EDITORIAL: In GVI they trust

York Dispatch Editorial Board
York City Police and the York County Coroner's Office investigate a shooting in the 700 block of W. Princess Street, Wednesday, April 10, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

In GVI they trust. And so do we — for now.

But clearly, it's time for an independent third-party analysis of GVI's effectiveness in York City. 

York City officials again touted the Group Violence Initiative this past week, the brain-child of John Jay College criminologist David Kennedy first deployed in Boston more than 20 years ago. 

GVI is rooted in the assumption that most urban violence stems from a tiny collection of individuals. And, through offers of assistance from neighborhood leaders and targeted police sweeps, GVI provides its targets an ultimatum: a hand up or a boot to the throat.

That message, according to the program's design, then swirls through the criminal network by word-of-mouth. 

Yet in its three years since adoption, GVI's efficacy in York City remains unclear. 

In 2017, a year after its adoption, city leaders lauded the program, citing a roughly 50 percent drop shootings. 

Sounds great, right?

It did until The York Dispatch received 2018's crime stats through a Right to Know request. That year, shootings spiked to pre-GVI levels.

More:Crime initiative working despite stats, York City officials say

More:Has York City's initiative been effective in curbing gun violence?

Pittsburgh, Minneapolis — an increasing number of cities of late have joined York City and rolled out versions of GVI tailored to their communities. Anecdotally, police report progress, including law enforcement officials in York City.

GVI's reliance on community leaders builds relationships between the cops and the most violent neighborhoods, they say. The metrics tend to show a downward trend, they say.

But, since GVI's widespread adoption, just one research team has taken a deep dive into the program's outcomes and attempted to gauge its results. In 2015, a team of sociologists from Yale University spent months analyzing crime data from New Haven, Connecticut, where GVI had been in place since 2011.

The study compared New Haven's crime rates to those in nearby Hartford, where GVI hasn't been adopted.

The initial results look good for GVI. The program is responsible for reducing gun violence in New Haven by about five shootings per month, they concluded.

But, even so, researchers admitted that even their complex statistical method isn't without its flaws. Their greatest weakness, they wrote, was due to the non-standardized way police define a GVI-related shooting. 

Researchers also said accessing some information related to ongoing investigations posed a legitimate hurdle. 

Even with those concerns spelled out in the research paper, local officials throughout the country cite the Yale study as the authoritative justification for adopting the program.

And that's not unreasonable, mind you. All any population can ask of its elected class is an adherence to the best information available. 

But, still, GVI's overall effectiveness is far from a universal truth, especially in York City. Rigorous, replicable scrutiny is key to any scientific knowledge. 

All the while, the program has remade policing in York City, bringing with it multiple arrests of ex-cons who, police readily admit, had nothing to do with the violence that initiated the police sweeps in the first place.

It's hard to see how much good comes from arresting a paroled felon on a marijuana charge because someone down the street opened fire. If anything, that only boosts recidivism and hampers efforts at reintegration.

GVI may well be York City's best option at combating a cycle of violence that disproportionately effects its poor, minority communities. But the evidence available doesn't support officials' claim that it's an outright success.

Perhaps GVI is working. Perhaps the program is in need of minor adjustment. Perhaps there's something better.

Those unknowns are enough to warrant a sweeping study conducted by expert academics with no stake in GVI's ultimate fate.

After all, the cost of such a study would doubtlessly be less than what's now spent on the violence plaguing York City's streets.