Photo Credit: Street Corner Resources

Recent months have seen unprecedentedly widespread protests of police violence against Black people. Unthinkable just a short time ago, calls to defund or even abolish police have become louder and are gaining traction in mainstream policy discussions. Unfortunately, a number of cities around the country are also experiencing spikes in violence, casting doubt on the wisdom of reducing reliance on police. This all comes at the same time as the largest global pandemic in the past 100 years. COVID-19 is hitting Black and Latinx communities hard, exposing the pre-existing conditions of social inequality.

At the center of the triple crises of COVID-19, social unrest, and violence are community-based organizations (CBOs) working to keep the peace and prevent the spread of disease. CBOs that focus on violence prevention have been in the trenches for years, and have demonstrated real results in reducing gun violence. Yet they do not receive the resources, support, and respect commensurate with a true community-based approach to public safety — an oversight that policymakers would be wise to correct.

In fact, cities large and small around the country are talking about reallocating resources from police departments to a broad portfolio of social services. Here in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council struggled to satisfy calls to cut about a billion dollars from the NYPD in the FY 2021 budget adopted in June. Funding for overtime and recruitment was cut and some operations shifted to other departments, yet critics contend that money was just moved from one pot to another while essentially funding the same police activity.

A better course would be reallocating a greater portion of public safety dollars to CBOs that focus on violence prevention. Organizations such as Street Corner Resources in Harlem (featured in the photos accompanying this article), Life Camp in Queens, and Man Up! in Brooklyn, among others, have long fought on the front lines of public safety, usually with limited funding and capacity.

These organizations work directly with people at the highest risk of being involved in gun violence. Using a range of tactics, from peer-to-peer outreach to public events, anti-violence CBOs operate around the clock to prevent violence and promote community healing. They live “on call” as unofficial first responders, rushing to the location in the aftermath of a shooting, consoling distraught family members, and convincing people who might be ready for revenge that violence is not the answer. Once COVID-19 hit, these CBOs quickly pivoted to all address the novel coronavirus, informing the public about how to stop its spread and handing out masks and gloves. The connections they built in the community while doing anti-violence work proved to be valuable in getting out public health guidance in some of the hardest-hit communities.

Violence-prevention CBOs have only started receiving sustained, if insufficient, support from New York City government in the past ten years. Through the Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg first partnered with CBOs in launching new programs for justice-involved youth, but that did not translate into direct support for violence-prevention CBOs. Then, in 2010, New York City started a limited implementation of Cure Violence, a model that takes a public-health approach and uses “credible messengers” — people with lived experience dealing with violence — to interrupt violent situations.

The de Blasio Administration built on this work; its Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence (OPGV) administers a Crisis Management System (CMS) that funds CBOs to implement Cure Violence in seventeen areas in every borough of the city. In December 2019, OPGV merged with the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP) to create a new Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) with a budget of around $50 million. As part of the FY 2021 budget, CMS received an additional $10 million; its current sixty-million-dollar budget supports 50 organizations in 21 neighborhoods. That might sound like a lot of money; in fact, it’s only equal to about 1.2 percent of the NYPD’s current $4.9 billion agency expense budget, and a mere drop in the bucket of the city’s total $88 billion budget. The numbers show that the city’s public-safety priorities retain a traditional law-enforcement focus rather than investing in community-based solutions.

Despite such limited funding, data shows that CBOs can be effective partners in violence prevention. Researchers at New York University analyzed data from 264 cities over a 20-year period and estimated that for every increase of ten CBOs focused on crime and community life in large cities, there was a nine percent reduction in murder and a six percent reduction in violent crime. A report from the John Jay Research and Evaluation Center shows that Cure Violence sites in Brooklyn and the South Bronx experienced greater declines in gun injuries than did comparison areas.

According to the most recent data from the OPGV, each of the CMS sites have had at least one three-month period of no shootings since implementation started. The Fordham Manor site in the Bronx has the longest streak at 1,750 days — that’s almost five years without a shooting! These results make a strong case for CBOs and community-based solutions as legitimate components of an overall public-safety strategy. If CBOs can have this kind of impact with relatively low support, imagine how much greater it could be if policymakers cemented their role alongside — or in some circumstances, in lieu of — traditional law enforcement.

The current moment offers New York City an opportunity to reimagine public safety, and to look to the Black and Latinx communities most affected by violence for leadership and solutions to prevent it. As protesters march in the streets for justice, COVID-19 continues to disrupt life, and violence surges, now is the time to support community-based violence prevention, starting with the CBOs who have been on the front lines for years.

Talib Hudson is the Policy Director at Community Justice Action Fund, a Ph.D. candidate at the Milano School of Policy, Management, and Environment at The New School, and founder of The New Hood, a project developing community-based policy solutions to advance urban communities of color.