July 24 , 2006
Community partnerships help reduce juvenile gun violence
BY Janet Christenbury
A partnership among police, health care workers and the community to reduce juvenile gun violence in the 1990s in the City of Atlanta may have played a role in the recent decline in the city’s rate of homicide, according to a National Institute of Justice Research Report released this month.
Members of the Center for Injury Control and Prevention at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health served as research partners and wrote the report, “Reducing Gun Violence: Community Problem Solving in Atlanta.”
During the project, which used interventions to prevent and curtail fatal shootings, the number of homicides dropped to its lowest level in 30 years. But the decline also mirrored a decrease in homicides statewide and across the United States, so other factors may also have played a role.
“Firearm injuries are the second leading cause of injury-related death in the United States and a major cause of disability,” said Arthur Kellermann, professor and chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine, Emory’s School of Medicine, and director of the Center for Injury Control. “Violent crime in the early ‘90s was having a debilitating impact on Atlanta and the metro area.”
By involving multiple public agencies and private organizations communitywide, the city developed a strategic, problem-solving approach to reducing gun violence among juveniles. Called Project PACT (Pulling America’s Communities Together), the initiative was instrumental in Atlanta’s plan to execute problem solving across the community. PACT was established in 1993 by the U.S. Department of Justice to help institutions within a community collaborate on public safety issues.
In Atlanta, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies were involved in the project, along with prosecutors and health care workers. The Atlanta Police Department (APD) played a major role in the partnership, as did the Fulton County District Attorney, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. The five metro counties involved in Project PACT were Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton.
Project PACT identified homicide, gun violence and juvenile crime as the major community concerns in Atlanta. After reviewing local data and analyzing the issues, the team focused on reducing juvenile firearm violence by devising a three-pronged approach:
• use a problem-solving method to plan, implement, monitor, refine and evaluate the program;
• apply a strategic approach to violence prevention that combines the expertise of researchers with the experience of practitioners; and
• identify, implement and evaluate a mix of strategies to deter the illegal carrying and use of firearms by juveniles.
The three-part plan was divided into more specific objectives including: measuring fear of crime among adults in the project area; making and tracking patterns (geographical “hot spots”) of juvenile gun violence; determining where and why juveniles acquire guns; and, finally, developing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating a comprehensive law enforcement intervention to reduce juvenile gun violence. Three APD “beats” in Zone 1 were chosen as the focus areas to apply and test the intervention.
“Analysis of baseline data suggested that most shootings followed a chain of events that included illegal demand for guns by juveniles, illegal supply, illegal carrying (generally for self defense or to intimidate others) and ultimately illegal use in a brandishing or shooting,” said Kellermann. “Our interventions were designed to strategically target ‘weak links’ in this chain to prevent shootings, rather than waiting for them to occur and reacting after the fact.”
The interventions were simple in concept but difficult to execute for various reasons, according to the researchers. Manpower shortages were a particular challenge. Nevertheless, project participants say they learned valuable lessons about the challenges of community problem solving.
“The strategies required a real change in thinking and culture from a reactive approach to a more proactive approach oriented towards preventing the next 911 call,” said Kellermann.
During the six years after the intervention started (from 1995–2000), the number of homicides in Atlanta declined by 27 percent. The 134 homicides recorded in 2000 were the lowest number in the city in 30 years. But Kellermann and his colleagues caution that Project PACT cannot claim credit for this success, because declines of similar magnitude were noted outside the focus area, as well as statewide.
Project PACT ended in 1999, but the community partnerships it fostered continued through two subsequent federal programs—SACSI (Strategic Approaches to Community Safety Initiative) and PSN (Project Safe Neighborhoods Atlanta). The benefits of the partnerships have continued as well.
Between 2002 and 2005 alone, firearm-related crimes in Atlanta declined by 44 percent, and violent crime overall fell by 37 percent. These declines were matched by a similarly sized decrease in the number of gunshot admissions to Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta’s only Level 1 trauma center.
The homicide rate in Atlanta today is the lowest since 1965.
“In my opinion, the recent decline in Atlanta’s rate of homicide and firearm assaults is due to the current leadership of City Hall and APD, as well as the economic renaissance that is occurring in so many Atlanta neighborhoods,” said Kellermann. “But this remarkable progress is also due, in part, to the influence of Project Safe Neighborhoods Atlanta—a program carefully fostered by the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia and supported by federal partners such as ATF.”
“Emory’s Center for Injury Control was honored to serve as research partner to PSN, based on our earlier work on juvenile gun violence. Project Safe Neighborhoods Atlanta offers proof that community problem-solving works,” said Kellermann.
The report “Reducing Gun Violence” can be viewed at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/pubs-sum/209800.htm.