Academic journal article The Future of Children

Policing Guns and Youth Violence

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Policing Guns and Youth Violence

Article excerpt


To combat the epidemic of youth gun violence in the 1980s and 1990s, law enforcement agencies across the United States adopted a variety of innovative strategies. This article presents case studies of eight cities' efforts to police gun crime. Some cities emphasized police-citizen partnerships to address youth violence, whereas others focused on aggressive enforcement against youth suspected of even minor criminal activity. Still others attempted to change youth behavior through "soft" strategies built on alternatives to arrest. Finally, some cities used a combination of approaches. Key findings discussed in this article include:

* Law enforcement agencies that emphasized police-citizen cooperation benefited from a more positive image and sense of legitimacy in the community, which may have enhanced their efforts to fight crime.

* Aggressive law enforcement strategies may have contributed to a decline in youth gun violence, but they also may have cost police legitimacy in minority communities where residents felt that the tactics were unfair or racially motivated.

* Approaches that emphasize nonarrest alternatives and problem-solving strategies offer an intriguing but unproven vision for addressing youth gun violence.

None of the initiatives presented in the case studies has been shown conclusively to reduce youth gun crime over the long term. The author suggests that policing alone cannot contain youth gun violence, but by carefully balancing enforcement with community collaboration, police departments can help shift social norms that contribute to youth gun violence.


The epidemic of youth gun violence in the United States from 1985 to 1998 triggered a crisis of social and political consequences that mobilized legal institutions to develop effective policies and programs targeting youth violence. (1) Even before this most recent homicide crisis, however, numerous experiments and innovations in policing had been taking place in cities across the United States; some of these were quickly adapted in the effort to combat youth gun violence. (2) Under the flag of "community policing," "problem-oriented policing," and "order-maintenance policing," police departments launched a variety of new approaches to chronic problems of crime and disorder. Youth gun violence was often the focus of these reforms and experiments.

These initiatives ranged from intensive and aggressive street-level interdiction of low-level disorder to new forms of neighborhood-police partnerships, often called "community policing." (3) Several of these efforts were designed in response to an influential essay on "Broken Windows," which described the contagious effects of disorder on crime. (4) (See Box 1 later in this article.) Other programs focused on specific individuals and high-crime neighborhoods. (5) Still others sought to expand the toolkit of police to include solving social problems through interaction and collaboration with citizens. (6) In these strategies, police focused their efforts on issues that concerned residents the most, while motivating citizen cooperation in the everyday policing of crime.

This article presents eight case studies (see Table 1) of cities where policing innovations were targeted at gun violence. It summarizes the underlying conceptual framework of each effort and describes both its strategies and its specific focus on youth violence. (7) Evaluation data are limited, but when available, the results of each initiative are reported. These case studies suggest three different approaches to strengthening social control to reduce youth gun violence:

* Reciprocal Control. Cities that adopted this approach to policing gun violence, including Boston, Chicago, and San Diego, aimed to make the crime-control activities of police and community groups mutually reinforcing. …

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