Protecting Californians from Community Violence During the COVID-19 Pandemic
In the midst of the devastating coronavirus pandemic, California’s leaders have demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting Californians’ health and safety. At the same time, cycles of community violence continue to imperil families across the state, particularly in the communities most vulnerable to the virus’ spread, related economic harms, and expected budget cuts.
California’s ongoing violence epidemic is also deeply entwined with the coronavirus pandemic, as both public health crises tragically amplify the other’s harms. Panic buying has led guns and ghost gun products to fly off the shelves at unprecedented rates. Researchers have found that previous, smaller spikes in weapon sales (such as gun sale booms following the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting) were associated with increased firearm injury in California’s cities and nationally, and research is clear that where there are more guns, there are more homicides.
While shelter in place orders have temporarily limited some individuals’ exposure to violence outside the home, and some cities have reported temporary drops in crime overall, shootings and community violence have continued unabated in many communities: Mayors and officials around the nation have pleaded with residents to put down their guns and halt cycles of violence as their communities “battle two public health crises: coronavirus and gun violence.” The City of Chicago suffered its “most violent day of 2020 so far” on April 7th.
In California, records from the Gun Violence Archive show an increase in firearm fatalities in March 2020 compared to the previous month and to the same time period last year. In early April, a leading gun violence prevention champion in California’s Legislature nearly lost his son in a drive-by shooting that left three victims shot and a fourth victim killed.
And in the coming weeks, trauma experts warn, shootings are likely to become more fatal as health and public safety systems are stretched thin. Victims of violence and COVID-19 patients must compete for strapped healthcare resources, including ambulances, I.C.U beds, and ventilators. Across the country, each year, roughly 80,000 people are admitted to emergency rooms and 20,000 are admitted to I.C.U’s for gunshot wounds. Many of these patients require large quantities of blood to stay alive, 10 times as much blood as other trauma patients on average. Our healthcare systems are battling a “severe shortage” of both blood and I.C.U resources.
In distressed communities with unique exposure to the virus and its economic fallout, low trust in law enforcement, and millions of young people out of work and school, the threat and impact of community violence may continue to increase.
At the intersection of these interrelated crises are violence intervention workers--also known as street outreach workers, violence interrupters, neighborhood change agents, and gang intervention workers--who serve on the frontlines during outbreaks of violence and now a global pandemic. These trained professionals skillfully defuse potentially violent situations and disrupt cycles of retaliatory violence by providing individuals and families at highest risk of violence with a range of direct support services including conflict mediation, case management, trauma-informed mentoring, cognitive behavioral therapy, employment training, and access to basic necessities.
Vulnerable communities will need these trusted resources now more than ever, especially if cash-strapped cities and CBOs are unable to sustain broader local investments. In previous economic downturns, cities like Chicago that lost state funding for violence intervention and street outreach programs saw violence significantly increase as a result. Preserving support for violence interrupters’ lifesaving work is a cost-effective measure to contain cycles of violence and retaliation from taking root in times of distress.
While we remain mindful of the extraordinary circumstances of the moment and the difficult budget decisions that lie ahead, we simply cannot lose sight of the need to sustain California’s efforts to tackle the public health crisis of violence. In recent years, violence has killed as many young black men and boys in this state as nearly every other cause of death combined, and has been a leading marker of inequality in California’s communities: more than 92% of gun homicide victims killed before the age of 18 in California are black or Latinx.
This document was produced by a coalition of more than 40 organizations, and more than 150 individual practitioners, advocates, city leaders, and researchers from across California who are dedicated to making California’s communities safer for all. As detailed below, we urge California policymakers to keep violence interrupters on the job by:
- Protecting California’s critical investments in the California Violence Intervention and Prevention (CalVIP) program during this time of crisis
- Leveraging federal funding from the CARES Act and the Victims of Crime Act to supplement CalVIP’s support for community violence prevention
- Ensuring that violence intervention workers are exempt from shelter-in-place-orders and able to continue their vital work to protect the public
- Protect Funding for the California Violence Intervention and Prevention (CalVIP) Program
In California, the main source of state support for violence intervention work is the California Violence Intervention and Prevention (CalVIP) program. CalVIP provides competitive matching grants to local, community-based violence intervention efforts in cities that are most impacted by shootings and group-related violence. Critically, California tripled funding for CalVIP community violence intervention efforts last year, and enacted legislation to responsibly ensure these funds are spent as effectively and justly as possible.
