Bleeding Out

Urban violence is one of the most divisive and allegedly intractable issues of our time. But as CID Senior Research Fellow Thomas Abt writes in his new book Bleeding Out, we actually possess all the tools necessary to stem violence in our cities. Coupling the latest social science with firsthand experiences in policymaking, Abt proposes a relentless focus on violence itself—not drugs, gangs, or guns. Because violence is clustering among small groups of people and places, it can be predicted and prevented using a series of evidence-informed, data-driven strategies, both in the United States and in Latin America, where 41 of the 50 most violent cities are located. In this CID Speaker Series podcast produced by Growth Lab, Rushabh Sanghvi, Research Assistant at the Growth Lab interviews Thomas Abt on his latest book and its practical solutions to the global emergency of urban violence.

About Thomas Abt: Thomas Abt is a Senior Research Fellow with the Center for International Development, where he leads CID’s Security and Development Seminar Series. He is also a member of the Campbell Collaboration Criminal Justice Steering Committee, member of the Advisory Board of the Police Executive Programme at the University of Cambridge, and a Senior Fellow with the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Both in the United States and globally, Abt writes, teaches, and studies the use of evidence-informed approaches to reduce urban violence, among other criminal justice topics.

His new book, Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence - and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets, was published by Basic Books in June 2019. Abt’s work is frequently featured in major media outlets such as the Atlantic, Economist, Foreign Affairs, New Yorker, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, and National Public Radio.

Before joining Harvard, Abt served as Deputy Secretary for Public Safety to Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York, where he oversaw all criminal justice and homeland security agencies, including the Divisions of Corrections and Community Supervision, Criminal Justice Services, Homeland Security and Emergency Services, and the State Police. During his tenure, Abt led the development of New York’s GIVE (Gun-Involved Violence Elimination) Initiative, which employs evidence-informed, data-driven approaches to reduce gun violence. Before his work in New York, Abt served as Chief of Staff to the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice, where he worked with the nation’s principal criminal justice grant-making and research agencies to integrate evidence, policy, and practice. He played a lead role in establishing the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, a network of federal agencies and local communities working together to reduce youth and gang violence. Abt was also founding member of the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, a place-based development effort that was recognized by the Kennedy School as one of the Top 25 Innovations in Government for 2013. Abt received a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Michigan and a law degree with honors from the Georgetown University Law Center.


Katya Gonzalez-Willette: Hello and welcome to the growth lab at Harvard University's weekly podcast, Urban violence is one of the most divisive and allegedly intractable issues of our time. But as C.I.D. Senior Research fellow Thomas Abt writes in his new book, "Bleeding Out," we actually possess all the tools necessary to stem violence in our cities. Coupling the latest social science with firsthand experiences and policymaking, Abt proposes a relentless focus on violence itself, not drugs, gangs or guns. Because violence is clustering among small groups of people and places, it can be predicted and prevented using a series of evidence, informed, data-driven strategies both in the United States and in Latin America where 41 of the 50 most violent cities are located. In this Growth Lab podcast. Rushabh Sanghvi, research assistant at the Growth Lab, interviews Thomas Abt on his latest book and its practical solutions to the global emergency of Urban Violence.

Rushabh Sanghvi: Thank you, Thomas, for being you. The title of your new book, "Bleeding Out" certainly draws our attention to the acuteness of the problem of urban violence and is reflective of the analogy you use comparing urban violence to a grave injury. Could you speak to your choice of this piercing title and elaborate a little on the gravity of the problem that our society faces today?

Thomas Abt: Sure. The title and the metaphor of a gunshot wound being treated in the emergency room, which is the opening sequence in the book, was deliberately chosen and the point was to really increase the urgency around the issue of urban violence, but also to point out that there are very concrete solutions to this problem. I think sometimes when we frame urban violence as a disease, some diseases are acute and have that same level of urgency. But some diseases are chronic and require long term treatment and long term care. And that metaphor I don't think really is as consistent with the evidence, which suggests that there are proven strategies available now that can have a significant positive impact.

Rushabh: In your book, you also shed light on the vicious cycle of poverty and violence with poverty causing violence and violence perpetuating concentrated poverty. In this cyclical phenomenon, why do you believe reducing violence must be the focal point in our efforts to reduce poverty rather than the other way around?

Thomas: So as I say in the book, I try to be somewhat careful about this. I'm not suggesting that urban violence is the primary way that we address poverty. But what I am suggesting is that in terms of sequence, anti-violence initiatives are often helpful in controlling violence so that we can get to our broader social and economic outcomes. So, for instance, if you can control high rates of urban violence, it's much easier to improve your educational outcomes. Children find it less threatening getting to and from school when they get to school they're more open to learning because they're less traumatized from having experienced or witnessed violence in their community. Obviously, with commercial and economic activity, it's much easier to attract businesses and attract customers. If people aren't afraid to go to places that they perceived to be violent.

