In August 2009, two people shot 26-year-old Aswad Thomas during a robbery attempt. He suffered two gunshot wounds that pierced his lung, dislocated his shoulder, and ended his burgeoning professional basketball career.
After the shooting, Thomas learned that his assailant had been shot four years prior. Thomas believes that if the young man had received mental health services early on, then perhaps the violent incident may have been avoided.
“His unaddressed trauma resulted in further victimization,” said Thomas, who is now the managing director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ).
“I am a victim of gun violence, my father was a victim of gun violence, my brother is a victim of gun violence, and none of us received help,” he continued. “Young black men are often seen as the most violent but the truth is we are the most harmed and least supported.”
CSSJ is a network of crime survivors in states including California and Florida who lobby for greater access to state and local victim compensation programs that provide money to pay for things like funeral and relocation expenses, and investment in alternatives to incarceration. And as calls and efforts to defund police departments mount in the wake of George Floyd’s death and other recent high profile police killings, crime survivors such as Thomas are urging state officials to use this opportunity to bolster victims’ services such as mental health care, and community-led violence prevention efforts.
“If we want to talk about reinvestments, we must listen to crime victims because we are experts on what can stop the cycles of crime,” Thomas continued.
The definition can vary from person to person but at its most radical, defunding is one of the first steps toward totally dismantling police departments and using that money to fund community education, housing and health services.
Cities and other local ities have signaled a willingness to change. Since the beginning of June local school districts throughout the US have cut ties with campus police, while cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco vowed to funnel money away from police budgets and into services for underserved communities. And in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, the majority of the city’s council members announced their intention to dismantle their police force.
These and similar moves have been met with a common critique: that any reduction to police will lead to more crime, and once that crime happens there will be no police to respond and help victims.
But some crime survivors argue that an increased police presence and militarization hasn’t addressed the roots of community violence, such as income inequality, housing instability, and years of unaddressed collective trauma. And while the experiences, political leanings and definitions of justice vary greatly, for many black and brown crime survivors in low-income communities, safety relies less on punitive responses from police and prosecutors and more on breaking cycles of violence.
Tinisch Hollins, a San Francisco native, has lost two brothers – one in 2013 and another in 2017 – to gun violence, and has also experienced various forms of abuse. As the California director of CSSJ she advocates for policies that will support underserved survivors of color for whom services are often unavailable despite them being disparately harmed by both community and police violence. She also said that she’s “infuriated” by the rhetoric around defunding the police and increases in crime.
“Folks push this narrative on behalf of crime victims but there’s a lack of acknowledgement of how the justice system has never done a service to black people,” Hollins said. “We have been harmed by violence in our communities because so much investment has gone into the criminal justice system as a response to public safety and not into healing or restoration.”
Since the 1970s, as tough on crime policies such as the 1994 Crime Bill were implemented throughout the US, local spending on police increased from 6.6% to 7.8% of local budgets, according to a New York Times analysis. Still, nearly 65% of homicides of black and latino people people go unsolved, according to an analysis of 22 US cities.These low arrest and adjudication rates also apply to instances of sexual assault and rape.
“We often justify sending mostly young people of color to prison for lengthy periods of time in the name of victims’ rights, and yet victims are hung up to dry,” said San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin. “Much of policing and the justice system isn’t about healing, it’s about using victims to justify mass incarceration.”
Advocates say that this phenomenon coupled with high levels of police distrust among underserved communities of color underscores the need for increased investments in non-law enforcement public safety efforts, which are proven to diffuse community conflicts and prevent retaliatory acts of violence.
“Gang interventionists and violence interrupters don’t make half of what police officers make, but we put ourselves in jeopardy just as much, and are unarmed,” said Lanaisha Edwards, a southern California-based gang interventionist and crime survivor. “If officials value safety they need to put their money where their mouth is.”
Two of Edwards’ brothers – Vinnie and Vaughn – were shot and killed in 2010 and 2017 respectively. After Vinnie’s murder, Edwards has become a gang interventionist who goes into schools and local neighborhoods to diffuse conflicts and divert young people away from crime. She also says that these programs have been historically underfunded despite their promising outcomes.
“It’s past that time for lawmakers and police to start listening for safer solutions and allowing survivors and community members to have a seat at the table where these decisions are being made for us,” Edwards continued.