Shiand Miller, 23, was eight months pregnant when she and her 3-year-old daughter were found shot to death in Miller’s vehicle in Baltimore in June. Five people were shot in southwest Baltimore on a single Friday evening in July, including a 16-year-old who died at the hospital. In mid-August, a 13-year-old boy in the same area was struck by a stray bullet. In D.C., 20 people were injured — and a 17-year-old was killed — when a shooting broke out at a mass gathering in the Greenway neighborhood.
In March, Maryland’s Legislature voted with great fanfare to spend millions on programs designed to reduce gun violence in the hardest-hit areas of the state, like Baltimore City and Prince George’s County (which is adjacent to Washington, D.C.). But the coronavirus pandemic has since blown a hole in the state budget and the governor has said these programs will have to forgo state funding. That has left community programs and experts worried they will not be able to carry on — and that gun violence will continue to rise.
There’s no simple reason why gun violence is spiking in some places during the pandemic. Experts say the lack of dedicated funding for violence prevention hamstrings prevention efforts in any area experiencing a higher volume of shootings.
“The cities that have taken this issue more seriously, have invested in it,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “It’s not just trying to keep a lid on things today. These are the programs that are really thinking about this as a broader public model, and are trying to help individuals in those neighborhoods move to a different place in their life where they’re going to be safer from violence.”
A leading voice in gun violence research, Webster says the solution should include long-term investment in the root causes of conflicts that result in shootings in the first place: systemic racism, cyclical poverty, and the lack of access to social services.
Maryland Guts State Funding For Violence Prevention
In 2018, the Maryland General Assembly established the state’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Program with bipartisan support as a way to address growing gun violence in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced later that year that the state would commit $4 million to the fund to distribute grants to local government and nonprofit organizations operating evidence-based programs aimed at reducing gun violence in Maryland.
Addressing the high number of shootings in Baltimore City has been a big talking point for Hogan over the last four years. “Protecting our citizens is our most important responsibility, and our administration will use every resource possible to keep Marylanders safe,” Hogan said in a statement at the time.
Hogan emphasized the need to reduce violent crime in Baltimore during February’s state of the state address, adding that no other issue is more important for the legislature than “addressing the out-of-control violent crime, the shootings, and murders that are destroying Baltimore City.”
But since its passage in 2018, VIPP has only received state funding in one out of three fiscal years.
In March, the General Assembly passed a bill that mandated a minimum of $3.6 million in annual funding to the VIPP. Nearly 40 organizations including hospitals, advocacy groups, and even the Baltimore Police Department signed a letter urging Hogan to support the funding as the pandemic response continued to wreak havoc on the state’s budget.
But the bill was vetoed by Hogan in May. “The General Assembly passed a number of bills worthy of consideration, but COVID-19 has caused sudden and unprecedented economic turmoil,” Hogan said in a statement following the veto.
When asked directly about the future of funding distribution for violence prevention in Maryland, Hogan’s office deferred to the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services, which oversees the VIPP. The office provided a statement to Guns & America indicating that the work will continue into the new fiscal year, but with fewer resources.
According to the office’s executive director, Glenn Fueston, six well-established programs will have to split roughly one-third of the General Assembly’s proposed funding: $1.3 million in unspent state funds from last year and an additional $300,000 in available grants.
Programs that address violence are largely staff-driven. Between managers, what the program calls “credible messengers,” social workers, and violence interrupters who mediate conflicts and connect vulnerable residents to social services, there’s a lot of human capital. And the positions themselves are usually the first to go, according to organizer Greg Jackson from the Community Justice Action Fund.
“I think the next phase is shutting down entire sites, especially in areas where programs are very decentralized, like Baltimore’s Safe Streets, which is now up to six neighborhood sites,” said Jackson. “I’m sure the next phase is going to be shutting down sites … which really means giving up on an entire neighborhood.”
Jackson said states need to help kick in funding because cities are more financially vulnerable to national crises and politics: “The impact [of COVID-19] on city budgets is really devastating. But in a lot of states, it’s not as drastic.”
State budgets are also better able to absorb the shock than cities, he says. Despite the pandemic, some states are putting more money into reducing violence. Virginia’s General Assembly committed $2.6 million in grants to hospital-based violence prevention programs throughout the state as part of its sweeping gun violence prevention measures. In July, the D.C. Council voted to restore funding previously removed in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s pre-pandemic budget proposal.
Illinois passed a new initiative last year that drives 25% of the tax revenue from cannabis sales to fund grants for violence prevention, legal aid services, and youth and economic development in areas hit hardest by historic disinvestment. And Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers committed to starting a $1 million grant program to fund community organizations using evidence-based outreach and violence interruption programs.
In May, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker spearheaded a federal response to the growing gun violence problem, urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to provide $150 million for community-based violence intervention programs throughout the country in the HEROES Act, the reportedly forthcoming supplemental COVID-19 relief package.
“Making robust investments in violence intervention programs would be an important step in mitigating gun violence during the pandemic as gun sales continue to rise and emergency health services are strained,” they wrote in the letter.
The Senate has not yet passed its version of the bill.