These investments have been making a transformative difference: in recent years, programs funded by CalVIP have been credited with reducing homicides by 34%- 79% and have helped make CalVIP a national model for violence prevention legislation introduced or enacted in other states, in the US Congress, and in Vice President Biden’s gun policy platform.
From 2016 to 2018, cities with a CalVIP-funded violence prevention program saw homicides decline nearly three times more than localities that did not receive CalVIP support. These efforts also helped California reduce gun homicides among Black men and boys by an impressive 21% between 2017 and 2018 alone, while also finally reversing what had been a steady three-year spike in gun homicides among Latino men and boys. Evaluations of CalVIP-funded programs show that this investment is working:
- A study found that Richmond’s Operation Peacemaker Fellowship, an intensive violence intervention program, contributed to a citywide 55% drop in gun-related homicides and assaults between 2010 and 2016.
- In Oakland, a network of violence intervention organizations is at the heart of a violence reduction strategy credited with helping reduce homicides and shootings nearly 50% from 2012 to 2018.
- Since launching the Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) in 2007, which includes a robust violence intervention as a central strategy, Los Angeles has seen a more than 34% reduction in homicides and a more than 44% drop in nonfatal shootings.
Studies have also found that investments in violence prevention are highly cost-effective. A recent study by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform found that a single homicide imposes average direct costs to California taxpayers of $2.5 million. Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence estimates that ongoing shootings cost California more than $6.5 billion per year in direct expenses including healthcare and law enforcement costs. Researchers estimated that Massachusetts taxpayers saved about $7 for every dollar invested in a grant program similar to CalVIP. And an independent cost-benefit analysis of the Operation Peacemaker program supported by CalVIP in Richmond, California, found that by spending a little over $5 million over a five-year period, Operation Peacemaker had saved over $500 million from reduced homicides alone.
Reducing violence is also a proven way to improve local economies. An Urban Institute report found that, in Minneapolis, preventing just one gun homicide was associated with the creation of 80 jobs and an additional $9.4 million in sales across all businesses the following year. An investment in violence intervention programs pays for itself many times over.
As California faces expected budget challenges this year, we strongly urge lawmakers to keep violence interrupters on the job by protecting state support for their lifesaving and cost-effective work. When other states have cut funding for violence intervention work during tight financial times, painful spikes in violence have followed. In Illinois, for example, despite consistently impressive outcomes, state-funded violence intervention work suffered major funding lapses in 2007, 2011, and 2015. Each of these lapses corresponded in time and place with significant increases in rates of violence in Chicago, the city with the highest concentration of funded program sites. These upticks in violence were reversed only after state funding was restored.
We urge California leaders to work to preserve CalVIP funding at 2019 levels. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, other states like Virginia and Washington are continuing to protect and expand investments in violence prevention. California should continue to lead the nation in support of this work.
Local leaders in communities with high levels of violence should also prioritize ongoing investments in violence intervention work and be prepared to apply for CalVIP funds. For the current CalVIP grant application period, which has been paused and likely extended to June due to the pandemic, BSCC should make it a priority to disburse funds as quickly as possible once the application process resumes. By statute, this funding is available to cities with disproportionately high levels of serious violence. Information regarding qualifying cities, application deadlines, and other information is available on the BSCC website.
- Leverage Federal Resources to Support Violence Intervention
With increasing limitations on general funds, state leaders should look to leverage federal resources to support violence intervention work and take steps to ensure that violence intervention organizations are aware of these resources.
The CARES Act
The most immediate source of federal support comes from the recently enacted Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (The CARES Act), which includes direct financial support for nonprofit organizations through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP). Under PPP, nonprofit organizations can apply for low-interest loans to cover two and a half months of payroll costs. Critically, these loans will generally be waived as long as the borrowing organization maintains staffing levels and limits payroll reductions to no more than 25%.
