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Harvard fellows identify youth crime trends in Hampton, Portsmouth

Bloomberg Harvard fellow Nicah Santos presents her findings on youth violence to Portsmouth’s City Council. (Courtesy of the City of Portsmouth)
Bloomberg Harvard fellow Nicah Santos presents her findings on youth violence to Portsmouth’s City Council. (Courtesy of the City of Portsmouth)

Nicah Santos has spent the last nine weeks neck deep in data, cross-referencing data sets to hone in on hotbeds of youth violence in Portsmouth.

Santos is a Bloomberg Harvard City Fellow, a group of researchers that have been embedded in cities around the country to take an in-depth look at challenges cities around the country face, like poverty, homelessness and waste management.

Santos’ goal: to arm the City of Portsmouth with information in order to stem the tide of violence.

Between 2019 and 2020, Santos found the number of aggravated assaults by people under 25 jumped by 27 percent. The number of assaults that involve a firearm went up by 59 percent.

The only immediate explanation she can see is during the pandemic, there was an increased access to guns. Portsmouth police have said they’ve seen more guns acquired via unlocked vehicles.

In Hampton, another Harvard researcher found the number of crimes committed by children is climbing in Hampton, even as the rate of youth arrests is dropping.

Santos said while they’re looking at similar issues in comparable cities, the two weren’t seeing the exact same trends.

For instance, youth crime rates seemed to dip during the summer in Hampton. But the violent crimes Santos tracked in Portsmouth stayed pretty steady year-round. In 2020 and 2021, the numbers even spike a little from May into June before settling back at the year-long baseline.

Santos said they’re not sure what to make of the discrepancy, other than the fact that the specific conditions in every city are different. 

As for root causes, Santos said talking to people in the community and government officials has brought up many of the issues that have been talked about for years - a need for more positive role models and to teach young people ways to resolve conflict without resorting to violence.

But Nicah said being an outsider with a 10,000-foot view of the issue lets her see the gaps.

“I feel like Portsmouth is doing a lot, but not in a coordinated way. I've been seeing some overlaps in what different agencies are doing where I think they could do better by joining forces,” Santos said.

She points to the numerous mentorship programs in the city.

“There are several youth mentorship programs, one run by the sheriff's department, another by the police department, the other by the public schools. And there are also nonprofits who’re doing it,” Santos said. “If you have all these mentors and all these kids … it seems like a wasted opportunity to not pool what you know and what you have got.”

By delving into several data sets, she’s identified neighborhoods where the most youth violence is happening, and thus those in need of the most concentrated help. Those include Prentis Park, Brighton and Craddock.

She notes that the neighborhoods with the highest youth violence also top several other statistical categories - like the highest school truancy rates, unemployment rates, highest percentage of single mothers and kids under a grandparent’s care.

“So, all that to say, there's not going to be a single program that addresses these issues. And much of it is, the majority of it, is tied to poverty and the limited options that poverty affords the people suffering it,” Santos said.

Earlier this week, Santospresented her findings to Portsmouth’s City Council, with some thematic recommendations. The biggest message was to get kids the help they need, when they need it, and do it as early as possible.

What exactly that looks like hasn’t been hammered out yet.

Portsmouth Fire Chief Nestor Mangubat said the city gets all kinds of anecdotal input from the community on what it seems like is happening on the streets and driving violence. But having the hard numbers makes a difference.

“I think that's what has been missing,” Mangubat said. “Instead of making decisions off what we feel, now we're making decisions based on what we're actually seeing.”

Mangubat told the council they would see actionable policy proposals after Oct. 31.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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