Seeking Solutions for Urban Violence
by Kristen A. Graham
The nation reeled when a gunman stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 26 people, including 20 children, on Dec. 14, 2012. Mobilized by grief, anger and sadness, Americans launched into a spirited discussion of gun control, of mental illness, of how to prevent such events in the future. But Maria Kefalas, Ph.D., saw the Connecticut tragedy in another way, calling the violence “a rare form of cancer — as opposed to a more common form of the disease we have in urban areas.”
Kefalas, director of the University’s Richard Johnson Center for Anti-Violence (RJC) and a professor of sociology, understands the shock and horror. “That kind of mass violence is not supposed to happen in that kind of place,” she says, “but we have horrifying outcomes in inner-cities every day.”
While the gun control debates are important, Kefelas says, in some ways they’re a distraction, a red herring. “There are more guns than people in some places,” she says. The way to deal with urban violence, she believes, is not to simply go after the guns, or incarcerate the people who use them.
Many young men growing up in tough urban neighborhoods don’t believe they’re going to live to be adults — they truly have trouble envisioning a future where they survive to live full, productive lives. “They don’t feel like their lives are worth anything, and that’s what we have to fix,” says Kefalas.
But that reality rarely pierces the everyday lives of most people, who don’t need to worry about preventing their children from seeing a dead body or keeping them safe on a potentially perilous walk home from school. Call it the pathology of low expectations — hundreds of deaths in an urban area just feels normal. A homicide in many urban areas merits a newspaper brief, or a short story on the evening news, and people gloss over it.
“We have reached a point in our society,” Kefalas says, “where people look at the murders happening in cities and say, ‘Those people somehow deserved it, or made bad choices, and somehow their lives being lost is not tragic and painful.’ It’s just easier that way.”
The psychological impact of living in such conditions is profound. Consider the perspective of a young woman interviewed by Susan Clampet-Lundquist, Ph.D., an urban sociologist and associate professor of sociology, for a research study. This young woman, who grew up in public housing, was so used to violence that “she says she was constantly looking behind her back,” Clampet-Lundquist recalls. “That fight-or-flight pose works well if you have a lion behind you, but it doesn’t work if you’re in a classroom. How can you do well when you’re constantly on guard?”
In a study of inner-city 7-year-olds, Clampet-Lundquist says, three-quarters say they had heard gunshots. Nearly 20 percent said they had seen a dead body. And for many people living in such situations, the police are no comfort. Clampet-Lundquist’s research indicates, among both young men and women of all ethnicities, “a huge lack of trust — and this comes out of being harassed on an almost daily basis by police officers,” sometimes for legitimate reasons, and sometimes for no reason at all. “When you’re thrown up against a wall going about the course of your daily life,” she says, “you’re not going to want to cooperate with the police.”
Still, Clampet-Lundquist points out successful models, ways to begin to remedy that mistrust. The city of Philadelphia’s PhillyRising initiative is one beginning to make inroads. PhillyRising calls on multiple agencies, including the police, to work with people in high-crime neighborhoods to address quality-of-life issues. In a North Philadelphia neighborhood, for example, “People started meeting together, having honest conversations about what was needed in their neighborhood,” she says. “They worked together to close down vacant buildings, opened up a community center, a pool, a computer center. And there was a drop in crime.”
Start with Low-Level Crime
Thomas Gilbert ’94 (M.S.) has spent his entire adult life in law enforcement. Until August 2011, he was a member of the New Jersey State Police Department, where he eventually became a lieutenant colonel and the department’s chief of staff, running the force’s day-to-day operations. Policing large urban areas — Trenton, Newark, Camden — was a big part of that big job.
“One of the challenges we all find ourselves in is how we chase homicide numbers,” Gilbert says. “It’s how we measure success and failure. Because of the public attention to what the homicide count is at any time, it’s easy to focus on that.”
But he believes that just trying to stop homicides isn’t the answer. “When a murder happens, people have already decided to put a gun in their hand and shoot someone else,” he explains. “You really have to look at what’s causing somebody to get to that point where they’ll put a gun in their hand and say, ‘I’ll point this at someone, and I’ll kill them.’”
Now retired from the state police, Gilbert is commander of the state-created Atlantic City Tourism District. Though most of the crime in the city occurs outside of the district, that crime affects Atlantic City’s reputation and the willingness of tourists to travel there and, in turn, Gilbert’s work. The governor and his bosses in the Attorney General’s office have given him wide latitude, Gilbert says, to focus on prevention.
“We’re not going to say, ‘Don’t worry about that shooting or that homicide because it’s not in the tourism district,’” he says. “So we embraced a holistic approach.” Gilbert supports the “Broken Windows” theory — basically, that policing low-level, quality-of-life crime assiduously leads to an atmosphere where violent crime is less likely to occur. That theory was a game-changer in New York City in the early 1990s, when strictly enforcing laws about petty crimes like public drinking and the “squeegee men” who would clean the windshields of stopped cars and demand money led to a drop in both petty and violent crime.
“You can’t do everything, but we have to chip away at the little things,” Gilbert says. Atlantic City has what Gilbert calls “a very aggressive” law enforcement program, with a violent crime task force and a cadre of Class II officers who work on an hourly basis and have more limited powers than regular officers. The city also has an ambassador program, with unarmed workers in brightly colored uniforms patrolling key areas. “They integrate with our eyes and ears concept,” Gilbert says. “We try to expand out the eyes and ears, to prevent people from making bad decisions.”
