In Baltimore and around the country, we are losing too many young people—especially young Black boys and men—to violence.
One of those young people is Markel Scott, a 19-year old high school senior who was on track to graduate this May. When he returned to school at Excel Academy in Baltimore after previously dropping out, he was singularly focused on graduating, telling himself and others to “never give up.” Tragically, Scott was one of four Excel Academy students killed in shootings since October.
This violence is an epidemic. Homicides are the leading cause of death for young Black men and boys. Research shows their disparate experience with violence—whether as victim, survivor or witness—sets them apart from nearly every other demographic group, including Black men older than 25, White men and Black women.
In addition to community violence, we have also seen the impact of state violence on our communities, particularly on young Black males. This month marks the two-year anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody, which sparked protests in Baltimore and nationwide. Reporting by The Guardian and Washington Post shows the disproportionate impact on Black men; Black men make up 6 percent of the U.S. population but 23 percent of those killed in police interactions in 2016 and 40 percent of unarmed people killed in police interactions in 2015.
Gray’s death surfaced long-simmering social and economic tensions in Baltimore, particularly between the community and the police. In the two years since, city leaders, including former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings, current Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, have been working to address public safety in partnership with youth and community leaders. Their police reform efforts have included negotiating a consent decree with the Justice Department to ensure improved access to training and technology for police officers while working to improve accountability and support community policing.
There are initial signs of success—in 2016, the city saw its homicide rate decline. But the work is far from over and obstacles remain, including a new challenge from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his directive to review all consent decrees between the DOJ and police forces across the country, going to court to delay Baltimore’s planned police reform developed under the consent decree.
Whether it is reducing community violence, or stopping the impact of police-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, we know what works to create safe, healthy and hopeful communities for all.
First, we must improve relationships between law enforcement and communities of color. Recently, Cities United—a national movement of more than 90 mayors committed to reducing the violence that affects our young Black men and boys—published a strategic resource for mayors on police-involved shootings and in-custody deaths that shared emerging best practices and effective responses to assist cities in adequately responding to, and ultimately preventing, these incidents.
While much of the work of public safety takes place at the local, county and state levels, the federal government also has a role to play. The Cities United resource spotlighted Justice Department efforts to employ consent decrees to ensure law enforcement’s capacity to carry out 21st century policing that incorporates an all-hands-on-deck approach and the voices of the most affected community members. If the new administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are truly committed to improving public safety, they cannot obstruct the DOJ’s ability to uphold civil rights and ensure police departments protect their residents.
Second, we know that we cannot just rely on law enforcement or the court system to solve our public safety problems. Violence does not occur in a vacuum and is intimately connected to other factors in a neighborhood—poverty, limited opportunity, lack of social or economic investments. That is why we believe in order to really address violence, we must put sustained attention on all of these factors across a neighborhood and a city. We must invest resources into quality education, access to gainful employment, mental health support, and providing stable housing for our youth and their families.
Cities United and the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, which includes more than 5,200 individuals and 2,700 organizations committed to improving life outcomes and opportunities for America’s Black males, have been working together to support the capacity building, leadership and investment required to advance community-driven approaches to violence prevention across the country. Our success is demonstrated in the place-based strategies taking root in cities like Baltimore, Oakland, Louisville and Detroit. And we see it in the comprehensive violence prevention plans being undertaken in cities like Seattle, Minneapolis and Washington, DC.
We must make sustained investments in our young people, evaluating programs and initiatives, learning from the data and engaging all corners of our community — from youth to faith leaders to business owners. We must build trust and relationships between our city leaders and justice system and the communities they serve.
Specifically, we must invest in young Black men who reside in communities most affected by violence to enable them to develop their own community-based solutions to the problem. We need increased investments that will strengthen the capacity, infrastructure and organizational sustainability of trusted community-based organizations who can influence behaviors and changes in violence. Further, more sustained big bet investments in economic and educational systems change will be crucial to increasing durable pathways out of poverty for all Black people in America.
We have to press through America’s paradox of promise and peril that seems to be magnified in communities of color and in particular for Black men and boys in the nation. We have the tools and resources to do better by our young people, and we must use them.
Our young people are doing what they need to do to work hard and put themselves on a path to success and well-being. Still, they need us to do more so they can live to see graduations, celebrations with loved ones and the growth of their own families and communities. We cannot afford to give up on them, as the future prosperity of our country depends on how we reduce the peril and increase the promise in their lives.
Shawn Dove is CEO of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA). Anthony Smith is the Executive Director of Cities United.