In three South Philly police districts, ‘focused deterrence’ cuts shooting rate by third

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Officers at Philadelphia police department's 17th District Headquarters at 20th and Federal streets begin their shift around 5 p.m.

Officers at Philadelphia police department's 17th District Headquarters at 20th and Federal streets begin their shift around 5 p.m. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY, file)

A program known as “focused deterrence” led to a 35 percent drop in shootings in three South Philadelphia police districts where city authorities tested the program, according to a new study from Temple University.

Over the two-year study starting in 2013, however, researchers also found that the crime-intervention strategy had nearly no effect on gang-related violence.

The research comes just as the city contends with a recent spike in homicides;  2017 will be the first time in five years the city’s murder rate exceeds 300.

Pioneered in Boston in the 1990s, focused deterrence identifies people — often gang members or those involved in the drug trade — most likely to commit violent crimes.

It then brings those people together in a group meeting known as a “call in,” where district attorneys, police, and the likely offenders discuss two options: make use of social services or expect a major crackdown.

“If you shoot, then you and your fellow group members will be subjected to these legal levers,” said Caterina Roman, a criminologist at Temple University who led the study. “But if you would like to take the available services we have to offer you in the city of Philadelphia, you can — right now, in this meeting at the end — talk to our social service providers and talk to the providers you need to turn your life around.”

The program could be considered the opposite of the “broken windows” strategy of the 1980s — that ignoring the small things, such as broken windows and other vandalism, will eventually lead to chaos in neighborhoods.

Instead, focused deterrence attempts to change behavior before violence occurs.

Offering likely offenders the opportunity for job training, emergency assistance, housing, and drug treatment — along with the threat of severe prosecution if they relapse — did decrease the number of shootings, Roman said. But gang violence in the area continued.

“The intervention is working,” she said. “But some of the gangs, specifically, may not have taken the message to heart.”

And, with only one full-time social services coordinator, the work was complicated by a lack of resources and organization, Roman said.

The number one concern of those engaged in violence, Roman said, was housing. People needed an emergency place to live.

“Because they knew if they went back on the street, they would be shot. That it was retaliation for something, or something was going on,” Roman said.

Mayor Jim Kenney and District Attorney-elect Larry Krasner are reviewing the results of the study to decide whether to expand it beyond the three police districts in South Philly where it was piloted.

Roman said she would like to see its expansion, but it would require more resources in order to work. According to the website In Justice Today, the program operated on a budget of just $130,000.

Without a stronger social services component, Roman said, focused deterrence can only can go so far.

“Why not continue it?” Roman said. “But continue it with the resources needed for it to go forward.”

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