Thank you, Mayor Garcetti, for that introduction and thank you to the City of Los Angeles; the Strong Cities Network; the University of San Diego’s Kroc Institute; and the McCain Institute for inviting me to join this vital discussion. Today’s gathering reflects the importance we all place on supporting violence prevention efforts across the Americas. I’m eager to hear from all of you and share what the Biden-Harris Administration is learning and doing to strengthen efforts here in the United States and throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
As we all know, a worldwide violence epidemic impacts communities across the globe, including here in the United States and throughout the hemisphere. According to Insight Crime, the Americas have 47 of the world’s 50 most murderous cities and the trafficking of firearms is a major problem.
Despite the challenges there is reason for greater optimism. Research has shed light on evidence-based strategies to prevent and reduce violent crime and gang-related violence by establishing a greater balance between the public health and law enforcement aspects of public security. Cities and communities across the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean are learning the hard way over decades that “you can’t arrest your way out of the problem.”
We know this because evidence indicates that urban violence tends to be concentrated to particular street corner and is often committed by a small number of individuals, especially young men, and is associated with certain high-risk behaviors, such as carrying a gun, substance abuse, and belonging to a gang. In most major cities, only 0.5 percent of the population is responsible for 75 percent of the homicides.
The most effective strategies to reduce homicidal violence therefore must focus on where violence happens, who is involved, and how those involved are behaving.
These findings have informed State Department and USAID’s response to citizen security programming in the Americas. For INL this has meant support for community policing, building data collection systems, training law enforcement in investigations, and a combination of youth-police engagement. USAID also takes a community-focused approach working with municipalities aimed at preventing recruitment of youth into gangs and delinquent behavior. At the same time, governments in the Americas are investing in rule of law and social programs as a long-term strategy.
So how can we apply lessons learned to turn the tide, work collectively, and more effectively reduce violence in our hemisphere? Allow me to put forward five ideas.
1) We need to prioritize a public health approach to dealing with all forms of violence. Years of research spearheaded in the Americas indicates that the most impactful and cost-effective violence prevention efforts combine a public health approach with building criminal justice capacity. Using this approach, violence is treated as a disease, with careful diagnosis of those infected in hotspots, targeted interventions to interrupt transmission of violence, and preventive measures to keep those at risk from infection. We must also push back against violent and hateful narratives directed towards racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, women, and members of the LGTBQI+ community contributing to the a horrific rise in racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism (REMVE), from Buffalo to El Paso, and Pittsburgh to Quebec City.
2) Violence prevention requires data-driven diagnosis with clear metrics for success. We know it’s important to collect data for hotspot mapping, to differentiate risk levels explaining why small groups of mainly young men are more likely to join gangs or carry out delinquent acts. Similarly, we should use the latest research on behavior change to build community trust in police so residents report crimes, and to improve capacity to investigate and prosecute crimes. Clear outcome indicators are crucial and should be linked to impact evaluations so that we can more rapidly scale up evidence-based violence prevention strategies.
3) Strengthening the police is necessary but not sufficient to address the region’s violence epidemic. Instilling respect for rule of law and human rights is also important. There should be an ongoing conversation around abuses committed by security forces and ensure greater accountability when this takes place. The lack of trust between communities and police is one of the main impediments to improving security. Earning that trust is key and is best done when the police are seen as true protectors of people’s safety.
4) We need more capacity building for those working on violence prevention. Study tours right here to Los Angeles, and other cities have been instrumental for U.S. government and international practitioners developing their know-how to address crime and violence. Ongoing exchange with experts to learn about what works in similar contexts is a must. As we know, the implementation of violence prevention programs is not easy. It requires a high degree of technical know-how, extraordinary amounts of coordination among various agencies ranging from law enforcement to community service providers, and the funding to make everything happen. Law enforcement and service providers also need to be on the same page, and share high degrees of trust.
5) Lastly, we need to be honest about the work we need to do here at home. We’re experiencing the horrors of gun violence and mass shootings on a far too regular basis. The U.S.’s global leadership is stronger when we honestly talk about and confront our own challenges with citizen security here at home. This is why the Biden-Harris Administration has shown its commitment to this issue by proposing $5 billion for community violence prevention programs in the United States, and $4 billion for Central America to address the root causes of migration, including violence prevention programs, and a proposed holistic approach to security and counter narcotics strategy throughout the region. This major investment presents an historic opportunity to vaccinate against violence and is an important move in the right direction. The pandemic of violence needs to end now. We can and must get this done for all our futures.
Thank you and I look forward to the outcome of today’s discussion.