This story was produced in partnership with the Garrison Project, an independent, nonpartisan organization addressing the crisis of mass incarceration and policing.
Police departments, politicians, academics, and policymakers are again embracing focused deterrence, a violence reduction strategy that relies on strategic subject lists, gang databases, and social network analysis as a way to reduce violence. In April, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced a $50 million increase to the state’s violent crime reduction grant program that includes funding for focused deterrence. Earlier this year, the Dallas police chief credited a decline in homicides from 2020 to 2021 in part to the implementation of focused deterrence, receiving an outpouring of praise in the media. “Has Dallas outsmarted the violent crimewave?” asked The Houston Chronicle Editorial board. In September, the Dallas police credited its Violent Crime Reduction Strategic Plan—which includes focused deterrence—with a 12 percent decline in overall violent crime from the plan’s implementation in May 2021. Similarly, academics have attributed a near-record low number of homicides in Boston in 2021 to focused deterrence.
The strategy has its roots in Operation Ceasefire, a 1996 program that aimed to reduce violence, particularly among young men. Operation Ceasefire was developed by the Boston Police Department’s Youth Violence Strike Force, a multiagency task force that included local, state and federal law enforcement, and the mayor’s office, as well as universities, city agencies, and local clergy. This “pulling levers” strategy—relying on punitive threats to entire groups of people suspected to be involved in violence, as well as supposed inducements of community engagement—became known as the “Boston Miracle.” Operation Ceasefire, which formed the basis of the focused deterrence framework, inspired decades of similar programs across the country.
Under focused deterrence, prosecutors, police, and researchers identify people they suspect are engaged in violence via arrest patterns, surveillance, and criminal legal system data. Law enforcement then engages in “call ins” with the targeted people, where the carrot of community partner presence and social services is offered along with a punitive stick: if anyone from a group or gang engages in violence, prosecutors and police will find any reason to surveil, target, and arrest everyone within the group.
But focused deterrence does not live up to its violence reduction promise. It’s framed as an alternative to mass incarceration because of its purportedly more precise approach to violence, but is instead part of the same criminal legal system that wreaks havoc on Black, Latinx, and other criminalized communities. Indeed, focused deterrence initiatives come with many of the negative consequences associated with other police interventions. One 2013 study found that during the period of evaluation in Cincinnati, the program led to thousands of arrests.
The evaluation also suggested the social service component had no impact on any measured reductions in violence, indicating that social services were more of a performative gesture than a tool to transform lives and sustainably decrease violence. Furthermore, evaluations attempting to measure attitudes toward police related to focused deterrence initiatives, such a 2019 study of Chicago’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, did not account for the fact that self-reported surveys may be biased in the favor of police and the initiative given the coercive nature of the program. And studies supporting focused deterrence often do not acknowledge its widespread social costs, a major problem in policing studies.
Even when focused deterrence seems to be statistically effective for a period, longer-term reductions in violence have been more difficult to demonstrate. In 2019, for instance, one study from the Giffords Law Center claimed that focused deterrence, the heart of Oakland’s Operation Ceasefire strategy, played a large role in reducing violence. But the report noted that Ceasefire took several iterations to get off the ground, as community groups and social service providers were bypassed in favor of police-centered interventions. And in 2021, Oakland investigated 134 homicides, the most since 2012.
Oakland is in the midst of another deadly year—early this month, the city marked its 100th homicide—proof that while focused deterrence may temporarily suppress some forms of violence, its impact wanes over time, revealing the program’s inherent instability. One evaluation from 2012 found that “the success in violence reduction” in several cities that implemented focused deterrence, including Chicago, “appears to be short-lived.” Evidence of the “Boston Miracle,” the initial program success upon all which imitators are modeled, is based on two studies, both of which failed to show which specific aspects of the initiative seemed to be effective. And focused deterrence can be profoundly punitive: sociologist Nikki Jones wrote in her 2018 book The Chosen Ones that an alleged gang-involved young person in Boston received 19 years and seven months in federal prison for possession of a single bullet.
Meta studies have shown that the level of effectiveness demonstrated in previous studies have been likely overstated. Beyond the questionable effect sizes and the collateral impacts in impacted communities, there are cities and counties where focused deterrence shows no evidence of efficacy, such as Ocala, Florida, Newark, New Jersey, and Montgomery County, Maryland.
But there is an even more important question: even if a focused deterrence initiative is statistically effective, are there sustainable and transformative approaches to anti-violence work that do not rely on harmful institutions?
Focused deterrence is promised as a solution to violence tied to community partnerships that will enhance procedural justice. Certain community members—like formerly incarcerated people or community elders—are enlisted to give the program legitimacy. But the social services component of focused deterrence is often limited, ineffective, and muddled by the broader context of coercive control. This has led to skepticism and declining support from impacted communities, social service providers, and program managers and administrators. And social service providers do not have the ability to transform the lives of the people involved, leaving a program relying on punishment with the patina of fairness. The truth is that investment in programs like focused deterrence are more about the threat of heightened punishment than community support, services, and intervention.
From an anti-violence perspective, it’s useful to know that a small percent of people are responsible for a majority of shootings. But these people should have resources directed to them that have shown promise for violence reduction without the coercive elements of the state. These initiatives are often led by directly impacted communities, including those formerly involved with gangs. Having deep ties to communities allows these organizations to prevent and de-escalate violence in ways law enforcement never can.
Often, these community-based groups are undermined or underfunded, especially those that explicitly choose to not work with or receive information from the police and center non-coercive avenues of violence reduction.
The House of Umoja in Philadelphia is one case of a community-led effort that received a fraction of the attention and financial support as focused deterrence-based programs. As political scientist Vesla M. Weaver noted, a decade after its implementation in 1968 “Umoja was serving 400 boys from 73 different gangs, and gang-related deaths had fallen from 40 a year to just one in 1978.” But government funding streams largely bypassed Black-led community groups like House of Umoja for law enforcement efforts and organizations. The House of Umoja is still engaged in anti-violence work, but the scope and possibilities of care-centered, community based initiatives like it have been greatly hamstrung by the increasing reliance on, and investments in, policing and prisons.
The House of Umoja demonstrates that community based anti-violence work that does not include collaboration with the criminal legal system can run the risk of being undermined, delegitimized, and at times targeted, by police and the criminal legal system. The adversarial stance by state and political entities is rooted in the fear that if communities can manage violence and other harms without the criminal legal system, its existence would be hard to justify.
Resources should instead be moved to uprooting structural racism, developing peace and healing centers, addressing and providing reparations for the legacies of slavery, colonial, and state violence, ensuring quality housing, a guaranteed income, developing and funding community-based organizations and safety iniatives, empowering political organizing, dignified jobs, green spaces, and expanded youth programs and initiatives such as summer jobs and after school programs.
Violence is much deeper and far more complicated than what focused deterrence—and policing and punishment more broadly—can ever address.
Anti-violence work requires going to the root of why violence occurs, including grief, fear, poverty, toxic masculinity, trauma —and addressing it at all stages.
These initiatives are not simple or easy. But they’re what’s required to stem the tide of violence.