding for public safety initiatives, in several cities.  Additional cities have raised new supplemental resources from the federal government.  Still others have secured means and partners for rigorous evaluation of their complex, comprehensive, community-wide violence prevention efforts.

With the state having granted dozens of additional cities a share of CalGRIP gang reduction grants, network cities once again named securing the future of this grant source a policy priority.  More broadly, looking at the multiple, sometimes similar grant programs that the newly constituted Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) administers, network cities spotted an opportunity to pursue consolidation of grant programs, or at least to “blend and braid” funds as contemplated in the recently enacted AB526.  And the cities present observed that — despite ongoing “realignment” in the state corrections and probation/parole system, and the formation of the BSCC — they need to work with the Governor and others to formulate an actual statewide violence prevention strategy and policy.

The Soft Stuff is the Hard Stuff

“I’d rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all,” a juvenile murderer said to me when I served as Commissioner of Youth Services in Massachusetts.  This frightening statement throws into sharp relief the fundamental need shared by all of us, namely that we must be seen as important in someone’s eyes, claimed, “beloved.”

Kids disconnected from a relationship with a caring adult – from family, school and a promising future – will be both deeply troubled and oftentimes a source of trouble.  Many “disconnected” kids are desperate – sometimes dying for a relationship.  If a positive adult doesn’t show up, someone else will, including the local gang honcho – someone who will be there 24/7 without fail, who will make an iron pledge to stand with a lonely, angry kid no matter what.  The perception that relationships are the “soft stuff” of crime prevention effectively cedes the playing field to negative role models who know better.

Relationships the soft stuff?  Let’s be honest: anyone who has raised, taught, or worked with teens knows this is the brutally hard stuff that challenges the core of who we are.  And the “soft stuff” is even harder with deeply-wounded youth who ache for relationships, but who will often keep you at arm’s length, fearing that you, as everyone else in their lives, will, when you get close, see them as garbage and reject them.

Simplistic?  Fatuous?  Try it.  Try going into the heart of darkness, try connecting to a tough kid.  My true heroes are the connectors, the confidence builders: parents who parent, mentors who mentor, teachers who don’t give up, streetworkers trying to forge relationships with kids on the corner at midnight, beat cops who attend a football game to let a tough kid know that someone is watching, caring.  In a broken, atomized world, these are the people who say, “I love you.  I will not leave you.”

Yes, we need the best, most proven programs, programs I’ve spent my life helping to design and often run: parental support, early childhood education, mentoring, afterschool programs, community development, restitution, and more. But our often-laudable program work sometimes walks right by or dismisses the most fundamental of human needs in its emphasis on skill-building.  The relational may well precede the transmission of cognitive skills.  If I’ve got an education, some marketable skills, I might have a chance, but that chance will be greatly enhanced if I’ve got someone in my corner, or if I am responsible for someone.

Backed by research, the “soft stuff” is beginning to seep into policy and practice.  The City of Minneapolis, one of ten cities in the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, an initiative similar to NLC’s 13 California City Gang Prevention Network, rests its comprehensive violence prevention efforts on four foundational goals, the first of which is relational, namely, “Connect every youth with a trusted adult.”

The mission of Community Renewal International (CRI), a nonprofit organization in Shreveport, LA, pledges to “bring together caring partners to restore the foundation of safe and caring communities, making our world a home where every single child is safe and loved.” As part of its mission, CRI builds “Friendship Houses” in the highest crime areas of the city.  Staffed by couples who live in the Houses, the approach is structured around a system of intentional, caring relationships that undergird programs addressing important needs, such as education, safety and work.  The Shreveport Police Department reports dramatic reductions in crime, 20 percent and more, in target areas.

In a special mentoring program targeting at-risk youth, Big Brothers Big Sisters in Philadelphia reports significant gains in confidence, higher aspirations, more avoidance of risky behaviors and increased educational success.

Between 1995 and 1998, Linda A. Teplin, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, interviewed 1,800 Chicago youth serving time in detention.  At some point, more than 80 percent had belonged to a gang, and 70 percent of the men had used a firearm. On November 4, The New York Times reported on Teplin’s results after roughly 15 years of tracking.  Many have been shot, many have been killed, but those who “made it” did so for surprising reasons.  Personal transformations “often have little to do with the promises of politicians or the cyclical crackdowns by law enforcement.  Instead they are often prompted by less tangible forces: the support of a parent, the insistence of a girlfriend, the encouragement of a priest or pastor, the mobilization of a community, the birth of a child.”

