Congress Is Investing in Alternatives to Police. Can They Work?

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Last year, after a national spike in murder rates, Congress allocated $300 million for federal grants to prevent and defuse violence through community-based intervention programs rather than conventional policing.

There is obvious appeal to the idea of alternative approaches to public safety. While violent crime rates have declined from their recent peak, they have yet to return to prepandemic levels. At the same time, the number of people killed by police has remained more or less unchanged since the murder of George Floyd, a reality underscored most recently by national protests over the gruesome death of Tyre Nichols, a young Black man whom police beat for three minutes during a traffic stop in January.

What do community-based violence intervention programs look like, how well do they work and what challenges do they face? Here’s an overview.

The limits of policing

The relationship between police staffing levels and crime is still debated, but a good deal of research supports the notion that policing can reduce violence. A study led by Aaron Chalfin, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, estimated that one life is saved for every 10 to 17 police officers hired. Another widely cited study found that every dollar spent on extra policing generates about $1.63 in social benefits, primarily through fewer murders. (When conducting cost-benefit analyses of public safety investments, many federal and state agencies value the average life at around $7 million.) It is little surprise, then, that in a 2021 survey of criminal justice experts, about two-thirds of respondents said that increasing police budgets would improve public safety.

But the crime reduction benefits of policing also have to be weighed against its costs, including the physical and emotional toll of abuse by agents of the state, mass incarceration and the erosion of public trust — costs that fall disproportionately, but by no means exclusively, on Black Americans. Chalfin, for instance, found that in cities with relatively large Black populations, the crime prevention benefits of more police are “smaller and perhaps nonexistent” for Black people, but lead to a greater number of arrests for low-level, nonviolent offenses.

Fortunately for proponents of police alternatives, in the same 2021 survey of criminal justice experts, 85 percent of respondents said — and with greater confidence — that there were other ways to improve public safety.

Three ideas for keeping the peace without police

Rethink traffic enforcement. Traffic stops are the most common point of contact between people and law enforcement, and — as in the case of Tyre Nichols — they often turn needlessly violent: In 2021, a Times investigation found that on average, police officers kill an unarmed motorist more than once a week.

Yet Sarah Seo, a professor at Columbia Law School, argued in The Times in 2021 that armed police are not the only or even the best way to promote road safety: Traffic laws could instead be enforced automatically through cameras capable of detecting speeding and checking for expired licenses and registrations.

Others are more skeptical. In a 2021 brief for the Manhattan Institute, John Hall, a member of the New York Police Department, pointed out that automated cameras cannot take dangerous drivers off the road and can be rendered useless by fraudulent license plates.

Change who answers mental health calls. A substantial share of police calls — estimates range from 5 percent to more than 30 percent — involve behavioral health issues, which call centers and officers are often ill-equipped to answer: According to a 2015 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, officers receive nearly 60 hours of firearms training, but only eight hours of training for handling people with mental illnesses. A Washington Post analysis found that about a quarter of people fatally shot by U.S. police officers in the first six months of 2015 were mentally ill or in emotional crisis.

A prominent alternative model to the status quo is Cahoots, a nonprofit mobile crisis intervention program that has handled mental health calls in Eugene, Ore., since 1989. Cahoots responds to about 20 percent of the area’s 911 calls and dispatches two-person teams of specialists trained in counseling, crisis de-escalation and emergency medical care.

Scaling up such a model has its obstacles, though. In New York, a pilot program inspired by Cahoots has fallen well short of its goal of rerouting at least 50 percent of mental health calls to non-police teams, in part because of staffing issues and lack of training among 911 dispatchers. “For mental-health response units to respond to the right incidents, emergency dispatchers need to be able to decide what counts as a mental-health call, and they need to be able to do it from the incomplete information provided during a 911 call made in the heat of a crisis,” David Graham wrote in The Atlantic last year.

Interrupt violence. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, interest surged in groups like Cure Violence and Advance Peace, which employ local community members — often known as “credible messengers” or “violence interrupters” — to mediate conflicts before they turn violent. Many outreach workers have criminal records themselves, and so “have credibility and access to the population that you need to talk to,” Gary Slutkin, the founder of Cure Violence, told The New Yorker.

But just how effective violence interruption programs are remains unclear. According to a 2020 review by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Cure Violence and similar models “continue to produce promising, but less than definitive evidence of program effects.”

One major challenge for the violence interruption model is America’s uniquely high rate of gun ownership. In Baltimore, three people who worked for Safe Streets, a gun violence intervention program, were fatally shot over a 13-month period beginning in 2021. “Are we really supposed to send another human being, not the police department, no equipment, in this day and age, when people are loaded up with automatic weapons?” Molly Baldwin, the founder of the anti-violence initiative Roca, told The New Yorker. Unlike Cure Violence, Roca maintains direct lines of communication with the police.

“We don’t have another set of institutions that can deal with the problem of gun violence, or at least we don’t have many institutions that can deal with the problem of gun violence,” Patrick Sharkey, a Princeton sociologist who has studied community-based models for violence prevention, said on an episode of “The Ezra Klein Show.” “What I would argue is that they should move to the background, and police should be called when a gun is involved.”

Taking a deeper, broader view of crime

When crime spikes, public attention tends to gravitate toward interventions — police-based or not — that promise to prevent crimes on an individual and relatively immediate basis. But as the John Jay review points out, some of the best-evidenced methods for reducing violence work more indirectly.

For example, a 2002 meta-analysis of 13 studies found that improved street lighting can decrease crime by 20 percent. In Philadelphia, cleaning up vacant lots produced a 22 percent decrease in burglaries, a 29 percent reduction in gun violence and a much improved sense of community safety, according to a 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Other community-based interventions take a more hands-on approach, like that of the Readi program in Chicago, which attempts to identify young men at risk of gun violence and offers them employment, job training and cognitive behavioral therapy. Although they bear little resemblance to conventional crime prevention, like policing, evidence suggests these kinds of interventions can be surprisingly effective:

  • In a randomized controlled trial carried out in Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania criminologist Sara Hellerfound that teenagers who were given summer jobs were 43 percent less likely to be arrested for violent crimes for over a year after their jobs ended.

  • A 10-year study of men in Liberia who received eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy were about half as likely as the control group to engage in antisocial behaviors like robbery and street fights.

As Phillip Atiba Goff, a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale, argued in The Times last year, housing can be an important factor too: In Denver, a five-year randomized control trial of a program that provides housing subsidies to people at risk of homelessness found a 40 percent reduction in arrests.

“If throwing money at police and prisons made us safer, we would probably already be the safest country in the history of the world,” he wrote. “If you want policies that actually work, you have to change the political conversation from ‘tough candidates punishing bad people’ to ‘strong communities keeping everyone safe.’”

Historically, non-police-based interventions with longer time horizons have tended to be a politically difficult sell. Should the influx of federal money for such interventions prove their worth, proponents may find that they have an easier case to make to voters come 2024. “Policing appears to work best in the short term, generating reductions in crime that are nearly immediate but level off over time,” German Lopez of The Times wrote last year. “The alternative approaches can take longer to work, but their effects can last for years.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


“When Law Enforcement Alone Can’t Stop the Violence” [The New Yorker]

“Congress Approved Millions for Gun Violence Prevention. Will It Reach Grassroots Groups?” [The Trace]

“What Traffic Enforcement Without Police Could Look Like” [The New York Times]

“Violent Crime Is Spiking. Do Liberals Have an Answer?” [The New York Times]

“The Right Way to Stop Rising Crime in New York” [The New York Times]

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