For today’s Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with a panel of experts about the strategy of “focused deterrence” for reducing violence.

First, Wexler interviewed Thomas Abt, Senior Fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, and author of Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence – and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets (2019). 

In his book, Abt outlines a plan for reducing gun violence by 50% in the United States’ 40 most violent cities. The plan includes the concept of focused deterrence, in which police identify the people and groups driving violence in a city, and then call in the highest-risk people to a meeting where they are offered assistance, as well as a warning that police will “come down on them if the shooting doesn’t stop.”

Next, Wexler interviewed Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who implemented a focused deterrence model in his previous position as Superintendent of Police in New Orleans, and who is currently bringing the strategy to Baltimore.

Wexler also interviewed Stockton, CA Police Chief Eric Jones, who committed to a focused deterrence approach soon after becoming chief in 2012.


Key Takeaways

--Focused deterrence means concentrating on the highest-risk people, places, and behaviors. Mr. Abt noted that one advantage is that it is “actionable.”  It’s not asking police to be everywhere and do everything.

--The strategy is not about creating a large list of gang members, but rather an evidence-based, closely vetted list for the specific purpose of saving lives by reducing shootings.

--The list is not a “most wanted” list for arrest and prosecution. It’s a list of individuals who will be offered resources to help them leave a life of violence.

-- For legitimacy and transparency, it’s critical that the community be involved in the development and implementation of the strategy. Mr. Abt said that agencies need to explain, in a step-by-step manner, what they are doing and why.

--It’s essential to actually deliver on the promise of helping the young men who agree to accept help. As Commissioner Harrison said, it’s not enough to just point them toward help.  You must bring them to the help or bring the help to them, whether it’s about addiction, education, jobs, housing, mental illness, or other issues.

--Focused deterrence is about “shared public safety,” which requires police to work with a range of social service agencies. As Chief Jones noted, “That means it’s not all about police, but we’re certainly part of it. I’d like more outreach workers, more programs, and more hospital response teams. When we have a shooting victim at a hospital, we need outreach workers there, because they can cool things off and stop conflicts.”

--The strategy requires a sustained commitment of resources. It has failed in cities where the resources were not provided, or were not maintained over time. Mr. Abt estimates that his 40-city  plan would require approximately $100 million per year.


Thomas Abt, Senior Fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice

Wexler: Can you explain your book’s emphasis on concentrating on very specific people and places?

Abt: One of the strongest takeaways from my book and the massive body of social science evidence we have is that to reduce violence, you have to focus on violence. It’s not enough to work on it indirectly; you have to approach it directly.

That means concentrating on the highest-risk people, places, and behaviors. When you do that, this endlessly complicated, incredibly persistent socio-economic phenomenon becomes somewhat simple:  you need to focus on a few people in a few places and a few behaviors of those people in those places.

I think that’s an incredibly important point, not only because that’s what is most effective at reducing violence, but because it’s actually actionable. We’re not asking law enforcement to be everywhere and do everything. It’s a more reasonable, doable ask.

Wexler: How do you identify the people to focus on?

Abt: I think the best ways to do it are through homicide and gang and group audits, which were pioneered by the focused deterrence strategy. And also through social network analysis, as has been done by Andy Papachristos out of Northwestern University. That’s the “in the weeds” answer.

More broadly, I think you need to have a transparent process where you can tell people the methodology by which you’re focusing your attention, and that this is going to only bring attention to the highest-risk offenders.

So you’re not going to create a massive gang list, something that has received a ton of criticism over the past few years. It’s going to be an evidence-based, closely vetted list used for a specific purpose, which is to save lives by reducing shootings and killings.

The other thing that’s important, particularly when working with advocates, activists, and community members, is to assure people that this is not just a “most wanted” list. This is a list of individuals to whom you are going to direct resources, as well as enforcement attention. Those resources might not come directly from law enforcement, but it’s important, in terms of both the politics and the legitimacy, that people know this information will be used to engage with these individuals and provide both carrots and sticks.

Wexler: What are some examples of places that have handled the transparency and legitimacy well?

Abt: I think Chief Jones has done a lot of this work in Stockton, and Commissioner Harrison is very familiar with it from his time in New Orleans.

Another good example is the work that was recently done in Oakland, which in many ways is the best recent example of the focused deterrence strategy. One of the two things that make it especially strong is that it was developed with a tremendous amount of input from community and faith-based leaders, and it had their ongoing support.

The other strength is that it had a robust set of resources devoted to helping these guys – and they’re almost all guys – to change their lives. If law enforcement had to bring arrests and prosecution, they would. But that wasn’t done as a first course; it was done if other things failed.

Wexler: How do you address community concerns during this process?

Abt: I think it’s about not just doing this in a superficial way, but really explaining, in a step-by-step way, what you’re doing and why.

