Addressing gun violence through focused deterrence

Addressing gun violence through focused deterrence

6:00am Jan 19, 2022
Formerly incarcerated clients at High Point Community Against Violence learn new carpentry skills in preparation to join the workforce. Photograph by McLeod Jones Videography provided courtesy of High Point Community Against Violence.

Incidents of gun violence remain stubbornly high throughout much of the Triad, with homicide numbers in Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem at or near historic levels. Opioids and gangs accounted for much of the crime in the past. But now youth violence and tensions magnified by the pandemic are exacerbating the problem.

Law enforcement, researchers, and nonprofits charged with combating crime are forced to adapt their strategies to lower gun violence. It’s challenging work where success is often difficult to achieve, measure and sustain.  

One of those strategies is what’s called a notification or call-in. In a courtroom, community members address a group of active gang members one by one. The mood is often tense. There are tears and raised voices. 

A federal prosecutor details the prospects of future convictions without parole. A formerly incarcerated man begs the young men seated before him to stop their lawless ways before they’re killed. And a mother, traumatized by the loss of her son — a victim of gun violence — says she’s still waiting for him to come home.

The goal of these notifications is to show solidarity between the community and law enforcement, express zero tolerance for gun violence, and offer support to those willing to change their ways. In the Triad, they’re organized by the NC Network for Safe Communities based at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. These events are just one part of a multi-pronged approach to reduce violent crime called "focused deterrence." 

Investigator Stacy Sechrist says she and her colleagues work directly with law enforcement agencies statewide. They target small groups of repeat violent offenders, many already known to authorities, who operate within specific neighborhoods.

"So, there’s a messaging component that goes with it,” says Sechrist. "There’s a data tracking component that goes with it. Then there’s a resource component to that as well. So, if someone needs assistance, if they need housing, if they need education, there’s a contact immediately available for them to reach out for a helping hand if they so choose to take it.”

They study a community’s violent crime problem within a two-year window to better understand who’s involved, where it’s happening, and how to fix it. Director John Weil says the group also works with national organizations like Project Safe Neighborhoods, which coordinates with local and federal enforcement to curb violence. He says after all the data analysis is done and names have been removed, good communication is key. 

"We’re able to go back and present that to the law enforcement, prosecution, probation partners, working collectively, and have presentations directed to the community — not only about what the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative is intended to do, but it also delves into a lot of information specific to what the data has shown,” says Weil.

The number-crunching and data analysis may seem dry compared to the face-to-face meetings, but it’s a crucial component of focused deterrence and it’s been extremely successful in reducing gun, drug, and gang-related violence in five small boroughs in High Point, where most of the crime there occurs.

High Point Community Against Violence executive director Jim Summey has worked with the NC Network for Safe Communities for years and relies on its data to help his group get formerly incarcerated people back on their feet.

"I don’t know how many people have told me that these guys that I work with are just a bunch of lazy bums,” says Summey. "I said, ‘Really? I’ve seen these lazy bums work their ass off all day long when given the opportunity, but they were given the opportunity and they didn’t have it before.’"

Summey’s approach — meeting people where they are, providing job training and other assistance — is bearing fruit. Since 1997, violent crime there has dropped by 62% according to crime data analysts at the High Point Police Department. Summey says the key is to listen.

"In those five little boroughs with all those mixing of cultures, poverty — all of this stuff — we have to understand what’s coming out of right there that’s causing that much frustration that people are acting that violently,” he says. "What is it? And, you know, I’m not going to say it’s easy to find out, but if we just found one factor it would be better than no factors.”

There have been setbacks. The recidivism rate has climbed over the past five years from 9% to 17%. To conserve limited resources, he’s had to cut clients he’s cared for from the program who weren’t doing the work. And over the past few decades, Summey has witnessed the progression from fighting with fists, to knives, and now guns. 

"What I see now is the lack of ability to express oneself without these heightened emotions, and without taking those emotions to the lethal degree,” says Summey. "People get mad and they want to pull a gun the first thing instead of saying, 'Let’s talk about this.’”

Now, Summey says his biggest challenge is connecting with kids, as younger children are getting more and more involved in violent crime. He says his agency will eventually adapt and hopefully break through. But he cautions that we, as a society, need to be aware of what we’re becoming, because it’s certainly not what we’re supposed to be.

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