Better Ways to Reduce Violence Against Young Black Men and Boys

Bringing back the failed strategies of the past is a mistake. Mayors are embracing innovative, forward-looking strategies.
September 8, 2017
Franclot Graham leans over the body of his son, Ramarley Graham, an unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot by a white police officer in New York City. (AP/John Minchillo)
By Betsy Hodges  |  Contributor
Mayor of Minneapolis
By Michael A. Nutter  |  Contributor
Former mayor of Philadelphia

"Law and order." It is one of our president's favorite phrases, an all-too-predictable dog whistle used to rally support for the failed criminal-justice strategies of the past. In just seven months in office, President Donald Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have advanced a dizzying assortment of backward-looking policies that would, among other things, lead to a surge in incarceration in a nation that already houses more than 22 percent of the world's prisoners.

We believe there is a better way. Together with Cities United, a growing network of more than 100 mayors across the country, we are calling for a new approach to creating safer, healthier communities for all. The focus of our work together: reducing violence against young black men and boys.

The high rates of violence and incarceration facing young African-American men sets them apart from nearly every other demographic group in the nation. Homicide is the leading cause of death for black boys and men between the ages of 10 and 24. If current trends continue, one in three young African-American men will serve time in prison at some point in their lives. It's hard to believe, but the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.

Once and for all, we must acknowledge that we can't reduce violence simply by putting more people behind bars. To achieve real progress, we need to address a broader range of problems that give rise to violence, from poverty and limited opportunity to a lack of investment in the communities where so many young black people live.

In cities across the country, mayors are working with local partners to reduce violence in innovative, forward-looking ways. In Buffalo, N.Y., for example, the city is supporting a group called Buffalo Peacemakers, which works in neighborhoods and schools to interrupt youth violence. In Minneapolis, the city launched an initiative that directs $500,000 to community and youth-led projects in two neighborhoods most harmed by violence. And, in Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer recently announced a new six-point plan to reduce violent crime. The plan includes targeted support for grassroots solutions that get residents, faith-based organizations and businesses involved in reducing overdose, suicide and homicide rates.

The partners in Cities United are committed to sharing success stories like these and highlighting other evidence-based approaches for reducing violence. Earlier this year, the organization produced a new resource for mayors on how to prevent police-involved shootings and deaths in custody. And last month we hosted a three-day meeting of mayors, young people and city leaders from across the country to share strategies for keeping young black men and boys safe, healthy and hopeful. The convening also provided an opportunity to honor cities, young leaders and others who are providing unwavering commitment and innovative solutions to address this urgent crisis.

In the face of a presidential administration focused on get-tough strategies that don't work, the mission of Cities United -- to mobilize the leadership of the nation's mayors to achieve real reductions in violence -- remains as urgent as ever. Mayors see firsthand the horrific repercussions of violence in their communities, and they are able to work closely with local residents, businesses, community leaders and young people to shape solutions.

The loss of so many of our young people is a national tragedy that won't end until we recognize once and for all that every life is worth saving. It's time for a 21st-century approach to public safety that prioritizes prevention and community engagement and that provides young people with a path to hope, opportunity and healing.