For instance, one of the main concerns that civil rights advocates and activists might have is that you’re going to pull people into the system through a “dragnet” approach that adds to the criminalization and incarceration in communities that are already suffering extensively from those things. By being transparent and explaining what you’re doing and why, you can assure them that you’re only looking at the highest-risk individuals, almost all of whom have an extensive criminal history. So you’re not dragging anyone new into this.

And I think there’s emerging research that this is actually a tool for reducing mass incarceration. Adam Gelb, who is a colleague of mine at the Council on Criminal Justice, had a great op-ed about this in USA Today. His point is that today the greatest driver of mass incarceration is violent crime. Until we have better answers for violent crime, we’re only going to be able to make limited progress on mass incarceration. So if, by providing supports, services, threats, and sanctions, we can avoid murders, we can avoid incarcerating people for those long sentences that make up the most prison years.

If we can get ahead of this, even if it requires incarcerating someone briefly for a weapons offense or something else, in the larger context we are actually reducing mass incarceration.

I think these types of efforts need to have two focuses. You want to engage these young men and tell them that you want to keep them alive, and you want to keep them free. The way we do that is by helping them change their lives and avoid doing something that will get them sent to prison for the rest of their lives.

Wexler: Your book includes a plan to significantly reduce gun violence that would cost $100 million per year. How would that money be spent?

Abt: I would first channel it to the 40 highest-risk cities in the country, which would be the 20 cities that have the highest overall numbers of homicides and the 20 cities with the highest homicide rates.

Within those cities, I would insist that all that funding go exclusively toward preventing homicides among the highest-risk places and individuals. And I would require that the funding be spent in a balanced way. I think it’s very important to understand that if you want to change someone’s behavior, you have to give them things to say “yes” to and things to say “no” to. Too often we have conservatives who just want to lock these individuals up, or progressives who just want to offer support and assistance. Neither of those strategies is going to maximize behavior change by itself. You need both at the same time.

Lastly, I think it’s extremely important to seek out and get the input and consent of those in the most impacted communities. You need to get their buy-in and work with them hand-in-glove.


Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison

Part of the success we had in New Orleans was due to having a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary violence reduction strategy based on the focused deterrence model that Tom spoke about. I became the chief after that was already built, so I had the good fortune to walk into this.

When I came to Baltimore, they had already tried this twice. Two previous iterations had failed because they did not make the necessary investments into both the enforcement and social services provided. For the people of Baltimore, it had become a total reliance on police enforcement and deployment strategies as a means to reduce the high murder rate. So when I arrived, there was no strategy for dealing with shootings and murders beyond enforcement, patrol, investigation, and prosecution.

One of the first things I did, after meeting with the people of Baltimore and the officers, was develop a comprehensive crime plan for the city. We call the plan a five-year departmental transformation plan. I included the goal of moving back to a comprehensive violence reduction strategy, namely focused deterrence, because it can’t just be enforcement.

You have to actually deliver on the promise of helping the young men who agree to get that help, not just point them toward it. You have to actually bring them to the help or bring the help to them.

Our strategy is built on five pillars: prevention, intervention, enforcement, rehabilitation, and reentry. Those don’t all have to come from law enforcement, but they have to come from somewhere. It has to be comprehensive, holistic, and the proper investment has to be made.

That did not exist here. I’m now working for my third mayor in two years, and the turnover in city government did not afford me the opportunity to work with the city to build this comprehensive strategy until now. We’re now going full-steam ahead with a group violence reduction strategy, making sure we’re not only enforcing but also creating a path away from a life of crime.

Whether the issues are addiction, education, jobs, skills, housing, or mental illness, we’re working to deliver solutions to help young men through case management from social service providers coordinated by the city.

It has been difficult, because most people here are conditioned to believe that police alone bring the murder numbers down. But we’re now in a good place, because we’re making the investment in this model, which is a public health approach being led by the health department, not the police department.

Wexler:  Tell us more about the “public health approach.”

Commissioner Harrison: It is going to put a lot of emphasis on dealing with mental health issues, addiction issues, and reentry support to connect people to services and fix those root-cause issues that either pull or push people toward crime. And we’ll help improve the quality of life by cleaning up the environmental issues in an area that can attract crime. We’ll make sure the social services are provided and that we can actually deliver on that promise. In many cases, focused deterrence fails because cities cannot deliver on that promise in real time. That’s what we’re working to do now.

Wexler: In New Orleans you were addressing violent crime while implementing a consent decree. What did you learn from that experience that you’re bringing to Baltimore?

Commissioner Harrison: In New Orleans, I had to change the narrative about the consent decree, because officers would often say, “It tied my hands behind my back, and I can’t do my job.” It actually makes us do our jobs better, and do them the right way.

I’m now pushing back on that narrative here in Baltimore. Officers were saying that a lot when I first got here, but they’re saying it a lot less now. The culture is shifting, and officers are beginning to see the benefits of a consent decree. It makes us do things the right way, and it brings resources to bear that we otherwise would not have. And it allows us to have police legitimacy in a way that we could not do on our own. We can clearly see community satisfaction increasing, use-of-force complaints decreasing, and discipline decreasing because there are fewer of those complaints. Two years into my tenure, officers are beginning to see that, and the narrative is shifting.

