Prevention Strategies for Policing Gun Violence

Published date01 November 2022
AuthorAnthony A. Braga,Philip J. Cook,Stephen Douglas
Date01 November 2022
Subject MatterThe Efficacy of Interventions
158 ANNALS, AAPSS, 704, November 2022
DOI: 10.1177/00027162231164481
Strategies for
Policing Gun
The police have the unique capacity to preempt and
deter violence and to reduce the use of firearms in
violent encounters. But overly aggressive policing tac-
tics have contributed to a fraught relationship with
low-income minority communities in which gun vio-
lence is heavily concentrated. Increased resources
should be devoted to policing gun violence, but efforts
of this sort must be targeted and disciplined. Effective
policing requires a focus on the places and people that
are at greatest risk; and there is a strong case for police
agencies to increase the resources devoted to investiga-
tions of all criminal shootings, not just homicides.
Successful policing of gun violence requires a produc-
tive working relationship with victims and their neigh-
bors, which can be facilitated through observing
community policing principles and respect for resi-
dents’ interests.
Keywords: gun violence; proactive policing; shoot-
ings; prevention; harm reduction
Between 2019 and 2020, the U.S. national
homicide rate increased 29 percent, the largest
proportional increase on record. Almost all of
this increase was due to the surge in gun vio-
lence: the proportion of homicide victims killed
by gunshot has grown to 79 percent (Kegler
et al. 2022). In some cities, the homicide rate
Anthony A. Braga is the Jerry Lee Professor of
Criminology and director of the Crime and Justice
Policy Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.
Philip J. Cook is the ITT/Sanford Professor Emeritus of
Public Policy and professor emeritus of economics at
Duke University.
Stephen Douglas is a research associate in the Crime
and Justice Policy Lab at the University of Pennsylvania
and a doctoral candidate in the School of Criminology
and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.
has returned to levels not seen since the crack cocaine–era peak of the early
1990s. Given the social costs of gun violence in heavily impacted jurisdictions, it
is reasonable to conclude that it is the most pressing crime problem (Cook and
Ludwig 2022), and reversing the recent surge in criminal shootings should be of
the highest priority to law enforcement.
The cost of gun violence can be measured by the toll of death and injury—five
victims are wounded, sometimes grievously, for every one killed (Barber, Cook
and Parker 2022)—but also by the consequences for the overall quality of life in
hard-hit communities. The psychological trauma of gun violence extends well
beyond immediate victims to those who witness or have reason to worry about
this threat (Sharkey 2018). A broad research literature documents how trauma
disrupts normal child development. From the community perspective, gun vio-
lence is a drag on economic development and property values; out-
migration is closely linked to the homicide rate (Cook and Ludwig 2000). Since
gun violence is so highly concentrated in low-income minority communities,
redressing these consequences is an imperative of any social justice agenda. Fully
55 percent of homicide victims are African American, the result of a victimization
rate nearly ten times as high as non-Hispanic Whites (Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention [CDC] 2022).
What is to be done to prevent gun violence? We argue here that the answer
must give a prominent role to the police. The police have a unique capacity to
prevent violence and deter the use of guns in violence. In many jurisdictions, that
capacity is underutilized or diluted by conflicting demands on police resources.
The evidence, reviewed here, suggests that much can be done to improve polic-
ing effectiveness, through better targeting and management of resources.
Of course, police agencies are imperfect instruments. Low-income minority
communities typically have a difficult relationship with the police, with residents
perceiving both abuse and neglect—both overpolicing and underpolicing (Braga,
Brunson, and Drakulich 2019; Brunson and Wade 2019; Chalfin et al. 2020). The
extreme version of abuse is cases in which the police shoot suspects in circum-
stances in which the shooting is unjustified and even criminal. While only about
one-quarter of law-enforcement-involved shootings involve African American
victims,1 it is those cases that have produced mass demonstrations and outrage—
reflecting the endemic distrust of the police. On the other hand, residents of
these communities also have reason to believe that the police are neglecting their
concerns. In this view, the police could gain control of the gun violence problem
if they chose to do so. The high rates of violence thus contribute to the belief that
the police simply do not care. The way forward for effective policing requires
navigating this complex terrain.
Our focus here is on making the police more effective in preventing gun vio-
lence, not because we believe that the police are the only answer, but because
their role in prevention is essential and has been misunderstood or doubted by
many commentators (Cook and Ludwig 2019a, 2019b). A common assertion is
that the police are not in the prevention business because they become involved
after the crime has already taken place. That view can be readily challenged, both
because it wrongly suggests that all police resources are focused on responding

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