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Poverty, gun accessibility looms large in congressional effort to reimagine public safety in the COVID era

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry

North Carolina has experienced “a perfect storm of challenges” over the past two years of the pandemic.

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry told members of a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday that rising poverty and increased access to firearms has led to a devastating rise in violence.

“Increases in poverty are closely linked to increases in crime as stress and desperation make people more likely to see crime as their best or only option,” Deberry testified. “At the same time, Americans purchased guns in record numbers — more than 40 million over that last two years, worsening this nation’s gun epidemic.”

Deberry said that even as newly purchased firearms were used in more crimes, many states eased access to and regulation of guns.

At the same time, the Durham DA told the congressional panel that there has been an erosion of trust and confidence in the criminal legal system, particularly between law enforcement and people of color.

“We have to stop pretending reform is the real threat to public safety and recognize how over-reliance on prosecution and incarceration may make us less safe. We do not need to “choose” between reform and public safety – those two objectives are inherently linked,” Deberry said.

Charles Lehman of the Manhattan Institute

Charles Lehman of the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research challenged the idea of reimagining public safety.

“My case is a simple one: Police are an effective means for controlling crime,” Lehman said. “Any significant reduction in their number or responsibilities would come at substantial loss to public safety.”

“We have never defunded.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told the subcommittee that even with increased funding for police, his city has seen an uptick in violent crime coming out of the pandemic.

“We have increased the police budget in 2020 as well as in 2021 and at the same time we have seen rising crime. We have never defunded,” said Turner. “What we are seeing is a huge criminal case backlog. Because during Hurricane Harvey many of our courts were taken offline, then of course during COVID many of our courts were taken offline, and now we’re seeing a proliferation of guns all over the place.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner

Add all of those elements together, even with increasing the police budget, and crime has gone up, Turner explained.

“So gun reform would be helpful?” Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA.) asked.

“Absolutely,” responded the mayor of the nation’s 4th largest city.

Turner said his city is investing $45 million in American Rescue Plan funding to focus on crisis intervention, crime prevention, re-entry efforts, youth outreach opportunities, and key community partnerships.

Even with 5,100 officers patrolling Houston streets, Turner said the city could use more federal help.

He said in the last legislative session the state of Texas passed legislation (HB 1927) allowing unlicensed, or permit-less carry of a firearm—bypassing all training and safety precautions previously required to carry a concealed weapon.

“It exacerbated an already a bad situation. When you see these measures have taken effect, it increases crime anywhere between 11 and 13 percent,” explained Turner.

More than just lip-service

Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-WI)

“I believe until both major parties come out and say and do more than just lip service in saying they support the police, it’s going to be hard for the police not to continue to be in retreat. Would you agree with that?” Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-WI) asked.

“I think if police officers have the sense they are not supported by civilians leadership, they are less willing to engage in the most challenging parts of police work and are less willing to remain police officers,” responded Lehman.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) turned the subcommittee’s attention to a rise in ghost guns, which are often untraceable.

“I would says ghost guns are certainly an evidentiary problem in the prosecution of violent crime,” answered Deberry. “But I would say what is needed is tougher gun laws, the ability to background check for anybody who buys a gun, red flag laws and other things that would make sure guns only land in the hands of people who are trained to use them, people that police can trace those guns back to, and not in the hands of young people.”

“Us versus Them”

Thomas Abt, Council on Criminal Justice

Thomas Abt, a senior fellow with the Council on Criminal Justice, said law enforcement agencies must keep a consistent focus on preventing violence, not just making arrests.

For communities impacted by gun violence, city leaders need to emphasize healing with trauma-informed approaches, Abt advised.

But above all, Abt said the public conversation about criminal justice cannot be reduced to the false choice of #BlackLivesMatter versus #BlueLivesMatter.

“This “us versus them” framing is destructive because everything we know about violence reduction tells us that we need law enforcement, but we need community and other partners as well,” said Abt.

“The truth is, we can have safety and justice at the same time. We have to reject these either-or choices.”

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