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Effective violence reduction strategies: A Q&A with Jocelyn Fontaine and Anita Ravishankar

July 01, 2022

Jocelyn_Fontaine_Anita_Ravishankar_Arnold_Ventures_credit_Todd SpothOn June 2, Arnold Ventures issued a research agenda and an RFP focused on violence reduction, including gun violence, citing an increase in violent crimes and incidents over the past two years across U.S. cities “regardless of their size, geographic location, or political leanings.”

Jocelyn Fontaine is Arnold Ventures’ vice president of criminal justice research; she previously served a senior researcher in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where she directed projects focused on corrections and reentry issues, gun violence, violence reduction programs, and police-community trust-building efforts. Anita Ravishankar is director of criminal justice research; she was a founding member of The Lab @ DC and the research and innovation team within the DC Metropolitan Police Department.

Philanthropy News Digest asked Fontaine and Ravishankar about the rise in gun violence, the priorities of the new research agenda and RFP, how violence reduction intersects with racial justice, and the role of philanthropy in driving solutions.

Philanthropy News Digest: Presumably the development of this research agenda and RFP on solutions for reducing violence was under way well before the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde. What do you see as the main causes of the surge in violent crimes and incidents nationwide—many of which have targeted specific populations for their race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, or other marginalized identities?

Anita Ravishankar: Gun violence has long been at unacceptably high levels in the United States. The nearly 30 percent nationwide increase in homicides in 2020, on the heels of massive social disruptions due to the pandemic, brought that reality into sharp relief. As we noted in our materials, the increase in violence was widespread, affecting communities regardless of their size, location, political leadership, or policy environment....

But we do not have precise explanations, which is unsatisfying and hinders policy makers’ ability to address violence. So through this research agenda we are prioritizing studies that can help us understand both the immediate causes of violence—e.g., how do we understand what the particular problem of violence is in a given jurisdiction and respond in the near term—as well as the underlying or root causes of violence that require longer-term and more holistic strategies or solutions to address. Our work focuses on the people and places most at risk of involvement in violence, as perpetrators of violence and victims of violence, which has not changed much over time, and understanding what works to support police solutions.

PND: The research agenda comprises three pillars: address immediate crises of violence, identify and address the underlying causes of violence, and promote effective police investigations to solve violent crime. Did the most recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde shift or sharpen your priorities for the research agenda in any way?

AR: Arnold Ventures has been making substantial investments to understand the efficacy of different gun policies and different violence reduction strategies for several years. The notable increase in community violence over the past few years made clear the need to increase our research efforts to match the urgency of the moment in needing answers on effective solutions, spurring our research agenda and RFP. The events in Buffalo and Uvalde are absolutely heart-wrenching, leading so many of us to want our elected leaders to “do something, anything” to prevent these tragedies from happening. Those leaders will need to understand what policies and practices are effective, however, and building the evidence is a critical contribution to ensuring that decision makers do have high-quality information to navigate these challenges. Identifying evidence-based policy solutions has been and continues to be a key driver of our research investments, across all of our areas of work.

PND: The announcement notes that “[t]he distribution of these violent incidents remains predominantly concentrated in communities that have been subject to chronic underinvestment”—which would suggest that violence reduction is a racial and social justice issue. How do you see the intersectionality of those issues?

Jocelyn Fontaine: Homicide remains the #1 cause of death for young Black men, and the second leading cause of death for young Hispanic men. These statistics are sobering and unacceptable. We must develop effective tools and responses—including policies, interventions, and resources–to address the problem of high levels of violence effectively to save lives and reduce victimization and harm. Yes, violence reduction is an issue of racial equity. Several studies have found that the majority of crimes often occur in a small number of specific streets or blocks and those trends are largely stable over time. Further, Black and Brown people are significantly more likely than white people to be victims of serious violence and homicide. As violent crime is concentrated in economically disadvantaged Black and Brown neighborhoods, which have been historically underserved and marginalized and where residents have a relationship with the police and the justice system that has been defined through a history of marginalization, oppression, surveillance, coercion, and control, effective violence reduction strategies is absolutely consistent with efforts to advance racial equity....

Read the full Q&A with Jocelyn Fontaine and Anita Ravishankar, Vice President and Director of Criminal Justice Research, Arnold Ventures.

(Photo credit: Todd Spoth)

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