The Role of Civilian Offices of Violence Prevention in Helping Communities Stem Gun Violence
Beyond Policing: Investing in Offices of Neighborhood Safety
This column contains a correction.
Communities across the country, both big cities and rural areas, are grappling with rising gun violence. While overall crime rates in the United States have declined, violent crime increased 5.6 percent between 2019 and 2020. Furthermore, 79 percent of all U.S. homicides in 2020 involved a gun. This increase in gun violence is in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which produced a spike in gun sales, great economic and social instability, and breakdowns in police-community relations. Black and other communities of color are experiencing this spike in gun violence most acutely; these communities have for generations seen a divestment in resources and have been the hardest hit economically by the pandemic.
To respond to the present moment in ways that address the root causes of gun violence, communities are advocating for greater investments in resources that produce safety outside the criminal legal system. These include affordable housing, greater access to physical and mental health care, education, and increased employment opportunities. Community stakeholders are also working together with their local governments in new and innovative ways to respond to instances of violence in their neighborhoods and to prevent further harm—such as by establishing civilian offices of violence prevention (OVPs). OVPs play a critical role in the growth and development of government-community partnerships related to violence prevention and intervention. Now is a critical time for cities to establish and grow these civilian offices, as federal, state, and local governments are finally dedicating resources to these successful community violence intervention (CVI) models.
Violent crime involving guns has risen in the United States
Increase in violent crime, 2019–2020
Share of U.S. homicides that involved a gun, 2020
Civilian OVPs facilitate lasting change
As outlined in CAP’s 2020 report “Beyond Policing: Investing in Offices of Neighborhood Safety,” cities can help ensure that community-driven gun violence programs receive the long-term political and financial support necessary to succeed by embedding nonpunitive safety solutions into the fabric of local government. These civilian-led offices within the city government, known as offices of violence prevention, provide the infrastructure and resources to administer or oversee CVI along with the implementation and administration of other programs. As the 2020 report states, “The goal is to ensure that community-based interventions are durable, sustainable, and elevated as integral elements of public safety practice—not just an experimental alternative to enforcement.”*
Establishing an OVP is an “important step toward a future in which arrest and incarceration are no longer the first response to every issue in society”—a future guided by communities most harmed by gun violence and the criminal legal system. “With the infrastructure to support community-driven solutions, local governments [are working to] help bring residents’ vision for safety and justice into existence.”*
CVI programs direct their services where needed the most
OVPs support a range of innovative programs to reduce violence, including community-centered intervention programs, known as community violence intervention. These programs focus on building partnerships between governments and those most affected by gun violence, especially in Black and other communities of color. By centering community stakeholders in the design, decision-making, and service delivery, these collaborations give CVI programs credibility—and in doing so, make people feel safer and more likely to engage in mitigating the spread of gun violence.
CVI programs, where implemented, have proved to reduce gun-related killings by as much as 60 percent.
CVI programs focus on reaching the small number of people who are most at risk for being victims or perpetrators of gun violence, including those who have themselves been survivors of gun violence or involved in retaliatory violence. CVI programs, where implemented, have proved to reduce gun-related killings by as much as 60 percent. For example, prior to COVID-19 restrictions temporarily shuttering the Oakland, California, CVI programs, the city saw an almost 50 percent reduction in shootings and homicides from 2012, when the city first launched these programs, to 2018.
Nonetheless, despite evidence of success, government at all levels has grossly underfunded CVI programs, devoting taxpayer resources instead to responding to gun violence after the fact, through the criminal legal process. However, federal, state, and local governments have slowly started to address this misstep and are increasing resources for CVI programs. Recognizing the impact of the pandemic on gun violence, the federal government permitted local jurisdictions to devote a portion of their American Rescue Plan Act funding to CVI programs. More recently, in April, the Biden administration enacted changes to 26 federal grant programs across five federal agencies to allow for increased funding and technical assistance for CVI implementation. And for fiscal year 2023, the administration included $150 million in funding for the U.S. Department of Justice’s budget for CVI development, implementation, and evaluation. While these resources are a start, they do not go far enough; America needs a much greater financial investment in community-based services and increased commitment of local government infrastructure to change community norms around violence and create meaningful opportunities for healing.
Case study: Richmond, California, is leading the way
In 2007, Richmond, California, established one of the country’s first OVPs, and the city has consistently invested in its operations since that time. In its first 10 years of operation, the city’s homicide rate fell by 80 percent. Furthermore, according to a forthcoming article in the Journal of Urban Health, Richmond is the only city in the Bay Area that has not experienced a rise in gun violence in the past decade, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Richmond launched its OVP, many other jurisdictions have followed suit. The structure and functions of Richmond’s OVP as a separate and independent civilian office within local government serve as an important example for other jurisdictions looking to replicate its success.
The National Offices of Violence Prevention Network supports the establishment of OVPs nationwide
In 2021, recognizing the importance of OVPs in the fight to curb gun violence and advance community-centered safety solutions, the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR), along with Advance Peace, Cities United, and CAP, and in tandem with OVP directors across the country, came together to create the National Offices of Violence Prevention Network. When the network launched, it comprised 19 OVPs housed primarily in mayor’s offices, city manager’s offices, or public health departments. With cities and counties increasingly establishing OVPs to respond to gun violence in their communities, the network, which is funded by the Joyce Foundation, Microsoft’s Justice Reform Initiative, and the Walmart Center on Racial Equity, has now grown to include more than 35 jurisdictions.
The network serves as a learning community with the goal of significantly increasing the expertise and effectiveness of OVPs. It hosts convenings; provides training and presentations on effective violence reduction practices; coordinates cross-OVP learning exchanges and site visits; offers leadership and management development; and supports OVPs in growing their capacity in data collection, funding for development, and communications. The network also supports the creation of new OVPs in cities interested in developing such agencies.
In January, at the request of network members, the NICJR conducted a landscape scan—looking closely at OVP programs across the country—and produced a National Offices of Violence Prevention Network report of its findings, such as on the structure, budgets, staffing size, service offerings, and funding sources for various OVPs within the network. Going forward, the NICJR will continue to expand on this landscape scan to include new member cities.
Civilian OVPs can serve as a meaningful bridge between local government and communities most affected by gun violence. Resources such as the National Offices of Violence Prevention Network can help push policymakers to make real and lasting investments in community-centered models and create the government infrastructure to support their success. The policies and partnerships that stem from OVPs, such as CVI programs, are a critical tool in combating rising gun violence and coordinating investments in the tangible resources that produce community safety and healing.
* Correction, May 11, 2022: This section has been updated with quotation marks to clarify the reference to CAP’s 2020 report “Beyond Policing: Investing in Offices of Neighborhood Safety.”
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Executive Director, National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform
Founder and CEO, Advance Peace