Conflict Intervention as Crime Prevention

Report Author

Justin R. Corbett

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Table of Contents

Community Impact

Evidence-Based Impact and Importance

Restorative interventions achieve community impact through the aggregation and diffusion of individual-level effects, and through strengthening community-level157 protective mechanisms.158 The interplay between these approaches is symbiotically virtuous. Together, they work to autonomize conflict and crime,159 placing them back within the local sphere of those most directly affected.160

At this level, community dispute resolution and restorative justice programs reanimate the often-inert161 collective efficacy162 present within many neighborhoods. They construct effective rituals163 that increase residents’ willingness to intervene,164 enhance social cohesion, and strengthen local capacity for social control.165 Restorative interventions achieve this through soliciting community input regarding the priority of criminal signals to which these initiatives intend to attend,166 and then facilitating the direct involvement of members in the reparation of the resulting harm from those signals resulting harms.167 Active participation of community members in these processes is a personally rewarding experience168 that enhances social solidarity,169 improves process legitimacy,170 mobilizes accountability plexuses,171 affords a richer exploration of the emotionality of crime,172 and creates a safe space to more thoroughly explore the socio-structural roots of conflict and crime.173

NYC Performance and Potential

Two examples of community impact deserve special attention. First, RHPP warrants special recognition as a particularly impressive example of community engagement. Being of the local community, staff and volunteers help repair social disorganization by hosting neighborhood gatherings and facilitating impromptu in-development interactions. Their routine of regularly canvassing the neighborhood’s many hangouts as they connect with residents helps build local collective efficacy; re-stitching communal bonds through literal footpaths and the threaded conversations they weave around shared hopes and the realities of shared housing.174

Second, the collective efforts of service providers to enhance the competence, confidence, and occurrence of residents’ own informal conflict interventions contribute to the City’s consequential, yet invisible division of desistance. Taken as its collective, nebulous whole, service providers’ legion of trainees and skilled volunteers represents one of the largest assemblages of individuals with advanced conflict skills training anywhere in the world; a civilian peace force comparable in size to the NYPD.175 Embedding these de- escalators on-the-ground in the homes, schools, and workplaces of their daily lives is the medical equivalent of administering a citywide regimen of low-dose anticonflictants, inhibiting interactional obstructions and, on occasion, preventing both routine and ruinous damage to our social corpus.176 Alongside well-meaning interventionists the City round, it’s estimated that in 2015 these individuals prevented at least 12 homicides177 and countless other criminal events of modest and monstrous178 consequence.

Figure 21. Elements and Functions of Collective Efficacy

Collective efficacy is one of the primary mechanisms of service providers’ community-level impact. Composed of three primary elements: social cohesion, social control, and willingness to intervene, service providers enhance each element in ways that help promote the reduction and truncation of criminal opportunities and occurrences.


157. Importantly, community can be conceptualized as the immediate network surrounding those harmed (micro- community) or the representatives advocating for broader community interests (macro-community) (Rossner, M., Bruce, J., 2016). Through their programming portfolios, service providers offer a range of interventions that accommodate either interpretation of ‘community.’ For example, the RHPP often includes micro-community representatives, while Community Mediation Services’ Open Space initiatives are inclusively macro-community focused.

158. While potentially substantially more influential to long-term crime trends, community-level impact is often less immediate and subtler than its individual-level counterparts. Crime prevention initiatives often require sustained operation and support for the aggregation and diffusement of individual-level effects to produce observable community-level impact. In discussing five-year community-level-impact-oriented prevention initiatives, Farrell and colleagues (2016) noted: “although there may be some immediate impacts of an intervention on those who directly participate, community-level change may require more sustained involvement. Intervention effects are not likely to occur immediately and it is not clear precisely when such effects might emerge.” In terms of community-level impact, then, prevention efforts require persistence and patience.

For a broader review of what is known about meso-level impacts from mediative and restorative interventions, see: Wood, W.R. (2015). More generally, see Mika, H. (1992) for an overview of the challenges resulting from community and broader societal arguments for restorative interventions that rely upon individual-level impact research; a challenge Mika labels the ‘micro-macro predicament.’

159. “Autonomisation is a process by which residents (neighbors and volunteers) try to (re)capture the conflict solving action space in the community and with that, increasingly reclaim control over their lifeworld [lifeworld: the house, the block, or at most, the street]... Community mediation can empower people to turn the increasing colonisation of the system around into the lifeworld. Instead of dealing with people on a meso-level, the process of autonomisation starts at the micro-level” (Peper, B., Spierings, F., 1999).