We must aggressively continue our comprehensive work that blends prevention (family support, early childhood education), intervention (education, job training), enforcement and reentry (work with offenders returning from prison).  But throughout, relationship-building must be an essential part of our portfolio.  My good friend Dr. Peter Ellis, Director of Community Crime Prevention Associates, said it best in his letter to me last month: “Our 22 years of experience in working with high-risk youth indicates that relationships formed are a key indicator of success in turning these youth around…It all starts with a relationship and love.”

Governor Brown Signs AB 526, Paving the Way for Better Coordination of Violence Prevention Funding in California

This week brings some good news from the violence prevention front in California.

Frequent readers of this blog and other National League of Cities media may be aware that NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families has co-sponsored a 13-city gang prevention initiative since 2007.  The California Cities Gang Prevention Network identifies promising strategies to reduce gang violence; promotes the development of comprehensive, data-driven local plans that blend prevention, intervention and enforcement; and recommends state and federal policy changes that can support local efforts.

Last month, Network Director Jack Calhoun reported on California Assembly Bill (AB) 526, an important piece of state legislation developed with substantial input from Network cities based on their knowledge and experience in spearheading cross-sector violence prevention collaborations.

One of the primary challenges Network cities face is coordinating the multitude of state and federal funding streams that can be used to address youth violence in their communities – from mental health and substance abuse prevention to job training and reentry.  These funding silos – dispersed across at least 17 state agencies with different timelines, reporting requirements, and performance measures – pose barriers in cities where law enforcement, social services, schools, faith-based organizations and other key players are working together to develop comprehensive and coordinated approaches.

AB 526 begins to remove these barriers by directing the new Board of State and Community Corrections to identify and consolidate grants serving similar purposes and target populations and move toward a single application for delinquency and gang prevention and intervention funding.  It is also designed to shift funding toward youth and gang violence prevention programs grounded in evidence-based practices and principles, and requires the Board to provide incentives for comprehensive regional partnerships that maximize their impact by braiding state funds.

Last Sunday night, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 526, opening new possibilities for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of local violence prevention efforts in California.  Passage of this key piece of legislation provides a potential model for other states and parallels similar efforts to at the federal level.  The Governor, state legislators and staff, and Network city teams deserve praise for working across levels of government to identify solutions on this critical issue.

(Visit Jack Calhoun’s Hope Matters blog for additional, forthcoming analysis.  Also, check out PolicyLink to learn about bills signed by Governor Brown that could improve outcomes for young men of color.  In particular, these bills reform school discipline and “zero tolerance” policies, which contribute to school dropout rates.  The legislation is consistent with recommended strategies in NLC’s new guide on City Leadership to Promote Black Male Achievement, which describes actions that cities can take to reduce disparities between black males and their peers in the areas of education, work and family.)

One Stroke of a Pen Could Mean Less Violence, More Vibrant Communities for California

Jack Calhoun, director of the California Cities Gang Prevention Network and senior consultant to NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families and the U.S. Department of Justice, wrote the following post on youth violence prevention legislation in California, which is cross-posted at Mr. Calhoun’s Hope Matters website at

Assembly Bill (AB) 526 sits on the desk of California’s Governor Jerry Brown.  The bill, the first of its kind in the nation, would underscore the core principle that preventing violence and building communities that don’t produce violence requires the active involvement of all key community entities – law enforcement, schools, business, the faith community, health, housing, child welfare and more.

Single interventions such as offering afterschool programs, locating Boys & Girls Clubs in mistrusting neighborhoods, and applying targeted enforcement can help, but they are insufficient in the absence of a broader, more strategic approach.  In most cases, municipalities that have crafted and implemented more comprehensive, citywide plans blending prevention, intervention, enforcement and reentry for returning prisoners can point to reductions in youth and gang violence and improvement in other indicators of safety and well-being.

