Opinion: Is D.C. wasting money on violence reduction programs?

As published in the Opinion section of the Washington Post.

Amos Gelb and LaTrina Antoine are publisher and editor in chief, respectively, of D.C. Witness.

Any delusion that our city’s gun violence afflicts only certain (poor) neighborhoods has to have been erased by the past several weeks.

The grisly list includes a mass shooting and killing of a 6-year-old girl in Congress Heights, a shootout outside Nationals Park that set off panic in one of our most protected public sites and then a spray of bullets outside one of the swankiest restaurants on arguably the hippest street in the city.

All that as a coda to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) sitting in the Oval Office as President Biden intoned that cities needed to do more to stop the national epidemic of surging violent crime.

The D.C. Council is stepping up to that challenge in its 2021-2022 budget that includes huge sums of money aimed at reducing our city’s increasing violent crime. Among the line items is $8 million for doubling current violence interrupter programs that put former prisoners back in their neighborhoods to intervene in disputes and interrupt violence before it happens.

If recent events were not enough justification for such spending, the numbers should be: D.C. has seen about a 10 percent increase in the year-over-year homicide rate for the past three years.

There’s only one problem.

That same data shows that the city’s violence interrupter programs, one run by the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, and Cure the Streets, run out of the Office of the D.C. Attorney General, aren’t doing what they claim: preventing violence. Rather, they may be merely dispersing it, spreading the killings to nearby areas that previously did not have any.

But how can we state this with certainty when the city says the programs are working and are worthy of healthy increases in funding? The answer: because unlike the city, we have data that measures the programs’ performance.

D.C. Witness is a six-year-old website that tracks every homicide in D.C. from act to judicial resolution, telling every story and gathering data about each case. The goal is to bring transparency and accountability to our city’s criminal-justice system and the policies implemented to reduce violent crime. We are nonpartisan and non-advocacy. We neither advocate for nor oppose any policy. We just share the data and use it to evaluate how official policies are working.

To understand how the D.C. violence interrupter programs were doing, we did the obvious: We asked the organizations running the programs for the data that showed their success.

They didn’t reply.

So, we took the homicide data we have gathered from public information and from sitting in every hearing of every homicide case (we track 104 data categories, including addresses) and mapped it over the areas in which interrupters are deployed. We then compared the differences in homicide distribution in those areas between 2019 to 2020 and 2020 to 2021, which are the periods for which we could find information on the location of the violence interrupters.

You can see the data maps at dcwitness.org. You be the judge.

We offered our data to both offices. Neither was interested.

Will dropping twice as many interrupters into neighborhoods change anything? We don’t claim to know the answer. But it would seem to be a question worth exploring before the city writes a virtual blank check to these programs. The programs themselves seem more driven by politics and messaging than efficacy.

Nor does there seem to be any appetite for oversight. The D.C. Council’s judiciary committee admitted to D.C. Witness that it did not have any data on how the programs were performing and relied on the assurances of the agencies running the programs that in turn relied on the assurances of the organizations hired to implement them.

Sadly, the saga of violence interrupters reflects a pattern in D.C. of more and more policies supported by more and more city money with less and less evaluation. A recent report by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform painted an even less flattering picture. The report reviewed all D.C. violent crime reduction strategies and blasted the mayor and council’s approach as ineffective with more than 100 programs that often overlap and even compete with no evaluation. “D.C. is resource rich and coordination poor,” it concluded.

It would be easy to assume from our evaluation that we oppose violence interrupters for political or philosophical reasons or are calling for the programs to be canceled.

Not so.

Rather, we are saying that, as it is run in D.C., the violence interrupter programs are not making the difference they could or claim to. There is a spectrum of violence reduction/prevention strategies that use violence interrupters, ranging from those that support the work of returning citizens with wraparound community services (Roca Baltimore and Chicago Cred are two examples) to the de minimis version that D.C. implements, so there would seem to be plenty of room for adjustment.

We will leave it to experts to explore why the programs are dispersing rather than interrupting the violence. Other data collected by D.C. Witness suggests that the rising homicide rate is driven by a culture of gun violence that has grown over the past few years, so unless that is addressed, any strategy, including violence interrupters won’t significantly reduce the violence.

Just like everyone else in the city, we want the violence and killings to stop. But throwing more tax money at programs that make for great political messaging but aren’t working and aren’t measured isn’t going to get us there.