These things are not mutually exclusive. You can police constitutionally and appropriately, make culture change in a police department, and bring down violent crime.


Stockton, CA Police Chief Eric Jones

Stockton has one of the highest violent crime rates in the state and the nation. There are a lot of generational gang issues. But we’ve been making some great efforts to address the violent crime.

In 2012 and 2013, we were forced to go through a reallocation of resources. We cut our department by almost 25% because of our city’s bankruptcy, and at the time we were one of the most understaffed police departments in the country for a city our size or larger. We had a record number of homicides in 2012, with 71 in a city of about 300,000. And we had major protests and community trust issues based on some controversial shootings.

We had all these things going on, and we knew we had to retool the way we operated. We went to Ceasefire. We had done Ceasefire wrong in the ‘90s, meaning we didn’t stick with it and have program fidelity. By 2013 we concentrated on doing the focused deterrence correctly and committing to it.

I think the biggest thing the department and I learned is how much community trust is related to violent crime. I learned that through the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. We felt that link was so important that we actually changed our mission statement. It used to be a paragraph or two that nobody could remember. We boiled it down to where it’s just about “working in partnership with our communities to build and maintain relationships founded on trust and mutual respect, while reducing crime and improving quality of life.” It puts trust on equal ground or even ahead of the crime-fighting strategies.

To get community input, we did something I thought was pretty interesting and innovative. It’s called the leadership council. Our focus is these guys who are the highest at risk of being shot or incarcerated, and we want them to be alive and free. We pull some of those guys who sit at the table of a Ceasefire call-in and put them on a leadership council. They get input on police policy. They’ve been identified through social network analysis, data, street intel, etc., and are committed to saying, “I’m not going to go that route.” These guys tell us what it’s like to have a probation search served on them, or the way police treat them when they’re pulled over. It helps us focus on getting illegal guns off the street and reducing violent crime while building trust.

These guys are willing to make a commitment to change their lives and help us reduce crime. They’ve been in the system, on the streets, and in the life. Our officers may have had some initial concerns, but it’s really no different from our gang outreach workers, whom we call “peacekeepers.” So we had kind of already worked through any concerns our officers might have had about this when we implemented outreach workers. We’re all committed to reducing violent gun crime in our communities, so why wouldn’t we hear from people who know better than anyone else what’s going on in the streets?

Wexler: Tell me more about how your 2012 budget cuts impacted your approach to violent crime.

Chief Jones: We cut our number of officers by about 25%. We also cut officer pay by as much as 25% in some areas, which created another problem, because it was a mass exodus to other departments for the officers who were still here. What that taught my command staff and me is that we had to work with the community in ways we never had before. We couldn’t just say we weren’t going to a community meeting or doing Ceasefire because we didn’t have enough staffing. We had to set priorities. I had to make tough decisions to not respond to different types of low-priority calls, which was somewhat controversial in the community.

But I had to continue assigning staff to the Ceasefire work. Focused deterrence can’t just be a “program.” You have to infuse it into your organizational structure. It’s a lot of work, and you can’t just do 50% of the work. I put a deputy chief in charge of it and assigned a whole team to it to demonstrate it was a priority, but other things had to go. We quit going to a lot of lower-priority calls. Those difficult decisions had to be made, because the priority was reducing gun violence in our community.

It was also controversial with elected officials. Another challenge is how a police chief or sheriff does this work when they might get pulled in different directions by elected officials who want immediate results. I’ve had several mayors, and some want to go in a different direction. But we go back to the data. Focused deterrence is just about the best practice out there for the type of gun violence we experience.

Wexler: If Stockton received additional funding to reduce violent crime, how would you use it?

Chief Jones: For me, it’s about shared public safety, which means it’s not all about police, but we’re certainly part of it. I would like to build up some of my crime analysis, so that we could continue to be as data-driven as possible. I’d also like more outreach workers, more programs, and more hospital response teams. When we have a shooting victim at a hospital, we need outreach workers there, because they can cool things off and stop conflicts. We all know that conflicts between groups and gangs can emerge rapidly. So I think we need more county services and more outreach workers.

Wexler: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Chief Jones: To follow up on what Tom mentioned, we need to police those micro-locations, but it’s about how we police those micro-locations. We can’t over-police and be viewed as an occupying force.

We use predictive analytics for forecast-based deployment, where we forecast where gun crimes will likely occur based on seasonal issues, current street intel, and other information. We put black-and-white patrol cars in those zones. We tell officers to just be present. Get out of the car, walk the block, and have positive interactions. We’re not looking for zero-tolerance policing or heavy policing. We’re just looking for a presence to show we’re committed to the community.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.