Saturday, April 28, 2012

Cutting violence with social science

Irvin Waller is a leading expert in violence prevention. He is professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa. He developed the Safer Cities program with the United Nations Habitat and was a founder of the UN-affiliated International Centre for the Prevention of Crime. Irvin agreed to offer the following blog to SafeGrowth about a new study on preventing violence. 

A new study confirms sustainable ways for violence prevention to succeed against one of the most intransigent challenges for urban violence. Prairie cities in Canada have failed for many decades to prevent violence affecting urban Aboriginal peoples. Politicians and judges seemed to only be able to react with prison time and punishment.

This comprehensive study bravely starts with the innovative goal of stopping violence before it leads to victimization and criminal justice costs. It examined both the social science knowledge on what reduces crime affecting urban Aboriginal people as well as a growing body of knowledge about how ¨risk focused¨ prevention gets implemented and sustained.


The study tested this knowledge with stakeholders in one of the cities. Stakeholders were optimistic about the potential for risk focused strategies to reduce crime and prevent victimization in this difficult inner city population. However, the stakeholders and the study identified missing pieces.

For instance, success requires cities to support a leadership centre to sustain partnerships between schools, housing, policing and others. Funding must go to smart policing and effective prevention – not one or the other.

A plethora of government agencies provide living proof that violence is preventable, not inevitable. The U.S. Department of Justice and the World Health Organization have scoured the world to provide even more. Public Safety Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada have selected best practices and made them publicly accessible. 

But despite their success, these practices have yet to be shared and implemented from coast to coast. As a result, cities like Edmonton and Winnipeg still ended 2011 with record numbers of homicide victims.

The chief of detectives for Glasgow, one of the U.K.’s most violent cities, got fed up investigating homicides. Looking for another option, he took knowledge from around the world and applied it locally, targeting gang violence. He brought in public-health experts and oversaw the installation of programs to limit alcohol abuse, stop youth from carrying weapons, promote mentoring, improve bad parenting, and more. 

Five years later, these efforts have reduced rates of violent offending by 50 per cent among those engaging with the initiative.

For more information, visit

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Much to my surprise, I just realized this SafeGrowth blog is now three years old. I have spent little time on philosophy. But If I did, this is how it would go…

Some tell me homelessness has no place in CPTED. Some say you can design out crime and ignore politics, policing, or broken communities. Others want details on CCTV, graffiti-removal and lighting but nothing on privacy, street art and a beautiful starry night.

 I disagree.

I just watched Tom Shadyac's documentary, I AM. It's a personal story about the science of connection and unity. Shadyac is the most unlikely storyteller having directed The Nutty Professor and Ace Ventura. Then a bike crash left him for dead. He didn't die. Instead he had one of those awakening moments and I AM was born.

I AM's mission is a global trek to discover what is wrong in the world and what we can do about it. It is named after philosopher G.K. Chesterton's idea. When asked to write an essay to summarize what was wrong with the world, Chesterton wrote: I am.

Other films of this ilk turn flakey and saccharine. Not Shadyac. He interviews luminaries like business guru Margaret Wheatley, archbishop Desmond Tutu, philosopher Noam Chomsky, environmentalist David Suzuki, historian Howard Zinn.

With game-changing elections now underway in the US, France, and Mexico, I AM is timely. As Zinn says, in times of rapid change, homelessness, environmental crisis and violence you cannot stay neutral on a moving train.


I AM shone brightest in the science on connection and unity, particularly how the new biology reveals collaboration as the rule of nature. Nature, it was once thought, is a process of competition and conflict. The early ecology of crime theories suggested that too (gangs fighting for turf). But modern ecology has moved beyond. I AM shows while competition happens, it isn't inevitable and it certainly isn't natural.

Connection and collaboration is in our DNA. Mixed land uses and social spaces do that. Well designed communal places like Portland's Intersection Repair does that too. Gated communities and target hardening does not.

Even if we must occasionally put up a fence or camera, I AM reminds us...starry nights matter.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Forget the hoodie, change the law

There is a great 2010 talk by Philip Howard about reforming criminal law. He says lawyers, judges and politicians need to know much better the science behind preventing social harm. He offers four steps for getting started.