Another key component is to bring stakeholders from all facets of the community together — from schools to juvenile delinquency programs — to work on preventive measures. That coalition uses data and focuses on getting youth on the right path with jobs, training and mentorship. “We have to look at histories and say, ‘Is there a point where support would have made a difference?” he adds. “What programs can we focus on? A lot of times, you get stuck in the cop world — you’ve got to knock crime down, you’ve got to deal with homicides. But we have to focus on preventive efforts.” Now, there’s a generation of young people — young men, mostly — who have already made decisions to engage in counterproductive behavior. But reach them at 10 or 12 and show them alternatives, and the implications of crime and the community are considerable. The goal, Gilbert says, is to produce better citizens, and a byproduct of that will be a lower crime rate.
Not everyone shares Gilbert’s attitude; chipping away at such an enormous problem as urban violence is far from easy. As Kefalas puts it, “Politicians don’t get re-elected by saying, ‘Let’s invest in the young people who are killing each other.’ They would be labeled as soft on crime.” Other causes inspire people to open their wallets. Take the case of Alexandra Scott, the Wynnewood, Pa., girl who died at age 8 and whose dream of raising money to fight pediatric cancer led to Alex’s Lemonade Stand, a foundation that has raised more than $60 million to date. Unlike urban violence, childhood cancer is a cause everyone sympathizes with.
“Where is our Liz Scott [Alex’s mom]?” Kefalas says. “Where is our Alex’s Lemonade Stand? That’s what we need. I guarantee you, we can fix this. We know the kids who are at risk. We know the kids who have the disease.”
Push for Legislation, Public Support
Richard J. Ross Jr. ’04 (M.S.), first deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, agrees with Kefalas and believes that the tide can be turned.
“I think you just have to work as hard as you can to try to make as many people understand that, in some way or another, violence affects us all,” Ross says. “Economically, we’re subsidizing a lot of the people who get stabbed or shot. It affects our quality of life, the reputation of our city. There’s just not enough of a push to fix it, not enough of a push on legislators.”
Ross is clear: Government can’t and shouldn’t be responsible for the whole problem. “I don’t believe in making excuses — some of it starts at home, in families,” he says. “We have to make families a more cohesive unit, like they used to be. If you don’t see a person who’s showing you how to be a productive member of society, how do you know how to do that?”
Ross often thinks of his own experience, growing up in the city’s Fern Rock section. Everyone was lower middle class, but it was a proud place, a place where people looked out for one another. One night, a burglar tried to break into his home. A woman outside walking her dog saw the crime in progress, and instead of fleeing, she stood and screamed, gaining the attention of Ross’s family and several neighbors. Ross vividly remembers his father and perhaps 10 other men, gathering outside in pajamas, combing the neighborhood, trying to figure out who the criminal was and where he came from. “That was community,” Ross says. “Without that, there’s this whole breakdown.”
Some experts see urban violence as a public health issue, a problem of such proportions that it touches everything. Though conditions are improving slightly, nearly half of all city public school students still don’t graduate from high school. “Until we can find a way to have an impact on all of those things — school, economy, everything — we’re going to be on this treadmill,” says Ross. “You haven’t changed what’s really driving it. The police will just be here as a MASH unit to put our fingers in the proverbial dam.”
Apply the Research
SJU’s Richard Johnson Center (www.sju.edu/int/academics/centers/rjcenter) aims to be part of the solution. Founded in 2001, the RJC is designed to both study violence and use research to improve prevention efforts. It is named after a bright young 17-year-old who was killed the summer before he was to enter Saint Joseph’s on a full scholarship. Johnson, a 2005 graduate of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, died of a gunshot wound near his home in South Philadelphia.
The RJC is unique, Kefalas says, in large part because of the University’s Jesuit mission. Early on, Kefalas remembers, one of her board members asked her, “What’s the point if you’re just doing research? You need to get out in the community and apply it.”
“That’s not always rewarded in my field — when professors go out into the field, that’s social work,” says Kefalas. “St. Joe’s encouraged it.”
Even when the RJC wasn’t bringing in any money, the University supported it, Kefalas says. But now, it is growing, and becoming a respected resource in the city. Kefalas talks so often with members of the mayor’s cabinet that his chief of staff jokingly calls her his boss.
“We’re really proud of that, and I don’t think it would be possible any place other than St. Joe’s,” she says. “I don’t think other universities would be committed to social justice issues, and putting their money where their mouth is, time and again.”
Champion the Cause
Expanding the Richard Johnson Center’s reach is part of the mission of Amy McHugh ’04 (B.S.). Prior to hiring her as associate director of programs and outreach, the RJC had been largely research-based. Now, McHugh and program administrator Kataney Couamin ’11 (B.S.) work with several Philadelphia high schools and hold events on campus to educate students and staff about relevant topics in urban violence, like a recent symposium on bullying. “We’re really trying to build awareness, on and off campus, of the issues facing Philadelphia schools and communities,” says McHugh.
But the main focus has been the Philadelphia Youth Solutions Project (http://pysp.org), a way to encourage city youth to be part of a solution to violence. Staff go into partner schools and discuss issues that feel personally important to students. Last school year, RJC staff spent time at Kensington International Business High School, where students tackled the issue of school violence. The group wrote, filmed and starred in a public service announcement because “it was an issue specific to their school that they identified as a problem,” McHugh says.
There have also been youth summits, motivational speakers and a flash mob for peace. McHugh hopes to strengthen the RJC’s partnership with the Philadelphia School District and perhaps adopt two city schools to develop a school safety program. “What we’ve been looking at a lot is how to change school culture,” McHugh says. “How do we create a sense of citizenship in the schools we work in, and then have kids take that into their communities?”
Kefalas dreams of becoming the Liz Scott of urban violence, making urban violence something that people want to talk about, get their arms around. View violence as a public health epidemic, view young people not as problems, but as solutions, as soldiers in an army to fight gun violence. The momentum started by the Richard Johnson Center must continue, she says — too much depends on it not to. “We are working,” she says, “to get the science of this research to people who can use it to make things better.”