Thomas Abt Talks New Book On Urban Violence, 'Bleeding Out'

Jul 13, 2019
Originally published on July 14, 2019 4:09 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is a new book that takes a fresh look at an old problem - murder. In the U.S. in 2017, nearly 50 people per day were murdered. And while that's actually a fairly low number historically, every murder represents a loss, a tragedy and, yes, a social and financial cost that marks families and communities and perhaps even generations to come. And many of those murdered are victims of urban violence - street shootings, revenge killings.

Now a new book makes the provocative claim that the number of people killed by such violence can be drastically reduced without sacrificing fundamental liberties. The book is called "Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences Of Urban Violence -- And A Bold New Plan For Peace In The Streets." It's by Thomas Abt, a research fellow at Harvard who's spent his career working on criminal justice issues, most recently with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and President Obama. He told us that while urban violence is devastating, the solution is actually clear.

THOMAS ABT: Thirty years of rigorous social science tells us what perhaps should be a pretty obvious thing, which is that to reduce urban violence, you should focus directly on urban violence. So much of the conventional narrative surrounding urban violence is that to address it, you have to ameliorate poverty, or you have to eradicate joblessness or systemic racism. And all of those things are associated with urban violence. But if you look at the evidence, these strategies that have the most concrete impact in terms of saving actual lives are the ones that identify the small numbers of people, places and behaviors that are driving the majority of the problem and then focus on those people, places and behaviors.

MARTIN: You use as a powerful metaphor in the book - at the very beginning of the book to sort of help us see - sort of see the problem. You said, look, if you were a doctor, and you were in an emergency room, and a young guy comes in, and he's bleeding from, you know, multiple gunshot wounds, you know, you wouldn't look at the person and say, you know what? You need a job, and that you need to have more of a sense of the opportunities in life and that, you know, endemic poverty in your neighborhood is the problem here. You - which - all of which may be true, but what you would say is, no, we've got to stop the bleeding. And then you've got to kind of work from there, you know? You address the immediate emergency, and then you kind of work out from there. What does that look like in policy terms?

ABT: What that looks like in terms of policy - it means carefully identifying the problem in terms of finding who your key people and key places are and then going right at them, focusing on them relentlessly with a combination of both enforcement and prevention. I think it's very important that when we identify people, we're not simply identifying them to investigate them, to arrest them and maybe ultimately incarcerate them. We're also identifying them because they're in especially high need for services, for treatment, for support. And so what I am advocating is being targeted not just in terms of our enforcement actions but being targeted in terms of our treatment and assistance to make sure that the people who need that assistance the most get it.

MARTIN: So one of the points that you make in the book is that a lot of these notions have been around for a long time. Why aren't we doing those things?

ABT: How we talk about a problem impacts how we solve it. And the conversation that we have around criminal justice and around urban violence in particular is very polarized today. You have certain constituencies that believe the only answer lies with law enforcement. On the other hand, we have people who are so deeply skeptical and deeply mistrustful of the criminal justice and law enforcement system that they won't use it at all. And those extremes are not helpful. Ultimately, the most successful strategies really challenge everybody's priors. There's a little bit of enforcement. There's a little bit of prevention. They're not entirely conservative. They're certainly not entirely liberal, either.

And then I think we have to just be honest about one central fact, which is that this problem is disproportionately impacting poor people of color. And if it was impacting affluent white Americans, I think that we'd - would have made a lot more progress. And I think we have to acknowledge and reckon with that.

MARTIN: Well, what does that look like, though, reckoning with that? I mean, why should people who live in - you know, let's just say it - a safe, largely white suburb someplace - care about the kind of violence that you are talking about? Why should they care?

ABT: It is true that in the United States, urban violence is concentrated in certain communities and among certain populations. And if you're not in those communities and in those populations, you are probably not likely to be directly threatened. But that doesn't mean that you're not paying for this violence in other ways.

The social cost of a single homicide ranges from about 10 million to about 19 million depending on which credible study you look at. And that's including, you know, direct costs like law enforcement costs and medical costs, but it's also translating the indirect costs of fear and avoidance into diminished commercial activity, reduced property values and increased insurance premiums. So in reality, we're all paying for urban violence, and the price tag is extremely steep. It could be anywhere between 500 to a thousand dollars per American.

MARTIN: I have to ask if there is anything that's making you hopeful because one of the things about your book that I think is so provocative is that it makes the powerful claim that this is a problem that can indeed be - if not solved, at least substantially affected by the right policies.

ABT: You know, I have seen programs all over this country succeed in reducing violence significantly. In Oakland, they've reduced homicide by 50%, and they've done it while minimizing arrests and incarceration and with the support of the impacted communities. This work is possible, but more people need to know about it. And more people need to demand it. Why aren't you doing this in my city? If Oakland can do it, why can't we do it here? And so that's what I'm trying to - I'm really trying to get the word out.

MARTIN: That's Thomas Abt. His book, "Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences Of Urban Violence -- And A Bold New Plan For Peace In The Streets," is out now. Thomas Abt, thanks so much for talking with us.

ABT: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.