160. Recapturing conflict from professional institutions and reorienting it back within the community in which the conflict and its resulting harm occurred serves to empower the community to address not only the issue at hand, but to clarify social norms in an effort to discourage subsequent violations. This perspective of conflict as property rightfully owned by and situated within the community in which it occurs was espoused by Christie (1977) and is a core tenet motivating community mediation and community justice frameworks. It is worth noting that such a deprivatization of conflict is not without its complications and cautious observers.

To complications, Innes, M. (2014) calls attention to macro-level societal shifts that are working to introduce new classifications of problem behaviors (exogenous social control) and greater internal complexity of existing classification frameworks (iatrogenic social control) such that it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid and subsequently extricate oneself from conflict-induced institutional entanglements. On this point, it is worth noting the relative shallowness of service providers’ systems compared with those of traditional criminal justice institutions. Their service simplicity, coupled with the personal assistance providers offer to smoothly transition clients into and out of those services help to reduce the procedural stressors victims and offenders face when engaging providers’ interventions.

Finally to caution, Crawford and Clear (2001) warns that the goal of pluralizing responsibility risks replacing the current certainty of the state’s role in establishing and maintaining social order, with well-intentioned, but nonetheless ambiguous appeals to community ordering and individual choice.

161. Numerous forces are increasingly complicating the manipulability and ultimate efficacy of local communities’ collective efficacy, including: offline society’s increasing disconnectedness (Putnam, R.D., 2000), despair paralysis, rigid transcollective influencers, and social fragmentation resulting in the competition of contradictory factional efficacies (Bandura, A., 2001), to name a few.

162. Collective efficacy refers to the ability of a local community to informally self-regulate its members such that area crime is reduced and the local quality of life is improved (Bazemore, G., 2000). Compared to the top down functioning of a centrally concentrated formal justice system, collective efficacy horizontally distributes and locally diffuses mechanisms of social control, and have proven effective in reducing violence even in areas of concentrated disadvantage and residential instability (Sampson, R.J., Raudenbush, S.W., Earls, F., 1997). For more on the theoretical connection between collective efficacy and restorative justice, see: Wheeldon, J. (2009).

163. Community participation in restorative processes contributes to the establishment of effective rituals that enhance, among other things, offender reintegration. For a thorough review of ‘effective rituals’ and their relationship with restorative justice processes, see: Rossner, M., Bruce, J. (2016).

164. Willingness to intervene – one of the core components of collective efficacy – is a particularly important measure because of its inverse relationship with the quality of neighbor relationships (Nieuwenhuis, J., Völker, B., Flap, H., 2013). The less willing individuals are to intervene in a local conflict, the more likely they are to have negative relationships with their neighbors, a state which then further increases local conflicts for which proximal others are iteratively less willingness to intervene.

165. Sampson, R.J., Raudenbush, S.W. (1999).

166. “Successful implementation calls for taking account of local context and conditions” (Welsh, B.C., 2007). Given community members intimacy with their unique local context and conditions, their direct involvement in the design of new crime prevention interventions is critical. For a larger discussion of how communities can help identify and respond to ‘criminal signals,’ see the ‘Signal Ministrance’ section of this report.

167. Community involvement in restorative processes is a way of securing meaningful participation of non-legal actors in sanctioned justice-seeking endeavors. Crawford and Newburn (2002) highlight the importance of involving these lay representatives, particularly in youth-involved restorative processes where their involvement serves as a counter to the increasingly centralized managerialism of modern justice systems and the constrained emotive potential of traditional justice-seeking endeavors.

168. Community members report their voluntary participation in restorative programs as highly rewarding, contributing to their better understanding of justice processes and its limitations, and facilitating their personal growth and self-development (Crawford, A., Newburn, T., 2002).

169. Rossner, M. (2013).

170. One proposed mechanism by which restorative processes enhance procedural legitimacy is through their contributions in augmenting detached, disinterested systemic performance standards with measures more responsive to public interests (Crawford, A., Newburn, T., 2002).

171. Holding offenders accountable for the harm they caused is a key component of many restorative processes. Rather than rely on formal justice structures to enforce offender compliance with healing steps, restitution, or other methods of reparation, restorative interventions often conscript fellow participants to encourage offender follow-through. By soliciting influential, high-contact nodes already populating offenders’ daily networks, offenders are far less likely to successfully avoid their post-intervention obligations than offenders whose accountability is dependent upon irregular, scripted contact with foreign representatives. Informal, distributed accountability networks – such as those employed by restorative services – are far more effective than their formal counterparts (Braithwaite, J., 1997). For more on the applications of accountability in restorative settings, see: Roche, D. (2003).