California leaders should ensure that organizations providing violence intervention services are aware of the federal resources available through the CARES Act. This is an important tool for vitaly needed community organizations to be able to continue paying violence intervention workers for their services during this challenging time.
The Victims of Crime Act
The federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) also presents an opportunity for California policymakers to leverage federal resources to fund critical violence intervention work with individuals who have been victims or witnesses to violence and who may be at elevated risk for related trauma, re-injury, and involvement in future violence. Through VOCA Assistance grants, the federal government provides annual block grants to all 50 states to be re-distributed to agencies and organizations that provide services to crime victims. In California, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) administers this grant, which is a significant source of funding: in 2018 alone, California received nearly $400 million in VOCA Assistance funds.
As of 2016, federal regulations require that at least 10% of VOCA assistance awards be allocated to programs that serve “previously underserved populations of victims of violent crime.” The U.S. Office for Victims of Crime has noted that “victims of gang violence,” “victims of violent crime in high crime areas,” “victims of physical assault,” and “survivors of homicide victims,” are all “often underserved.” But like many other states, California has typically not used these federal crime victim dollars to meaningfully invest in violence intervention programs working with victims of violence.
States have enormous discretion in awarding VOCA assistance funds and in recent years Governors and Attorneys General in states including New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland have taken executive action to use discretionary federal VOCA Assistance funds to support violence intervention efforts focused on individuals at highest risk of injury from community violence.
We urge California’s leaders to ensure OES taps this large source of federal funding to supplement CalVIP’s investment in critical violence intervention work. We have urged OES to establish a competitive grant program to award at least $10 million per year for the next three years to hospital-based violence intervention programs and other programs that similarly provide violence intervention services to victims of community violence.
- Ensure Violence Intervention Workers are Exempt from Shelter-in-Place Orders and Can Access Services for Essential Infrastructure Workers
Finally, we urge policymakers to ensure that critical violence intervention workers can continue to do their jobs by exempting them from shelter-in-place orders and taking steps to ensure they have the training and equipment they need to safely conduct their lifesaving work.
Violence intervention workers are working to keep the peace and provide critical support, counseling, and information in communities at elevated risk to both the virus and economic fallout, due to systemic racism, income inequality, and misinformation about the nature of the virus, including a false rumor that African Americans are immune to the disease. These professionals are often some of the only people trusted by individuals disaffected from other channels of authority or information, and have a meaningful role to play in providing ongoing support, counseling, and conflict mediation at times of heightened trauma, devastation, and uncertainty. In a neighborhood in unincorporated South Los Angeles, for example, violence intervention workers have partnered with a local grocery store to help prevent looting and ensure community members are informed about social distancing.
In recognition of the important role that violence intervention workers play in maintaining public health and safety, the City of Los Angeles has specifically exempted “gang and crisis intervention workers” from the restrictions of shelter-in-place orders so that they may continue to provide their vital services as “emergency personnel’ and essential community service providers. Similarly, Chicago Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, issued a public letter stating that the mayor’s office “Has designated street outreach partners as essential staff during this challenging time. The role of street outreach is to mediate conflicts, be a support to those that are at high risk for perpetrating violence and being victimized, and to relentlessly echo the ‘stay at home’ message to the community. This work is endorsed by the Chicago Police Department and other City of Chicago departments.”
Policymakers should take steps to ensure that violence intervention workers are providing essential services and are exempt from shelter-in-place orders. This will allow violence intervention workers to continue doing their lifesaving work, and will help ensure they benefit from policies such as Governor Newsom’s April 4th Executive Order expanding access to state-subsidized child care services “for children of essential critical infrastructure workers.” These brave frontline workers deserve no less.
Moreover, policymakers should ensure these frontline workers have access to face masks and other resources necessary to keep them safe, healthy, and on the job protecting all of us.
By following the policy recommendations outlined above, California leaders can support the indispensable field of professional violence intervention workers serving at the front lines of two of the most pressing public health crises of our time.