Spreading a Cure for Crime

Crime and violence in communities across the country is a “truly preventable issue,” according to Dr. J. Nadine Gracia, deputy assistant secretary for minority health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

stop crimeGracia joined police chiefs, public health professionals, funders, and other federal leaders at The California Endowment in Los Angeles, a round table to discuss lessons from the public health field for the prevention of violence. This was the third in a series of discussions about public health approaches to improving public safety and community health convened by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), The California Endowment, and the Center for Court Innovation. These conversations have encouraged police to obtain new data, to exchange information to craft collaborative strategies, and to forge ongoing partnerships with local health and other government agencies as well as the community. As COPS Office Director Ronald L. Davis put it: “What does policing look like in the 21st Century? How should police departments be structured? What issues should police be involved in? And how?”

Violence is a major public health issue. Even though crime on average has decreased across the country, violence in some communities results in large costs—financial, physical, and emotional. If crime and violence are the illnesses plaguing communities, then relationships, social capital, and being able to trust police are some of the antidotes, said Dr. Tony Iton, senior vice president at The California Endowment. “If you want to change an environment, you have to change many systems,” Iton said.

COPS Office Director Davis has been involved in all three roundtable discussions, and, as former East Palo Alto (California) Police Chief, began FIT Zones, a project that implemented health-related programs like yoga and dancing in public spaces that had been overtaken by gang members. Results of a recent evaluation show that FIT Zones were successful in reducing shootings.

At the round table discussion, there was a distinct focus on youth violence prevention, especially among minority populations. Reshma Mahendra, public health advisor at the Centers for Disease Control’s Division of Violence Prevention, introduced a health-justice framework that seeks to tie together a common vision, a common language, and complementary strategies for reducing youth violence and promoting well-being. “All children and youth deserve equal access to health care, housing, education, justice, freedom from harm, and nurturing and supporting families and communities,” the framework asserts.

At the local level, emerging practices from Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New Haven, Philadelphia, and Seattle were highlighted. “We’re moving from ‘law enforcement’ to ‘policing’ to ‘public safety,’” said Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Nola Joyce. “We’re providing officers with a tourniquet. We do scoop and run [which allows police officers to act as transport to hospitals when they encounter someone who has been injured]. We do antidotes to heroin overdoses. Those practices are expanding, at the ground level, what policing is about.”

According to Joe Brann, who was the founding director of the COPS Office: “This isn’t about policing per se or public health per se; it’s about something different. It’s about mobilizing the community so it becomes a co-producer of public safety.”

“What is 21st century leadership and how do police fit this model?” asked San Mateo (California) Police Chief Susan Manheimer. “I think we should be the resource brokers in the community.”

Chief Dean Esserman of New Haven, Connecticut suggested structuring police departments in a way that would introduce these new prevention strategies to new recruits so that public health strategies really take hold in the long term. Like a teaching hospital, Chief Esserman said, “We like to see ourselves as a teaching police department.”

Dr. Gracia stressed the importance of knowing the different cultures within the community, and Baltimore Police Commissioner Tony Batts agreed. “If you’re going to respond to the community, you have to know the community,” Batts said. “All these models connect the same way—we’re sitting down with the community, asking them what they need, trying to give them power back, and looking at empirical data to help those efforts.”

Batts represents new leadership in a city that has long struggled with crime. “I grew up as a poor kid in south central Los Angeles, wondering if I’d survive or not,” Batts said. “But there are pockets of trust even in mistrustful environments.”

Sarah Schweig
Senior Writer
Center for Court Innovation

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