Preparing, launching, and sustaining such a plan takes enormous political will and a proven capacity to write effective grant applications and secure funding from a wide variety of sources.  In carrying out their plans, city and county leaders draw upon numerous disparate funding streams to support a wide range of efforts such as family resource centers, early childhood education, mentoring, drug abuse prevention, community-oriented policing, and job training for returning prisoners.  Yet while most of the funding exists to support the necessary range of efforts, much of it is trapped in fiscal silos, which makes it extremely difficult to pull together and activate a comprehensive community effort.   California has identified roughly $2.2 billion located in several funding streams that can and should be applied to youth and gang violence prevention.   But it can’t get where it is needed without AB 526 and support from the state level.

AB 526 enhances violence prevention work taking place at the local level – in the communities and neighborhoods that need help in restoring or maintaining public safety – making it easier to braid various funding sources into a comprehensive effort that fits the community’s needs.  It would require the newly-minted Board of State and Community Corrections to “…identify delinquency and gang initiatives and prevention grant funds and programs for the purpose of consolidating those grant funds…moving toward a unified single delinquency intervention and prevention grant application…”  And it will produce better results while costing the state no additional funding.

Underneath AB 526 lies a commitment to community-wide solutions, engagement of local leaders, and streamlined funding from the state level that will generate efficiency, effective coordination, and increased in-kind engagement of the community’s own resources.

Persistent violence leads to fear, citizen isolation and blame.  “It’s the fault of the police…it’s the parents’ fault…it’s violence in the media,” some say as they grasp for answers.  Perceived single causes of violence often lead to single interventions – usually by law enforcement – that struggle and often fail to address a multi-faceted problem.  But law enforcement cannot help beleaguered parents parent, conduct afterschool programs, provide jobs and job training, or mobilize neighborhoods for action. The causes of crime are problems of the community.  The whole community must do the work.  Every element of the community can and must play a role.

Abraham Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but ALL are responsible.”  AB 526 helps California’s communities fully utilize their talents, coordinate their efforts, and allocate state funds to address the local conditions that have generated community safety problems – building prevention, intervention, enforcement, and reentry into the fabric of communities.  That’s what really lies under this revolutionary bill, AB 526.

We eagerly await Governor Brown’s signature.

Kids Living in Combat Zones…in U.S. Cities

Which group do you think has higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): American soldiers deployed to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, or American children living in high-crime urban neighborhoods who are exposed to community violence?  At a Congressional briefing held a week ago, Dr. Howard Spivak, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Violence Prevention, discussed research showing higher prevalence of PTSD among the latter group, observing that many of our kids are essentially “living in combat zones.”

Dr. Spivak was one of five panelists at a briefing sponsored by the Congressional Tri-Caucus and the Prevention Institute’s Urban Networks to Increase Thriving Youth (UNITY).  Among other troubling research findings shared at the briefing were:

  • Children’s exposure to violence not only has serious mental health consequences, but is also linked with a range of chronic illnesses, including heart and lung diseases and diabetes.  Neuroscientists have found that this type of trauma changes how chromosomes form, hinders brain development, and may shorten a person’s life expectancy by 7-10 years.
  • The 2009 National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence – conducted as part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Defending Childhood Initiative – found that 60 percent of children were exposed to violence within the previous year.
  • Homicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24.  In many cities, it is the leading cause.

The good news is that some cities are making substantial progress in reducing youth violence – and they are doing so by redefining violence as an issue of public health.  What does that mean in practice?  In Minneapolis, this approach involves assessing the source of the problem; identifying risk and protective factors that affect the likelihood that youth will resort to violence as well as trends that influence those factors; developing and evaluating evidence-based interventions to reduce risk factors and enhance protective factors; scaling up what works; and using public education to raise awareness about effective solutions.  In essence, local leaders are treating and combating violence as a preventable disease.

Under Mayor R.T. Rybak’s leadership, Minneapolis formed a multidisciplinary collaboration in 2007 to develop and implement a public health approach, resulting in the Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence in Minneapolis.  NLC highlighted this as an innovation in its 2009 report on The State of City Leadership for Children and Families.  At the briefing, Alyssa Banks, Youth Violence Prevention Coordinator in the Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support, provided an update on the Blueprint’s progress.

Between 2006 and 2010, juvenile crime fell by 56 percent.  Juvenile incidents involving guns were down 58 percent, and there was a 36 percent reduction in injuries from firearms among youth and young adults.  At a more granular level, the city tracks 18 indicators related to four key Blueprint goals:

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