The Effectiveness Of Violence Interruption Programs
Safe Streets is one of several programs that employ what are known as violence interrupters, outreach workers paid to mediate conflicts in targeted communities. But critics of violence interruption programs say that they often provide a temporary reprieve to violence without addressing the structural inequality that can lead to a bounceback in violence.
Webster’s team evaluated the impact of Baltimore’s Safe Streets program in four historically violent neighborhoods in 2012 . They found that the program was associated with significant reductions in gun violence in three of the four neighborhoods.
But in 2015, gun homicides began to spike again. Webster says that could’ve been the result of high-profile protests against police brutality that occurred at the time, causing communities to have less trust in law enforcement and take matters into their own hands. It hasn’t been studied systematically, but Webster says that could be a contributing factor to the spike in gun violence many cities have seen this summer, too.
In 2019, Baltimore City lost 309 people to fatal shootings, and Prince George’s County lost 74. Next door, Montgomery County saw just 14 gun deaths, according to data collected by the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun. These three jurisdictions represent the most populous parts of Maryland but are disproportionately affected by gun violence.
This year, there have been more than 150 gun deaths in Baltimore City and more than 50 in Prince George’s County, and many more nonfatal shootings.
As the coronavirus pandemic has heightened existing systemic inequality among Black and brown communities where gun violence is prevalent, violence prevention program staff have had to work twice as hard. Violence interrupters have been called upon by officials to use their credibility to spread public health messaging about COVID-19 in addition to mediating conflicts in their neighborhoods, all with significantly less funding for programs in Maryland.
“At the same time that gun violence is on the rise in many cities and communities, the workers who are trying to address this have more on their plate,” said Webster. “They’re also trying to control a pandemic. They’re working in some of the most challenging conditions you can imagine.”
Government officials need to be patient when it comes to evaluating their effectiveness, Webster says. Reaching for a quick answer is shortsighted. He noted that police departments are not automatically eliminated because they can’t prove effectiveness from one year to the next.
“We recognize we have public safety problems, and hopefully very thoughtfully and with data, think about strategies to reduce violence and assess their impacts and move from there. It doesn’t mean that you get one roll the dice and you’re out if you don’t win,” he said. “You have to think about this in the long term.”
Lack Of Innovation
Part of the proposed funding vetoed by Hogan was intended to create or expand violence interruption programs. It would have expanded the Safe Streets program in Baltimore and created a Cure Violence team in Prince George’s County to complement the efforts of a preexisting violence prevention program at Prince George’s Hospital Trauma Center, a busy Level II trauma center.
Joseph Richardson, interim chair of African American studies at the University of Maryland, directed the Violence Intervention Research Project for the hospital from 2017-19 and examined the risk factors for repeat visits to the emergency room for trauma wounds among Black youth admitted to the hospital from around the region.
Both Richardson and Webster said it’s important for government officials and program staff to think outside the box: They should resist the temptation to blindly apply a violence prevention program model that was effective in another city without first examining how it can best be adapted to a new area. That means looking at how violence interrupters can be used to follow up with patients most at risk of committing an act of violence or becoming a victim themselves after they’re discharged from the hospital.
Richardson remembers a shooting victim who, once discharged from the hospital, said he planned to retaliate against the group he thought responsible for the shooting. That experience made him push for funding to hire staff to assist in preventing these kinds of situations, adding three outreach specialists to work with the highest risk people discharged from the trauma unit at Prince George’s Hospital.
According to Richardson, the hospital receives some of its violence prevention funding from D.C.’s Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants — around 30% of trauma patients come from the District. But without the additional VIPP funding, services for trauma patients who live in Maryland will have to come solely from the hospital’s already-limited budget according to Richardson, including the additional outreach specialists he proposed.
Webster and Richardson agree that existing violence intervention programs based in the community and in hospitals could be even more effective if their efforts are more directly linked to one another, as they are in other cities.
“The best intervention models should be doing something more than simply quelling an argument in a given time. To really lower risks, you need to work with those high-risk individuals to get them into a safer place and their lifestyle and the set of opportunities before them,” Webster said. “That is what New York City is doing. That is what Oakland is doing.”
Oakland’s violence prevention program has seen success in bringing down an out-of-control homicide rate. Webster attributes much of that success to a 2014 ballot initiative that provides around $10 million per year to invest in prevention efforts and services.
“Their investment has been in behavioral change and social supports to promote nonviolence in that manner,” Webster said.“Law enforcement is part of that, and they are there if people do pick up a gun and use it to commit gun violence, but the emphasis is on supporting individuals to turn away from violence.”
Like Baltimore, Oakland has also experienced a surge in homicides this summer. Officials are attributing this to new gang violence, according to the Bay Area’s NBC affiliate. But the California city plans to lean on its well-funded infrastructure of violence prevention programs.
“Our model for crime reduction has been recognized as a national model, and we will continue to work closely and diligently with our trusted community partners to reduce the violence that traumatizes too many families in Oakland,” Interim Police Chief Susan E. Manheimer said in a statement. “All of us, working together, can help stop the tragic loss of life in our city, and ensure that all Oaklanders can live in a safe community.”
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.