Armed violence can be reduced through a strategy of deterrence

Canada has seen an increase in gun violence in recent years. In recent months, Montreal and its suburbs have experienced numerous shootings, with a few deaths, including bystanders. There were also several shootings near Vancouver and Toronto.

In 2020, there were 277 firearm homicides in Canada, the highest number since 1991. It goes without saying that some intervention is needed to solve a problem that has become costly and harmful to society, not to mention the victims and their relatives. .

At the moment, however, the only strategies suggested by politicians and law enforcement are to increase the number of police or to suppress. This puzzles me. My research on the issue of criminal networks and the scientific literature suggests that there are other, more effective ways to solve this problem.

Read more: Prevention is the most effective way to reduce gun violence

Problem-oriented policing

Do more police mean less violence? Not according to a systematic review of studies that have looked at the question.

Although an increase in police resources has been shown to have, at best, a small effect on crime in general, it has not been found to have a specific impact on violent crime. Moreover, these police strategies create social tensions and discriminatory processes and increase the risk of victimization, which runs counter to a comprehensive solution.

A vigil in memory of Meriem Boundaoui, 15, who was murdered in Montreal in February 2021. Police said she was not the intended target of the shooting.
The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes

In addition to being quite inefficient, these strategies are inefficient and represent considerable costs for taxpayers.

But we can learn from other innovative strategies that have been implemented elsewhere in the world. Although not widely implemented in Canada to date, these solutions, based on problem-oriented policing, promise better results in addressing gun violence.

Target the problem at the source

Rather than simply reacting to each event, as is currently the case with gun violence, problem-oriented policing, as its name suggests, promotes a proactive approach to crime, targeting the problem at its source.

Specifically, the strategy emphasizes deterrence. This strategy specifically targets individuals or groups at risk of committing violent acts and aims to deter violent behavior by leveraging the threat of sanctions and the potential benefits of refraining from violent acts.

Concretely, interventions based on targeted deterrence involve both police services and community representatives who collaborate to initiate a discussion with people at high risk of being involved in violent crimes. The purpose of this discussion is to communicate clear incentives to avoid violence and incentives to engage in it.

Incentives and disincentives

Once identified, offenders receive information on the availability of various services in their community. Incentives include employment assistance, psychosocial intervention, training and community support programs.

Elements of deterrence are also invoked: the people we meet are informed of the increased legal sanctions to which they and their relatives are exposed if they continue to commit acts of violence. This increased penalty may be specific to violent acts, but it may also be extended to other less serious offences. For example, if a gang increases its level of violence, more attention may be given to the group’s drug-trafficking activities overall.

Going beyond a simple carrot and stick strategy, targeted deterrence initiatives aim to reduce opportunities for individuals to commit acts of violence, engage the local community as a partner in the process, and improve law enforcement and community relations.

The group rather than the individual

These programs can take many forms, but the most effective is based on the Operation Ceasefire model introduced in Boston in the 1990s.

This violence reduction strategy targets gangs as groups rather than individuals. In these programs, justice, social services and community organizers are encouraged to engage directly with violent groups, to express their moral and legal concerns about the violence they have suffered, to offer sincere help to those who want it and to implement strategic law enforcement campaigns against those who continue their violent behavior.

These strategies have shown very encouraging results. A systematic review of 24 studies evaluating programs of this nature concluded that they had significant effects in reducing gun violence.

For example, in one of our studies, we found that implementing such a program in New Haven, Connecticut reduced gun violence by gangs by 73%. In addition, through the process of disseminating information among members of criminal groups, associates of individuals encountered in these programs have also obtained benefits from these interventions.

This observed decrease is much more effective and efficient than simply increasing the number of police officers working without an overall strategy aimed at the cause of the problem, or that does not involve community members.

To our knowledge, such an intervention strategy does not exist in Quebec. The Quebec government has announced $2 million in prevention projects in seven Montreal boroughs, such as upgrading sports and cultural facilities. But repressive strategies have received more than double the investment than those focused on prevention.

There is no good reason not to implement these kinds of programs, which have been proven elsewhere in the world. It is time to think about the question of armed violence in a global way, in terms of prevention, rather than through reactive and strictly repressive measures.

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