Partnering for Prevention: New Report Outlines Growing Public Health and Public Safety Collaborations

public health collage

Most people working to prevent gun violence wouldn’t think to start at their local beauty parlors, but that’s what the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission did. When a sub-committee on gun violence analyzed data from both the Health Department and law enforcement and found that a high percentage of young females purchased firearms used in crimes, the Commission created and implemented an education campaign in salons with a simple message: “Don’t buy a gun for your man.”

This initiative is just one example of the burgeoning public health and public safety collaborations described in “Law Enforcement and Public Health: Sharing Resources and Strategies to Make Communities Safer.” This report—just released by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office)—details a roundtable discussion, which was sponsored by the COPS Office, The California Endowment, and the Center for Court Innovation, and took place in Los Angeles in March 2011. The executive session brought together police chiefs and public health researchers from across the country to offer insights into the challenges both sectors face and how the fields overlap.

The new report highlights similarities the fields share: Both public health and criminal justice agencies are concerned about the well-being of communities. Both also share an interest in analyzing data to identify problems and develop effective solutions. And both fields are interested in addressing some of the same problems, including violence and crime driven by drug addiction or mental illness.

Photo: Mallory O'Brien, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute at Duke University Podcast with the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission’s Dr. Mallory O’Brien - Dr. O’Brien speaks with Rob Wolf from the Center for Court Innovation on solving and preventing homicides through collaboration.
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Law enforcement and public health agencies are also often reactive, responding after the fact to incidents of crime or outbreaks of contagious disease. Public health, however, has historically placed a premium on prevention while “law enforcement by definition has been reactive from the beginning of time,” said COPS Office Director Bernard Melekian. “Prevention was never really seen as part of law enforcement. It was really about a response to something bad happening.”

Like law enforcement agencies, public health agencies seek both to suppress problems as soon as they emerge and also find long-term solutions, said Anthony Iton, senior vice president of The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities.

“We always say if you walk into a community and there are fires burning, what’s the first thing you do? You put out the fires,” he said. “If you come back the next day and there are fires burning in the same place, you put out the fires again, but you start thinking to yourself, ‘Why are the fires burning in the same place?’ The third day you are like, ‘I’ve got to find out what is causing these fires.’”

But while law enforcement and public health have a lot in common, they haven’t traditionally been natural collaborators. The Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission’s Dr. Mallory O’Brien asked roundtable participants if they “actually get together on a regular basis with partners and have these kinds of discussions where you are sharing data and talking about strategy development? How often does that happen?” Many agreed that this practice was still relatively rare.

Among the participants in the executive session, there was a clear willingness to work together. “I think…the next evolution of police work is to reduce crime by preventing it using methods that work, while at the same time not burning down the village to save it,” said Garry McCarthy, then-director of the Newark (New Jersey) Police Department, who was subsequently appointed to lead the Chicago Police Department. “Anything that we could do with public health that will mesh into that, I think is going to be welcome with open arms.”

After the March 2011 session, participants were invited to apply for mini-grants of $10,000 from The California Endowment for projects related to collaborations between the two fields. Then, in January 2012, another meeting was convened to share some of the results of the nine mini-grant projects, as well as bring representatives from funding agencies into the discussion, with an aim to garner insight into how any innovative collaboration can gain public and financial support to become common practice.

 “Law Enforcement and Public Health: Sharing Resources and Strategies to Make Communities Safer” offers a foundation for understanding the fundamentals of these collaborations: where they come from and where they are headed, while also offering a brief history of public health and public safety partnerships and insights from representatives from both fields on how to share successful strategies and overcome challenges.

“I think the reason we’ve been successful in…the Homicide Review Commission is we have been successful in developing these relationships,” O’Brien said. “We’re not focusing purely on a law enforcement response but a collaborative response.”

The newly released report on the first session is available here, and a report on the second will be forthcoming in 2012.

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