D.C. launches violence prevention program for 200 'highest-risk' individuals The new program draws from a study that found as few as 500 people a year drive 70% of the city's gun violence.
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D.C. launches violence prevention program for 200 'highest-risk' individuals

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a new violence prevention program that will focus on 200 individuals who are considered highest risk. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

D.C. has launched a government initiative that pairs 200 people considered high risk for involvement in gun violence with a specialized team that can help them access city services like job training, subsidized employment, and behavioral health treatment.

"We need to stop the gun violence that we're seeing in our city before anyone else is killed or gets killed themselves," said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Monday at a press conference announcing the initiative. This program does that by "zeroing in" on people at the highest risk, she said.

Each person in the program, called the People of Promise Program, will be paired with a support team that includes a D.C. government employee with credibility in the community, an employee at the Office of Neighborhood Safety who can help connect them and their family to services, and a D.C. cabinet member. Bowser says that about 20 members of her cabinet are part of what she described as the "initial triaging effort" – and their role in the initiative will be to contribute their "know-how of getting things done in D.C. government."

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The initiative asks the people identified "to see a different kind of future for themselves, and in return we are committed to providing the services they need," said D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation Director Delano Hunter, currently the interim director of the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, during the press conference. (Former ONSE Director Del McFadden resigned in February.)

Hunter said many of the people identified for the initiative have a "lengthy history" with the criminal legal system, including prior incarceration. Hunter said many have also survived violent injuries themselves. The services they may need include behavioral health services, subsidized employment, and job training — but Hunter also mentioned that some may be struggling with even more basic needs, like housing, food, and transportation.

The 200 people the D.C. government aims to reach through the program were identified through a two-year analysis of shootings and homicides commissioned by the District, according to Bowser's announcement. The study, which was published in February and authored by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, found that about 500 people in D.C. drive as much as 70% of the city's gun violence, and likely as few as 200 people are driving a majority of the city's homicides and shootings at any one point in time. It also noted that there was significant overlap between the victims of shootings and the suspects who commit them: Many shooters have been previously shot, and many of the suspected shooters and victims share risk factors and life circumstances.

"This very small number of high risk individuals are identifiable," said David Muhammad, the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, in an interview with DCist/WAMU when the report was released. "Their violence is predictable and therefore it is preventable."

The D.C. government has successfully made contact with about half of the 200 people identified, officials shared at the Monday press conference. Some of those people were already engaged in violence prevention programs, they added.

Linda Harllee Harper, the Director of D.C.'s Office of Gun Violence Prevention, acknowledged that reaching the remaining people on the list would be a challenge.

"You can have a name on a piece of paper, but finding a person, engaging them, and connecting them to services and having them agree to trust in us and accept the services is really the hard work," she said.

The new initiative appears to be an attempt to correct some of the key deficiencies that violence prevention leaders have noted in the District. Muhammad and others have said that while the District has devoted more resources to violence prevention in recent years, the city has failed to effectively coordinate between agencies doing violence prevention work.

After examining D.C.'s violence prevention programs, Muhammad also questioned whether theyhave been reaching the people at most risk of shooting or being shot in the near-term. In February, he told DCist/WAMU that D.C. has effective violence interruption programs like the Pathways Program at the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, an intensive transitional employment program that comes with a slate of services and supports. But he wondered whether they were reaching all of the right people.

"The intervention that they have is quite effective," said Muhammad. "The question has to be, 'are they working with the highest of the highest-risk [people]?"

Muhammad said that D.C. needed to do a better job of pairing those highest-risk people with life coaches who are in touch with them daily – and added that D.C. government leaders needed to be checking in on the progress of high-risk individuals regularly, with "very intensive coordination, follow-up accountability, and quality assurance." Bowser said Monday that her proposed budget for next year would add a new "life coach" position at the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement to fix that "missing link" in the city's gun violence prevention approach.

The inclusion of cabinet members on the teams assigned to high-risk individuals seems to be an attempt to address another shortcoming leaders have identified in D.C.'s violence prevention programs: issues with navigating D.C. government services and getting them to people quickly.

Linda Harllee Harper, the Director of D.C.'s Office of Gun Violence Prevention, noted last year in an interview with DCist/WAMU that the D.C. government needed to become more efficient in getting resources to high-risk individuals. She said that one of her focuses as she assumed her role was making the D.C. government easier to navigate for violence interrupters, credible messengers, and other outreach workers working with people at risk of being involved in gun violence.

"When [violence interrupters and outreach workers] identify a need with a particular family or person ... sometimes it's difficult to navigate the District government," said Harllee Harper. "And so it's our intention to make that as easy as possible and as streamlined as possible in that effort."

Rachel Usdan, the strategy and advocacy lead for Peace for DC, a non-profit that funds community organizations engaged in violence prevention work, called the program "promising," because it focuses attention and resources on the people at highest risk. But she said she wanted to see more of this work centered in community-based organizations instead of government — and said she wants to see a larger investment in violence intervention programs that target the people most at risk in the short-term.

"The devil's in the details, of course," said Usdan. "It's one thing to say we're trying to reach these individuals and connect them with services, but ... these are really hard to reach people who don't necessarily trust government services."

Usdan said she wanted to see D.C. empower more community-based organizations to be at the forefront of this effort, because they have built trust with people over years.

"I'm not saying it can't be done by government, but that's not necessarily how it has to be done or how it could be done best," said Usdan.

Usdan also added that she wanted to see a more significant portion of D.C.'s budget going towards direct intervention with people most at risk right now: people police may not have the evidence to arrest, but who city agencies know are at risk to perpetrate gun violence or become a victim. Usdan said the $1.7 million Bowser has proposed to fund approximately 20 life coaches is not enough.

"We really need ten times that $1.7 million to be able to reach all 500 individuals" driving the majority of D.C.'s gun violence, said Usdan, who noted that successful life-coaching programs in other cities she studied cost about $35,000 a year per individual and include stipends for participants, cognitive behavioral therapy, and substance abuse treatment, among other resources and supports.

The announcement of the initiative comes as homicides in the District are higher than they've been since the early 2000s. Last year, 227 people were murdered in the city – the most of any year since 2003. So far this year, D.C. has seen 52 homicides, two fewer than this time last year, according to D.C. police data. D.C.'s majority-Black neighborhoods are the most affected by gun violence and homicides.

The announcement also comes during an election year where crime, violence, and guns are top issues for D.C. voters, per Washington Post polling. One of Bowser's opponents in the Mayoral race, At-Large Councilmember Robert White, has criticized her administration for focusing too much on police to solve crime and failing to adequately invest in violence prevention programs and the root causes of crime – like poverty and trauma. In response, Bowser has pointed to significant increases in funding for violence prevention during her tenure, made possible by federal COVID relief funding.

The National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, the same group that authored the two-year analysis of D.C. homicides, is also slated to release a strategic plan for addressing gun violence in the District this year.

Story has been updated with comments from Rachel Usdan.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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