Thinking about bus violence, an erratic sentence, and prevention science from my last blog, Ezzat Fattah came to mind.

Ezzat was one of my favorite grad school profs. Extensively published, fair-minded, and award-winning, he was a pioneer in victimology decades before restorative justice existed. He is respected around the world as a human rights advocate for Amnesty International.

In other words, one of the best!

And what do I recall one of the best saying regarding reforming criminal law? Contrary to some legal scholars' persistent belief in the myth of general deterrence, criminal law doesn't prevent much crime. Instead it is about punishment, morality and politics. No surprise, perhaps. Yet given decades of research into deterrence, this is disappointing because it turns out, for most violence, retribution and deterrence do not stop it!

If we were really serious about reducing social harm we would not rely on 3-strikes rules, mandatory sentencing, and tough-on-crime punishments to protect us. We'd tackle irrational sentencing, we would implement restorative justice, and we'd seriously consider anti-violence prevention programs like David Kennedy's Don't Shoot.

Kennedy says it outright: most gang-and-drug street violence isn't about money. It is about shame and loss of respect. It's about honor, which is why restorative methods work. That is how social harms will be cut.

Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law? An unarmed, hoodie-wearing teen was shot to death
last month while walking in a gated community by a neighborhood watch captain. 
Retributive justice has failed. The worst example is Florida's "Stand Your Ground" gun law. Did that law lead to gun-toting vigilantism in the shooting of Trayvon Martin last month? Was this a Neighborhood Watch program unravelling as an unarmed black kid in a hoodie is killed for the crime of walking in a gated community? A month after the shooting, following much speculation (and, no doubt, much politicking), they have now criminally charged Trayvon's shooter.

Gandhi said an eye-for-an-eye leaves the whole world blind. In Trayvon's case it might have left him dead.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Lose your busses, lose your city

Saskatoon, Canada. Downtown bus terminal.
Wandering the alleys of Saskatoon is always interesting. My co-instructor Elisabeth Miller and myself did this last week with our SafeGrowth class and we were drawn to the downtown bus terminal.

In the little corner of criminology that is CPTED, bus terminals are called activity generators. Without careful design and management they easily tip into crime generators. My prior blogs on bus stop crime hotspots have made this clear.

Research from Los Angeles in the early 1980s, followed up in seminal work by a UCLA researcher in the late 1990s also makes this clear.

What do we know? Terminals, stops, and busses are a linchpin for humanizing the public realm. Lose your busses…

Architectural rendering for a new, CPTED-friendly, downtown
bus terminal in Dayton, Ohio 
Saskatoon is no better nor worse than others. Their terminal is little more than a regular city street with some streetscaping and security guards. It is unlikely to attract a larger, diverse ridership. Nor will it win any awards, unlike Dayton, Ohio.

Dayton, a similar sized city, has won awards for terminal design and safety. A few years ago some CPTED-trained police officers, bus officials, and professional designers tackled a crime hotspot at the old bus terminal.

Dayton's redesigned bus terminal (photo RTA Bus Hub Report)

Their redesign cut crime, improved ridership, and became a Goldstein Award Finalist at the annual problem-oriented policing conference in 2010.

It shows how design can build community goodwill.

Access control, coffee shops, surveillance, and landscaping (photo RTA Bus Hub Report)

Today I was reminded how easily that goodwill can be short-circuited by the criminal justice system.


I refer to an attack a few years ago by a drunk on a Vancouver, BC bus driver. The driver suffered brain damage, a broken jaw and has been off work for a year. The driver's son, in the bus at the time, was also assaulted and injured when he attempted to help his father.

Today BC courts kept the assailant out of jail on a conditional sentence - conditions that he stays sober, gets counseling, and (wait for it) that he purchases a ticket before he gets on a bus! Unsurprisingly this outraged the public.

Putting aside the value of restorative versus punitive justice and how to fix the system (that's next blog), the message from that sentence is terrible. It says stay off busses.

The Vancouver press sums it up this way: "The attack on [the busdriver], though more serious than most, is part of a persistent pattern of violence visited on vulnerable bus drivers, usually with no jail time meted out to the assailants."

So while design might matter, it is not enough. We must fix our response to crime as well.