Rushabh: On the book cover, you speak of a bold new plan that you propose for peace in the streets. What exactly was the old plan? What's existing right now?

Thomas: Right. So I think that the sort of business as usual strategy is to overgeneralize about crime and violence, both in terms of enforcement and in terms of prevention, first with enforcement. I think the business as usual approach is, as the expression goes, fish with a net, meaning that you have these overbroad policies where you stop, search, arrest and ultimately incarcerate broad numbers of people, often for minor offenses. Basically in the hopes of catching a relatively small number of violent offenders. And similarly with prevention, the business's usual approach is to work on anti-poverty measures to improve the levels of opportunity for all poor people in the hopes that you will somehow indirectly end up hitting those people at the highest risk for violence. And so both strategies are inefficient purely in terms of violence reduction. I'm in favor of broader anti-poverty strategies, by the way. They're just not always effective anti-violence strategies. And particularly with the law enforcement strategies, not only are they inefficient, they can be unjust as well.

Rushabh: Right. So how do you think your new plan overcomes these shortcomings? What is your bold new plan? And I understand this is the bulk of your book, but if you were to give our audience just a brief overview, what is the plan that you propose and how does it fill in the holes that that currently exist?

Thomas: So briefly, the conventional wisdom is that urban violence is sort of the inevitable consequence of these structural factors like poverty, inequality, lack of opportunity, 30 years of our most rigorous social science says that despite the impacts of these root causes, there are targeted strategies that can have significant impacts on violence. And these strategies collectively have three qualities. First, they're focused they're focused on the individuals who are most likely to shoot or be shot. They are working with the highest risk individuals only and the highest risk places only. Second, they are balanced. They are not simply enforcement only strategies or prevention only strategies. They're balanced. They involve partnerships between police, community members and service providers. Third, they're fair. Meaning that they're implemented in a way to be sure that the impacted communities, residents, even the offenders themselves, perceive these efforts to be legitimate. And so the takeaway of the book is that based on the rigorous social science and based on many first person interviews with people most directly impacted by violence, these three strategies are most important focus, balance and fairness.

Rushabh: So for a solution for such a complicated problem, you would typically need collaboration amongst multiple stakeholders. Do you think that's true for this problem? And if so, who do you think are the major stakeholders that need to come together and really work on this solution?

Thomas: Sure. I think that urban violence is a persistent and complicated social phenomenon. And so it requires a multi-disciplinary, multi-sector response. However, there is a reason that I choose the term balanced instead of the broader term comprehensive. And the reason for that is that when you use the term comprehensive or adopt a comprehensive approach, you often bring so many people in, so many different players to the table that the strategy at the end of the day becomes unwieldy and difficult to implement and you lose that very important principle of focus. And so what you need is you need public safety and officials like police and prosecutors working with public health individuals and service providers and community members. But you don't need a ton of those people. You need only those people who are going to be willing to work with these highest risk individuals and places.

Rushabh: In your book, you suggest that "Bleeding Out" offers practical, feasible solution, something that's actionable. So what is being done about it? Has this plan been put into action elsewhere? And what do you see as the major hurdles for moving this plan nationwide?

Thomas: Right. So as I describe the strategies in this book, the policing strategies, the treatment strategies, the investment strategies, they've all been tried before and they've all been evaluated. And so these are the most successful strategies that we've seen over the past few decades. A good example is what's happened recently in Oakland. Oakland implemented a strategy known as the Group Violence Reduction Strategy or Focused Deterrence in 2012. And that's a strategy that brings together police, community members and service providers and identifies the highest risk individuals and groups that are most likely to either shoot or be shot. And it presents a very simple message. It says, we know you're doing the shooting and the shooting has to stop. If the shooting stops, we will help you. If the shooting continues, we will stop you. And then having made these two promises to help and to punish, then you follow up on those promises, meaning that those who persist in violence are targeted for increased enforcement through arrest and prosecution. And those who are willing to put the guns down and try to change their lives are helped with intensive treatment and services and assistance.

Rushabh: So what do you see as the major hurdles for the implementation of this plan moving nationwide?

Thomas: So that's a big subject that's addressed in the book in that there aren't many hurdles to implementing these. They don't cost a lot. They don't depend on broad institutional or systemic reform and they don't require new legislation. So the question is, why aren't more people doing them? And I think there's a few reasons. I think first, some of these strategies are difficult to explain in very concrete terms. They're technocratic. They can be complicated. In the book, I go to great efforts to sort of explain them in plain English. The second thing is that they don't really reinforce the political priors of any base party. So there's some elements of these strategies that are progressive in political terms. There's some elements of them that are conservative. And so they don't really fit the preconceived talking points in our political conversation. And the third issue, just to be very direct, is really about race in the United States. Urban violence disproportionately impacts poor people and communities of color. The most disenfranchised and disadvantaged citizens here in the United States. And because of that, the strategies to help these people really don't get the attention and support that they deserve.

