Cities Need Investment—Not a Theatrical Federal Policing 'Surge' | Opinion

Late last month, President Trump announced a "surge" of federal law enforcement into cities which, he claims, have erupted with gun violence all because of recent calls for police accountability. In doing so, he continued to play politics with American lives, rehashing an old playbook of showy, heavy-handed policing that harms already suffering communities and does nothing to fix the problem of gun violence. It is political theater that both exploits and threatens Black lives—and our democracy.

To meaningfully reduce gun violence, we need an actual strategy: one that responds to what local gun violence prevention advocates have made clear will actually help. We must stem the flow of firearms into cities. We must invest in proven, community-led gun violence interventions. And rather than ignoring the systemic racism that has caused gun violence to take a disproportionate toll on Black and Latino communities, we must tackle it head-on, by reversing racist policies, and making broad, sustained investments that expand economic opportunity in the neighborhoods hit hardest by this and so many other public health crises.

First, however, we need to understand that the recent, concerning spikes in gun violence are not the product of protests, but part of a long-understood pattern. Summer has historically brought increases in violence in many of these cities, and this year appears to show a similar trend exacerbated by the pandemic's social uncertainty and economic fallout. Indeed, the very neighborhoods hit hardest by gun violence are also hit hardest by COVID.

This burden falls disproportionately on Black Americans, who are ten times more likely than white Americans to die by gun homicide. In the U.S. cities with the 50 highest murder rates, 81 percent of murder victims are Black—despite the fact that Black people make up just 38 percent of the population of those cities.

The disparities we see in the toll exacted by gun violence did not originate with protests over the murder of George Floyd. They have roots in decades of systemic racism, inequity and deliberate policy decisions. A history of housing discrimination, for instance, has resulted in segregated neighborhoods and underinvestment in Black and Latino communities, which contribute to these disparities. Meanwhile, many of the communities hit hardest by gun violence are also trauma deserts (areas without a Level 1 trauma medical center), a development gap that causes life-threatening delays of care when victims need it most.

To put it bluntly, underinvestment in Black and Latino neighborhoods has created the environments in which public health epidemics thrive. We see the painfully clear results in the newly released racial breakdown of federal data on COVID-19's impact, which suggests Black and Latino Americans have been infected with the virus at three times the rate of white Americans. And even now, as our communities shoulder the heaviest load of the worst public health crisis we've seen in our lifetimes, other public health crises, including gun violence, persist.

To reduce gun violence, we need to disrupt cycles of gun violence in the short run, and address the underlying causes soon after that.

If the Trump administration truly wanted to reduce gun violence, it would support, rather than block, efforts to close loopholes in our federal gun laws that have contributed to the flow of guns into cities. Many of the cities with persistent gun violence are in states with strong gun laws, but are plagued by guns acquired out of state. Most of the guns recovered at Chicago crime scenes are traced to out-of-state dealers, and the vast majority of guns used in crimes here in New York arrive through the so-called Iron Pipeline of supply networks from southern states with weaker gun laws. This shows that strong gun laws are having an effect—and that their effects are being undercut by the weak laws in other states.

The Trump administration could also have an immediate impact by investing in proven community-based interventions, starting with the next COVID-19 relief package. Unlike Operation Legend, these interventions are led by community leaders, are tailored to meet unique community needs—and have track records of success.

These interventions vary in approach but are similar in their efficacy. Cure Violence and other street outreach programs, for instance, use credible messengers—who trained to intervene in violence and who have the trust of their communities—to mediate conflicts that may escalate into shootings or retaliation. Hospital-based intervention programs send outreach workers to connect with shooting victims and their families immediately following shootings and as they recover from injuries. Organizations using place-based intervention strategies work to prevent crime by reclaiming and improving public spaces.

Community-based gun violence prevention groups have also pivoted to include COVID-19 public health outreach, providing supplies, spreading public health information, and dispersing gatherings in cities across the country. The federal government has the chance to invest in this effective, community-led work as part of its next COVID-19 relief package—and doing so would help save lives from both public health crises.

In the long run, we need to invest in addressing the underlying causes behind the disparities we see. Strengthening gun laws and directing resources to community-led organizations is critical, but it is not sufficient. Only broad-based investment that expands long-term economic opportunity—investment in areas like education, health equity and job creation—can address the reasons Black and Latino communities are hardest hit by so many of our public health crises. It should not have taken COVID-19 to make this clear, but the pandemic has made it more evident than ever.

The communities shouldering the heaviest burden of this untenable public health crisis—one created by generations of deliberate policy decisions—are doing innovative and effective work to reduce shootings, and they are continuing to call on public officials to do their part, too. But for too long, when public officials have responded at all, they have responded the way the Trump administration has: declare a "crisis," treat the communities harmed as hostile territories, and double down on a law enforcement-only approach.

In addition to their immediate consequences, these deployments of federal agents threaten to further erode trust between communities and law enforcement —creating lasting damage that could linger far beyond the removal of the last deployed federal agent. Indeed, this escalation could hardly come at a worse time.

For the communities that may see these federal agents, this kind of response is all too familiar. For decades, they have asked for real help that includes fighting this problem at its core. They deserve leaders who will listen.

Michael-Sean Spence is policy and implementation director at Everytown for Gun Safety.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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