Thomas Abt – a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets

9 December 2019

Interview with Thomas Abt, author of Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence – and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets

What motivated you to write this book? How has your past experience in policy-making helped shape your views and research?

I wrote Bleeding Out to convince the general public that urban violence was not the intractable, uncontrollable challenge that many believe it to be. Unlike some authors, before writing I had spent a good deal of my career inside government where I lobbied senior federal, state, and local officials to implement many of the interventions described in the book. Because of this experience, I knew the limits of “access” and believed we needed to build a new political constituency for the approaches that worked well but few knew about.

You make the point that many of the solutions to urban violence are actually already known. So why is it, then, that they haven’t been widely put into practice?

In my experience and as I wrote in the book, there are a few important barriers that need to be broken down in order to gain support for these solutions. The first is political: most of the programs in the book don’t conform neatly to one political ideology or another – they have both conservative and progressive elements. Because of this, most traditional politicians won’t gravitate to these solutions without some education and maybe even some pressure.

The second barrier is the sometimes complex nature of evidence-informed solutions in general and anti-violence interventions in particular. These efforts are not always easy to explain in an elevator pitch. In fact, there’s an irony here: the simplest solutions can be quickly explained but tend not to work, while the complicated ones are tough to talk about but are far more effective. Making the case for using science to inform policy takes time and energy, and we’re not spending enough of either right now.

The third barrier – to be candid – is indifference or apathy. Urban violence in the United States concentrates almost exclusively in poor communities of color and, because of this, many in mainstream America convince themselves that this is not their problem to solve. But of course that’s wrong – it’s everyone’s problem. Directly or indirectly, we all pay a price for deadly violence on the streets of our cities, so we have to find a way to motivate people to cross class and color lines to join the fight.

What are the primary, practical solutions to addressing urban violence that you identify?

In Bleeding Out, I identify about ten people-, place-, and behavior-based strategies that are proven to control urban violence and recommend that cities adopt several of them in combination with one another. These strategies have three things in common: they are focused, balanced, and fair. They are focused in that they concentrate on the small clusters of people, places, and behaviors that drive most urban violence. They are balanced in that they use both carrot and stick, rewards and punishment, to change behavior. And they are fair in that they are perceived by those most impacted by these strategies – including the perpetrators of violence themselves – to be fair and legitimate.

What do you see as the role of local communities in the fight against urban violence, and how do police forces fit in to that?

Too often I see discussions of violence centered around either communities or police, but not both. Communities cannot police themselves and police require the cooperation of communities to do their job. It’s about collaboration between the two, not one working in isolation from the other – that’s what the evidence suggests. In the book, rather than talk a lot about community-oriented or problem-oriented policing, I introduce a new term: partnership-oriented crime prevention. We need communities and police to partner with one another, in and around crime hot spots, to work with the individuals and groups at the highest risk for violence.

Your book proposes practical solutions to urban violence for the United States. Do you see your research as applicable to other urban contexts?

I do believe it is applicable, but with a number of important limitations. First, while urban violence looks very similar context to context, there are many places where other forms of violence – organized criminal violence, for instance – are happening at the same time. Bleeding Out can help with the urban component, but it’s not a panacea for all forms of violence.

Second, while the problem of urban violence looks similar place to place, the capacity for implementing solutions varies widely. In the United States, our criminal justice and other institutions are highly imperfect, but they are usually capable of delivering the strategies set out in the book with the right amount of attention and support. That is not necessarily the case in other parts of the world.

Third and relatedly, Bleeding Out is mostly about programmatic innovation. It doesn’t spend much time on institutional and systemic change. That is fine for the U.S., but programmatic innovation by itself is often not enough in other contexts. Take many countries in Central and South America, for instance, where impunity for crime and especially violence is rampant. If nine out of ten murderers are never brought to justice, that speaks to institutional and systematic failures that can’t be remedied by programs alone.

‘The simplest solutions can be quickly explained but tend not to work, while the complicated ones are tough to talk about but are far more effective.’

One of the increasingly adopted types of interventions aimed at reducing or preventing urban violence worldwide is the public health approach. Is this a step in the right direction?

Yes, it is, but with some important caveats. Too often we talk about public health as an alternative to public safety, i.e. law enforcement. That will not work. We need both public health and public safety at the table, cooperating and not competing with one another, if we want to be successful in sustainably reducing violence.

Another caveat is that, in theory, public health practitioners do not prefer primary over secondary or tertiary prevention. In practice, however, that is not the case: public health advocates often lobby exclusively for primary prevention strategies, despite the fact that our most rigorous evidence consistently demonstrates that more targeted secondary and tertiary strategies are more effective. If we are truly going to be evidence-informed, we need to acknowledge the limits of “root cause” approaches and complement them with more focused interventions.

An often-mentioned challenge is translating academic scholarship into practical guidance for policy and practice. Do you think this is a challenge, and if so, how might scholars better gear their research towards having real-world impact?

It’s a big challenge. I have one foot in academia and the other in the field, so I see it from both sides. Many of my academic colleagues feel pressure to focus exclusively on publishing and when they do collaborate with practitioners their efforts are not properly recognized or rewarded. That has to change.

Increasingly practitioners are open to using research when crafting policy, but that research has to be relevant, reliable, timely, and actionable. Folks in the field are deeply frustrated when they receive research that tells them only, “this issue is complicated” or “that topic needs more study.” We need to a better job of making research usable for policy and practice.

I also think it’s important to recognize that not everyone has to do everything. Some academics excel in generating rigorous research. Others, call them “pracademics” if you want, are great at developing meaningful researcher/practitioner relationships. We need both, as well as policy experts like myself who can help with the translation function.

Many people are concerned that rapid urbanisation in the coming decades poses ever greater challenges to everyday security. Are you optimistic about the future of urban life and our ability to reduce violence in cities?

I am optimistic about this. First off, it’s important to note that many cities are in fact safer than their rural or suburban counterparts, so we need to push back on the notion that there is some inherent link between urbanization, crime, and violence. That idea isn’t backed up by the data.

Secondly, I see a nascent consensus emerging that recognizes that urban violence causes more deaths than any other form of violence, so we must direct more resources towards it. I also see more agreement that simplistic notions that such violence can be cured by more and better economic and social development are not sufficient. More and more, people are looking to the evidence generated by the most rigorous experimental designs and learning that to create peace, we must work directly on violence. That’s a big step forward.

Thomas Abt is a Senior Research Fellow with the Center for International Development at Harvard University, where he leads CID’s Security and Development Seminar Series. He is also a member of the Campbell Collaboration Criminal Justice Steering Committee, member of the Advisory Board of the Police Executive Programme at the University of Cambridge, and a Senior Fellow with the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
You can follow him on Twitter @Abt_Thomas.

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