Rushabh: So the book Bleeding Out draws heavily on your really impressive background and experiences as an educator, a prosecutor, policymaker and researcher. How have you varied experiences influenced your proposed plan to curb urban violence?

Thomas: Well, thank you for that question. I think that I have seen urban violence through a number of lenses over the years. When I was teaching public school at a pretty rough school in Washington, D.C., one of my favorite students was murdered. I have prosecuted violent crime and homicides in New York City. I. Have comforted victims and stood across the courtroom from violent offenders. And I have also worked at higher levels of politics and policy, and so I've seen this from a lot of different angles. And I think what it does is it really informs my analysis of the research. And I think it enabled me with the support of a number of colleagues here at Harvard to really sift through the evidence and identify what was most relevant in terms of policy, because I had a very concrete grounding in these sort of practicalities of violence prevention. It enabled me to, when I looked at the research, sift through relatively efficiently what really mattered and what didn't.

Rushabh: That's great. I had the chance to read your book over this weekend and it was at a really interesting read. It was succinct. It was persuasive. What I want to know is who did you intend the audience for this book to be? And what reaction of the reader would you constitute as a success for you, as an author and for this book as a solution to urban violence?

Thomas: Sure. So as you know, the book is a trade book. It's widely available on Amazon and in bookstores. And that was deliberate. I did not write an academic treatise because I really wanted this book to influence the policy conversation in mainstream America and through my various experiences. I've had an opportunity to talk about these strategies at the highest levels of government, at the White House, at the statehouse, in many city halls across the nation. So I haven't suffered from lack of access. But what I found when I did advocate for these strategies, I had sort of a mixed record of success. And part of that was because the public didn't know about these strategies. And so in many ways, the book is an effort to inform the general public about these strategies so that there is some form of pressure on policymakers to act. In some ways, it was a way to go above the head of my superiors, who in some cases I was able to get some of these strategies in place, most notably in New York with a statewide anti-violence effort. But in other areas, I fell short. And so this is a way to remedy perhaps my own personal failures of advocacy, but also the ones more broadly.

Rushabh: Given that this is a broadcast by the Center for International Development and this is a book focused primarily on the U.S., what do you think this book would mean for the rest of the global community?

Thomas: Absolutely. During my time at the Center for International Development, I've really sort of kept one foot in the domestic policy side of this issue and one foot in the international side, mostly exploring urban violence in Latin America. So I think that the book has relevance outside the United States, but I don't think it's a panacea. And I think it needs to be interpreted critically. Here's the ways that I think it is helpful. I think first, urban violence across the globe looks pretty similar context to context. It's committed by disadvantaged and disenfranchised young men without a lot of hope, without a lot of opportunity and without a lot of thought. And so the problem looks quite similar context to context. I've been to gang controlled territory in El Salvador, in the favelas in Rio, and the problem looks quite similar to the slums in Detroit, for instance. So on the problem side, there's a lot of similarity. There's a lot of difference on the solutions side, meaning on the capacity side here in the United States, policing is organized at the local level. In many other countries, it's organized at the state or regional level. Many countries don't have the same access to high quality data and research. They don't have the same kind of social services to deliver. And so there's much different capacity. And frankly, some of the most violent nations are suffering from extraordinarily high levels of political corruption. And so there's really an open question whether these countries are even committed to addressing these high rates of violence. And so I think that there are opportunities to apply the lessons of "Bleeding Out". But I think that "Bleeding Out" is not a sort of one size fits all solution to the issues facing other parts of the world.

Rushabh: And just one final question. The problem of urban violence is making the country bleed, making the world bleed, and it's impacting communities. So what role can the community play in helping public policymakers address this problem?

Thomas: So what the community needs to do is identify and engage partners. I think that there is a fallacy out there in the policymaking world among some that the community somehow can address these issues by itself that they know all the right answers because they're closest to the problem, and that if they could only collaborate and cooperate more effectively amongst themselves, that they could somehow magically solve high rates of violence. I think that's wrong. But more importantly, I think that's deeply unfair to these communities. These communities suffer from high rates of violence because government and other structures put policies into place that over time made those communities more violent. And so ultimately, those communities need to partner with government and other institutions in order to reverse those things. And so I think it's about identifying good partners. I think it's about identifying partners in the business community and the faith based community, academics and researchers as well, and also law enforcement. One thing I worry about in the current criminal justice conversation is that there is this strain of abolitionism set of advocates who really are making a very bold argument, essentially saying that we either need to dramatically downsize the criminal justice system in the United States or eliminate it altogether. And I think that while that is a well-intentioned argument, it's ultimately not going to serve poor people of color who desperately need the criminal justice system to do the job that it's intended and to help them. And so I think that that's going to be important.

Rushabh: Great. Thank you so much for your time, Thomas. It was a pleasure speaking with you. And I look forward to seeing your plan, your proposed new bold plan being put into action in the near future.

Thomas: Thanks so much.

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