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Tamsen Reed: St. Louis curbed violent crime before. Where did we go right?

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Mothers March To End Gun Violence

Participants hold the names of children lost to gun violence at the Mothers March To End Gun Violence in Fairground Park on Sept. 14. Two groups, St. Louis Mothers in Charge and Moms Demand Action, organized the march to end violence against children in the area.

Photo by Christine Tannous,

After another deadly summer, everyone wants answers. Residents demand relief from the violence, and elected officials need programs that work and reflect a commitment to action. Many of the hurried proposals recently put forth reflect growing frustration with policy leaders to address the violence and stem the bloodshed.

Given the national media’s image of St. Louis, it’s easy to believe that it’s always been this way. But the reality is more nuanced, and there may be a diamond of insight hiding within our rough reality. About 15 years ago, the city saw a significant decrease in homicide, by some estimates a reduction of nearly 50% in a two-year period.

The Gun Violence Initiative, housed in Washington University’s Institute for Public Health, spent two years analyzing local efforts to curb gun violence during that period. We examined public and private funding streams and program evaluation reports. We conducted in-depth interviews with pivotal leaders during the period’s drop in crime. The investigation identified several key takeaways of what worked, what didn’t, and why.

Insights from our research into this period are profound and — we believe — replicable. While violent crime prevention is a complex challenge, we highlight three critical drivers:

Multi-Agency Collaboration. The precipitous drop in homicides occurred during unprecedented levels of cooperation between agencies. A newly elected mayor, police commissioner and city attorney helped produce a level of trust and cooperation that had not been attempted before and has been difficult to replicate since. This enabled the federally driven Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative to integrate earlier crime prevention programs into a single collaborative effort at this time.

This initiative, managed and coordinated through the U.S. Attorney’s office, engaged city and county police forces; city and federal prosecutors; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; Probation and Parole; local research partners; a media partner; and community advocacy groups. A core team of criminal justice partners participated in weekly communications to discuss cases, promote cooperative work and decide collectively how to move cases through the legal system.

Visionary Leadership Managing the Collaboration. While multi-agency collaboration formed the scaffold of success, individual leaders were responsible for the extent of each agency’s level of participation. A nearly wholesale turnover in leadership provided a unique window where local leaders were willing to try something new and work together, having not already developed competing positions. Additionally, the U.S. Attorney’s office acted as a central leader of the collaborative effort — a necessary condition for successful program implementation. The commitment of individual leaders with direction from a designated managing partner were key factors in the program’s effectiveness.

Committed Funding Streams for Collaboration. Previously, programs were commonly launched by single agencies. Projects were time-limited. The federal program that predominated during the designated period of implementation directed money toward the effective promotion, support and management of the collaboration itself. Creating effective violence-prevention is like trying to move a Viking ship: In order to get all the rowers working together and moving in the same direction, someone must navigate from the mast and beat the drum for tempo. Successful initiatives cannot succeed without managed collaboration, which requires funding — short-term and narrow-goal-funding commitments were described in our interviews as a key reason that otherwise effective programs were short-lived and eventually failed.

Our review of St. Louis’ attempts to reduce violent crime indicates that it can be done. Indeed, this might be a real moment of opportunity to replicate the previous success, as we currently have new leadership in key agencies who are again looking for partnered and collaborative solutions. Hopefully, we can learn from this example as we strive to create a city where we — and our children — are safe from violent crime.

For the conditions of success to flourish, and for those results to be sustainable, local and state leaders must seek a way forward on multi-agency, collaborative solutions that have the full support of the partnership’s leaders. They should create a body to manage the collaboration itself and adequately fund the program for the long term. While the need for action is clear, and multiple groups, leaders and community groups are beginning to act, our evidence shows that real change requires collaborative efforts that are strongly led and sustainably supported.

Tamsen Reed is a graduate student at Washington University who studied gun violence in St. Louis in a collaborative research project involving the Gun Violence Initiative and the Violence Prevention Commission.


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