An innovative gun violence reduction program has helped to drastically reduce firearms deaths over several years in one northern California city and has saved taxpayers millions of dollars, a new study from the University of California, Berkeley, has found.
The study focuses on the successes of Advance Peace, a violence prevention program that employs formerly incarcerated residents to build relationships with the small number of people responsible for and most affected by gun violence.
The program is active in several northern California cities and similar models are used across the country, but in Stockton, a small city north of San Francisco that in 2012 ranked the tenth most dangerous in America, the program has contributed to a 20% drop in gun homicides and assaults since its launch in 2018, the researchers found. The program saved the city between $42.3m and $110m in two years, according to the study, while costing less than $900,000 over that same period.
The Guardian spoke with professor Jason Corburn, who conducted the study, as well as Brian Muhammad and Khaalid Muttaqi of Advance Peace’s leadership team about the research, the uptick in violence during the pandemic year and the inclusion of programs like Advance Peace in Joe Biden’s recently introduced infrastructure plan.
The conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.
A major finding in the report is that Advance Peace saved the city of Stockton millions of dollars in policing, emergency, and investigative responses. Why mention the cost-saving aspect of this program?
Jason Coburn: There’s a number of reasons to recognize the positive economic impacts. The Advance Peace program is having an incredibly positive impact on young people and communities while being woefully underfunded across the country, including in places like where it’s proved successful over years and years.
Biden’s American Jobs plan includes $5bn for programs like Advance Peace. What’s the significance of the recognition of community gun violence programs at the federal level?
Coburn: It’s critical that the federal government invest significantly in these types of programs. Throughout history, we’ve seen major federal investments pay off: from Reconstruction through the New Deal and war on poverty programs. Also, these community violence prevention programs can’t survive and have the impact that they’re having just on the backs of the nonprofit and private philanthropy foundation world alone. With the federal government paying attention now, we need to build that infrastructure. We need to recruit violence interrupters, train them and support them to make this work.
What do you hope people learn from your findings?
Corburn: We’re trying to show that through love, support, mentorship and opportunity these young folks, who are experiencing trauma and are unfortunately the victims of gun violence or are perpetrating gun violence, can turn their lives around. I also hope that people realize that violence interruption is really hard work. The few guys who are doing this are formerly incarcerated and have done an incredible amount of work to turn their own lives around. They’ve come home with a new set of skills, and a new commitment to reverse even some of the violence and things that they may have been involved in as a young person. Without them this work doesn’t happen.
What positive impacts you’ve seen Advance Peace have in the cities where the program currently exists? How have these changes happened?
Brian Muhammad: The neighborhood change agents are the people that folks in the community want to be. They were that young person a couple of years ago and now they offer hope and empowerment to help young people make better choices and let them know that they have options. That’s the most profound thing we do. People in the city just feel safer and they feel empowered. You see a sense of community building. Maybe some blocks still don’t get along, but a sense of camaraderie has begun to grow in these neighborhoods.
Khaalid Muttaqi: We see beyond the tattoos and saggy pants to see humanity and potential in those deemed by law enforcement as being the most dangerous in the city. You can’t capture someone going through a healing process and feeling loved and accepted in a UC Berkeley study. But when an individual who historically and habitually uses gun violence to solve personal problems learns better decision making they become personally safer, and the whole community is safer.
Muttaqi: We were still out in the streets trying to interrupt a historic uptick in gun violence while being under-resourced. If the prevention side was sufficiently resourced maybe we could have done better at engaging and interrupting. We did find ourselves overwhelmed with the amount of gun violence. We also found that some of the typical indicators of a shooter were widened. We had a lot more young people, like 14-16 years old, involved in shootings which was definitely alarming, since there’s always been a youth component, but it’s typically 18-29 years olds that we see more of.
What type of impact can Biden’s proposed investments in community-based violence prevention have on the larger issue of guns throughout the US?
Muhammad: At least Biden has enough gumption to begin the conversation, but it’s still not enough. America is the greatest gun dealer in the world and the number of guns bought spiked in 2020. In communities, people are making money off of the buying and selling of weapons, including ghost guns, that trickle down to people who are underage or should not have them. We have to figure why these guns are getting into neighborhoods, and it’s troubling that we’re not even keeping those types of statistics on the local or federal levels.
What do you hope to see after the pandemic wanes?
Muttaqi: Everyone’s talking about getting back to normal but for the families we work with “normal” was not good. After the trasmission rates are controlled, there are the lasting impacts on mental health and the uptick in domestic and child abuse and gun violence. Hopefully policymakers and local municipalities consider this as they go through their budget process. We hope that cities budget with their values in mind and follow the data which tells us there’s a need to increase our spending in this work.