172. Rossner, M. (2013).

173. When encouraged to operate beyond the shadows of their criminal justice mainstays, restorative interventions are able to address the socio-structural roots of select conflicts – aspects that tend to be trivialized or altogether left unaddressed by traditional criminal justice system processes. Socio-structural roots can include aspects of classism, discrimination, and social prejudices, to name a few (Zernova, M., 2006).

174. More than mere showcase tours, the stops, the conversations, and the connectedness observed at the RHPP were reflections of the daily routes and lives of the Peacemakers. Atop the contracted services they offer, these types of interactions matter. They enhance programmatic legitimacy and serve as effective mechanisms of prevention in their own right (Bellair, P.E., 1997).

175. In addition to service providers’ 434 active volunteers, roughly 5,500 individuals receive some level of service provider coordinated conflict skills training annually. While frequent trainee refrains of these trainings imparting “life changing” mindset and skills, some rate of effective skills decay almost certainly exists. For example, while technically complex skills delivered in intensive trainings can show significant decay after just one month (Parker, P., 2008), advanced interpersonal skills are not only retained, but continue to improve up to at least six years after the initial training (Maguire, P., Fairbairn, S., Fletcher, C., 1986). As a subcategory of advanced interpersonal skills, conflict engagement skills are also likely to persist for at least six years prior to their functional decay presuming favorable training modality, intensity, and duration; post- training practice; and trainee motivation (Arthur, W., et al., 1998). Presuming a relatively stable rate of trainings over the past half-decade, this suggests service provider trainings continue to currently and positively influence an estimated 33,000 individuals throughout NYC – roughly the current size of NYPD’s total uniformed force (Bratton, W.J., 2016). Even more impressively, if secondary skills beneficiaries from trainees’ communal, employment, familial, and social networks were also to be included in this estimate (i.e. adjusted to reflect providers’ estimated constructive propagation rate of 5.5x), this larger provider-attributable collective would dwarf NYC’s total criminal justice workforce.

176. Beyond the daily multitude of routine conflicts addressed by NYC’s informal and impromptu peace force, their de-escalatory presence and willingness to intervene depresses the incentives for and incidents of violent exchanges. In fact, the need for an even larger distribution of these skills within the general public could be no more convincingly argued than through recent research which found that the presence of and attempts to settle conflicts by – even unfamiliar – informal third-parties decreased the lethality of serious assaults.

The behaviors of third parties in the heat of a conflict influence the nature and outcome of that conflict. As an extreme example, during homicides and assaults, “offenders deliver more blows when third parties also use violence and fewer blows when third parties engage in mediating actions” (Berg, M.T., Felson, R.B., 2016; citing: Felson, R.B., Ribner, S., Siegel, M., 1984). As such, seeding diverse – but specifically violence-prone – areas of the City with individuals who know how to constructively de-escalate conflict can significantly influence the frequency and severity of future violent exchanges. For additional examples, see: Ganpat, S.M., van der Leun, J., Nieuwbeerta, P. (2013).

177. The projected avoidance of at least 12 homicide deaths throughout NYC in 2015 is based on an application of (a) research findings into the event characteristics and actors’ behaviors during lethal and non-lethal encounters (Ganpat, S.M., van der Leun, J., Nieuwbeerta, P., 2013) to the (b) the citywide report of 352 murders and non-legal manslaughters and 20,270 felony assaults in 2015 (New York City Police Department, 2016a). Importantly, this is the lower bound of avoided deaths as a result of effective conflict interventions, as this accounts for only those instances where the death-avoided outcome still resulted in a conviction of attempted manslaughter, attempted murder, or other felonious assault, rates of intervention effectiveness for which are known (Ganpat, S.M., van der Leun, J., Nieuwbeerta, P., 2013). The rate of effective third-party interventions for conflicts that may also have resulted in death, but which as a result of the intervention concluded instead in an outcome other than a felony assault, is both unknown and unaccounted for in this projection, but would almost certainly contribute substantially to that projection.

178. Though criminal consequence can be measured through many frames, economic calculations remain a particularly resonant policy-oriented favorite. As such, considering the projected aversion of 12 homicides alone, the social cost savings from these interventions is an estimated $160 million annually. This projected cost savings from is an inflation-adjusted projection using Cohen and colleagues’ (2004) finding that collectively, citizens’ willingness-to-pay to prevent murder was valued at $9.7 million (in the study’s 2001 dollars) per offense. It is calculated using the lower bound of 12 prevented homicides in 2015 based on the rationale in supra note 177.