New York City’s public advocate is asking city, state, and federal officials to help people in under-resourced communities more easily access jobs, healthy food, and affordable housing to prevent shootings.
At a virtual press conference on Thursday, Jumaane Williams released a report exploring those ideas as possible solutions to gun violence. He urged political leaders to try new approaches to public safety, instead of relying solely on law enforcement.
“Gun violence is an epidemic that has been in our communities for far too long. We have a way that we can get to it. Let's try it,” he said. “We've tried all the other stuff. It doesn't work.”
The public advocate’s report focuses on the connections between gun violence and neighborhood conditions. A series of heat maps shows that many communities with high rates of shootings also have high levels of unemployment, mental distress, unaffordable housing, school absenteeism, and COVID-19 infections.
For instance, out of the 74 zip codes identified by the city as coronavirus hot spots at the height of the pandemic, 62 of them — or 84% — also had twice as many shootings last year as the citywide average. Half of the schools with the highest rates of student absences in the 2020-2021 school year are located in neighborhoods with elevated shooting levels. In some parts of the Bronx, which accounts for many of the city’s shootings, virtually every household is spending more than 30% of its income on housing — a percentage some experts classify as “excessive.”
“Vulnerable communities have had these issues in conjunction with high rates of gun violence for years, if not decades,” the report said. “Our city needs a holistic approach to public safety, and it needs to acknowledge the underlying problems that exist in these communities.”
After laying out the environmental factors that appear to be driving gun violence, the public advocate’s office highlights several initiatives across the country that have helped to curb shootings.
The report points to programs in Oakland and Washington, D.C. that target small numbers of individuals responsible for the majority of gun violence, largely through community-led programs like violence interruption. It also highlights a branch of the mayor’s office in Los Angeles that engages with young people to prevent them from joining gangs, as well as a team in Newark that supports people who are likely to become victims or perpetrators of gun violence. The report additionally notes several other steps Newark has taken in recent years to increase public safety and improve community-police relations, including allocating 5% of its police budget to community-led programs.
But while the public advocate’s office praises the initiatives to reduce violence in those cities, it also notes that New York City’s gun violence rate is still far lower than theirs, even after accounting for an uptick during the pandemic. While Oakland experienced one shooting for every 3,646 residents and Newark had one for every 3,042 in 2021, according to the report, New York City only had one incident of gun violence for every 23,987 residents. Police data shows shootings and homicides are down nearly 13% so far this year following a pandemic surge in gun violence in New York City and many other parts of the country.
The report concludes with a set of recommendations to address the root causes of gun violence. It asks New York City officials to:
- Increase job opportunities, especially for young New Yorkers, by making the Summer Youth Employment Program year-round and accessible to undocumented residents
- Consider providing cash incentives for people to take classes in de-escalation techniques or attend mental health counseling
- Increase access to healthy and affordable food
- Expand food stamps and other government programs that help people to buy food
- Create more affordable housing
- Pass the “good cause” eviction bill in Albany
- Provide more funding to the Crisis Management System, so it can add more violence interruption sites and operate for longer hours
- Invest more resources in a non-police response to mental health calls
- Create a new three-digit number people can call for mental health crises, instead of 911
The report calls on state lawmakers to pass several pieces of legislation that would provide additional support to crime victims, create a center for gun violence research and divert people with mental health or substance use disorders out of the criminal justice system and into treatment. At the federal level, it asks Congress to pass laws to tighten requirements for firearm background checks, create a federal grant program for violence intervention initiatives and crack down on gun trafficking.