Each summer for the past decade, Columbus Police have sent additional officers to patrol high crime areas, namely in Linden, the South Side, East Side and the Hilltop. It’s called the Community Safety Initiative, and some religious and community leaders have called for it to end.
Police say their efforts are effective at lowering crime, while opponents say the program lacks research-based evidence to prove it’s making neighborhoods safer. In the second part to our series on increased summer policing, we look at the past and future efforts that have tried to offer an alternative.
City Budget Issues Halted Earlier Effort
At his office on East Livingston avenue, Jerry Saunders, flips through a decade-old report for CAYND: Collective Action for Youth and Neighborhood Development.
“Man we sure did a lot,” says Saunders, remembering the dozens of organizations that were involved.
Saunders is the CEO of the Afrocentric Personal Development Shop. The non-profit organization offers behavioral health services, but back in 2005 it was also the headquarters for the violence prevention pilot program CAYND.
“CAYND came about because the rate of homicides was going up in Columbus. It had done that for four consecutive years, and then violent crime was going up also,” says Saunders.
Around the same time that then-Mayor Michael Coleman launched the summer policing initiative, Saunders worked with the mayor to develop an alternative. He says CAYND showed residents that the city was doing more than arresting people, but giving them options.
CAYND was a coalition of 21 social service agencies and smaller nonprofits who came together to focus on one neighborhood, about two square miles, on the city’s South Side.
Together they focused on putting at-risk youth in touch with a wide variety of services, things like job training, GED and gang member reentry programs. Saunders says they held weekly meetings where young people could voice their concerns.
“We also went out in the evening time and talked to the young folks hanging out on the corners,” says Saunders. ‘Some were gang members. Some were just kids hanging out. And we did that on a regular basis.”
CAYND used evidence-based research to track their impact on the neighborhood. In the first year they reduced gun crime and violent crime by about 5 percent. The program was only meant to run one year, but due to its success the city decided to extended funding for two additional years. Then in 2008 Saunders says the city had budget issues.
“The thought from the mayor’s office was that the program had been successful and it had worked but they needed to use the funds in some other areas,” says Saunders.
Former Mayor Coleman declined to talk to us for this story.
CYAND had hoped to spread their model to high crime neighborhoods throughout Columbus but never got the chance. Then in 2009, Ohio State University professor Deanna Wilkinson, a specialist in youth violence prevention, tried to bring a program called Ceasefire to Columbus.
The Ceasefire model has been used throughout the world, including U.S. cities like Chicago and Baltimore, to successfully reduce violence.
Community members called Violence Interrupters, work with police to intervene in potentially deadly disputes and provide at-risk youth with social services. Even though Wilkinson spent years gathering research to support Ceasefire, she says she couldn’t secure support from the city to get a federal grant.
“We never had that strong partnership from police department from the safety director," she said. "I went before the chief’s council...and presented all the ideas and pretty much they said they weren’t interested."
Wilkinson suspects it had to do with maintaining the image of Columbus as a safe city.
Columbus has an image of being a very safe city and a very safe place, and it is in general a very safe city,” says Wilkinson. “What I was bringing out and trying to address was the parts where it’s not very safe, and that people were dying at an alarming rate.”
For a number of years Wilkinson was able to initiate Ceasefire on the South Side with the help of volunteers and some smaller grants, but she couldn’t establish a city-wide program.
The Latest Effort To Curb Violence
Recently, Mayor Andrew Ginther and Deputy Director of Public Safety George Speaks, have put forward yet another proposal to prevent violence and homicides - The Community Initiative to Reduce Violence.
The program has already been adopted by other U.S. cities, including Dayton and Toledo and works with adult members of gangs. Ginther says the program aims to get individuals in touch with social services and prevent incarceration.
"Whether it's workforce development, job training, higher education, to give them a clear path out of that spiral that always ends up in incarceration or death,” says Ginther.
Ginther says he is pushing to launch the program by early next year and has promised the model will include evidence based research.
“The best way for us to demonstrate to the public is investing in strategies and initiatives that are delivering results,” says Ginther.