The heart of the approach is to deal with victims before they become criminals, and to recognize the “mental health connection to public safety.”
SAN FRANCISCO —What a difference a coast makes. On the East Coast, New York City has vigorously defended its controversial stop-and-frisk policy, a crime-reduction strategy that relies on arbitrary street-level police searches, mostly of minorities. Though Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio is expected to terminate the tactic, several other cities plan on adopting the strategy.
But San Francisco is about to take a radically different approach in a major new program with the help of federal funds. Call it “stop and offer therapy.”
The city plans to reduce violence in one of its roughest neighborhoods with a strategy that focuses on aiding victims rather than cracking down on suspected criminals. It’s an unusual approach that views crime more as an illness – a kind of post-traumatic contagious infection linked to earlier exposure to violence – rather than as willful misbehavior.
The program will be funded with a three-year, $1 million federal grant to the San Francisco district attorney’s office to reduce crime in the eastern Bayview section of Bayview-Hunter’s Point, the city’s “most distressed and violent” community, which was responsible for 26 percent of all murders in the city from 2008 to 2011, according to figures in the DA’s grant application.
The program aims to prevent and reduce crime through effective use of victim intervention, mental health outreach and treatment, better access to victim compensation, and by promoting neighborhood stability and safety through support for community organizations and revitalization efforts.
Why the focus on victims? Because most criminals were once victims. In fact, the “strongest predictor of future criminal behavior is prior experience as a crime victim,” states San Francisco’s grant application.
The heart of the approach is to deal with victims before they become criminals and to recognize the “mental health connection to public safety,” explains Suzy Loftus, CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in Bayview, one of several community partners in the program.
Research has found repeatedly that victims of trauma and violence, whether on the street or in abusive homes, suffer from far higher incidents of chronic illness, learning disabilities, substance abuse and aggressive behavior. Exposure to violence, including witnessing violence at home or in a neighborhood, is believed to cause significant changes in brain physiology, along with disruptions of basic cognitive and emotional development that can have catastrophic effects not only for the victim, but also for society, as traumatized victims morph into criminals.
One of the largest investigations ever to make the link between childhood trauma and adult problems, including violence, is the seminal Adverse Childhood Experiences study of 17,000 adults, conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente.
Another national study found that young people in detention were three times as likely as those in a control sample to have been exposed to multiple types of violence and traumatic events. Nearly 90 percent of children in a county juvenile detention center in Chicago reported past exposure to traumatic violence, according to another 2012 study.
“The vast majority of children involved in the juvenile justice system have survived exposure to violence and are living with the trauma of that experience,” according to the 2012 report of the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence.
The co-author of the task force report is former Philadelphia public defender Robert Listenbee, who specialized in defending juveniles, and became an early convert to the idea that violent acting out was a result of earlier victimization. This year he became the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the Justice Department, which is funding the San Francisco program through the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
The San Francisco program was also inspired in part by a city Public Health Community Action Plan released early this year calling for reduction of violence and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder among children, young people and families in high-crime areas. District Attorney George Gascon is hoping the Bayview project will “test the theory that crime reduction can occur by helping victims heal and by bringing neighbors together.”
Under the outlines of the grant, Gascon’s office and various partners will spend a year further studying the neighborhood, gathering more crime statistics, identifying community activists and other stakeholders in the area and refining a strategy.
Technical assistance will be offered by the Local Initiatives Support Coalition, a nonprofit community development organization that has been working to strengthen neighborhoods across the nation for decades by combining corporate, government and philanthropic resources in high-need neighborhoods. LISC has its own grant from the specific project that’s funding the San Francisco plan — the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program — to aid the 29 operations that won grants since last year when the funding pool was established.
The Byrne grants, aimed at projects in “hot spot” neighborhoods that account for a disproportionate amount of crime, are part of a wider Obama administration tactic to create a kind of “shock and awe” assault on poverty and crime by amassing funding addressing several issues, from violence to housing to development and education.
Julia Ryan, director of LISC’s community safety initiative, envisions LISC offering technical assistance to help effectively identify and engage key actors in Bayview and to aid in translating data into a specific strategy.
LISC has a solid background in helping turn around dozens of communities in the past 20 years. In one example, its broad-based approach in South Central Los Angeles involved working with local organizations, businesses and the Los Angeles Police Department to encourage community engagement, and helped develop safe housing, new landscaping and an after-school program in an area of the neighborhood that had become a hub of gang activity and prostitution.
In the wake of the efforts, violent crime in the community dropped 30 percent from 2011 to 2013, eclipsing other neighborhoods that didn’t have the benefit of funded attention. Though LISC is involved in several aspects of community revitalization, “safety is a cornerstone” in any neighborhood’s survival, Ryan said.
What’s the key to a successful neighborhood safety and revitalization program? It depends.
“We’ve found that it’s very site specific,” Ryan said. “Every neighborhood is unique.”
Beyond that, Ryan says a committed network of engaged, hard-working community individuals and organizations from different sectors, and a responsive police and civic administration, all willing to take specific actions developed as part of a carefully designed plan, can radically change a neighborhood’s future.
Loftus hopes the most dramatic change will be evident in the reduction of crime and in Bayview kids’ future. Loftus, who once worked as a San Francisco assistant district attorney, quickly realized that the court system wasn’t making an appreciable dent in crime.
“You soon see you can’t arrest your way out of the problem,” Loftus said. “People in law enforcement can’t do that job and not recognize that there are things we could be doing better.”