SAVANNAH, Ga. — Representatives from the nine sites participating in the federal Minority Youth Violence Prevention initiative gathered in Savannah, Georgia to share accomplishments, learn from common challenges, and plan for how best to carry the work forward.
The March gathering marked the beginning of the third year of the initiative’s first round, which is funded by the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS Office. The Center for Court Innovation is providing technical assistance and coordinating and evaluating the work of the nine first-round sites.
With the aim of reducing violence committed by and against minority youth, the initiative's organizing focus is on deepening the collaboration between law enforcement and public health agencies, and encouraging police departments to adopt what is known as a “public health” approach to violence prevention.
In a public health model, police focus on prevention, rather than only reacting after the fact to the same recurring phenomena. This can involve treating violence in the manner of a disease: collaborating with other agencies and community-based groups to identify and disrupt the social, behavioral, and environmental factors that fuel violence, akin to the way public health officials take a multi-faceted approach to addressing the sources of outbreaks and contagion.
However, at least in the early days, the collaboration part could feel like something of an uphill struggle. In an interview between panels, Dr. Alexis Bakos, Senior Advisor at the Office of Minority Health, observed that before law enforcement could learn to trust public health officials, they had an even bigger difficulty to surmount: understanding their jargon. “I actually had one officer say to me that when public health people were speaking it sounded sometimes like they were speaking Greek,” Bakos says. “He said he literally didn’t understand half of the conversation.”
For their part, Bakos says, public health officials had to overcome what could be a wariness of police officers, and a reluctance to share information out of fear of bringing unwanted scrutiny to the young people they work with. In the end, though, everyone came together over the goal of helping young people.
Certainly, few could dispute the urgency of a new approach: in 2014, almost half of the deaths of African-American men between the ages of 15 and 24 were a result of homicide. For young white males, by contrast, the corresponding figure was only 6.5 percent.
For law enforcement, violence prevention in minority communities means first and foremost working to repair relationships damaged by decades of a now widely-acknowledged historical mistreatment, and by the ongoing, high-profile tragic interactions between police officers and civilians. Distrust, however, can run in both directions.
As Captain Lenny Gunther of the Savannah Chatham Metro police told the summit as part of the welcoming panel, officers working with Youth Intercept, the local violence prevention site, “didn’t get it initially.” He says skeptical officers initially dismissed the new approach as “hug-a-thug.” As emerged in a workshop session on 'Common Themes and Challenges,' getting initial buy-in from officers could be difficult and it was often hard for officers to see the immediate impact of their participation.
Reflecting on the accounts provided by representatives of the sites, Patrice Howard, who manages the violence-prevention grants for the COPS Office, recognizes that the non-traditional focus on violence as a public health issue encountered some resistance among members of the law enforcement community. But she says the COPS Office was excited to partner with the Office of Minority Health to support the initiative because exposing more officers to the new approach provides them with firsthand experience of the difference the work is making in young people’s lives. As Howard explains, “It’s important that officers and community partners who are doing the work find ways to continue to support each other and spread the message of the effectiveness of this approach.”
Along those lines, as participants in breakout sessions pointed out, it was forming real connections with young people at the nine sites that allowed officers to develop relationships “outside their uniforms” and personalize their investments in the communities they serve.
Eager to make the most of this potential, the nine sites employed a range of strategies to create opportunities for dialogue and mentorship. Cassandra Tucker, a sergeant with the Cincinnati police and part of its Children in Trauma Intervention program, explained as part of a discussion called 'What Did We Do Differently?' that officers “need to show young people that we are real, just like they are, and that we go through things, just like they do." Raphalla Richardson, part of Binghamton, New York’s violence-prevention site, offered a vivid example of getting outside the typical boundaries of police-young people interactions. "We had officers in full tactical gear coloring cupcakes with girls.”
Many participants were also quick to cite the importance of developing partnerships. Mirroring the unique federal collaboration between the COPS Office and the Office of Minority Health, various sites described different ways in which they assembled interdisciplinary teams to roll out programming, plan community events, develop strategies for engaging parents, leverage limited resources, and figure out how to best evaluate their work and understand the data.
Participants also spent time discussing the issue of trauma. Many of the sites employ what are known as “trauma-informed practices” for working with young people who have witnessed or been the victims of violence. At the summit, however, the focus was as much on the trauma experienced by staff working with those young people.
In a session entitled, 'Vicarious Trauma: Healing the Healer,' Dr. Mayowa Obasaju, a staff psychologist at New York’s Barnard College, led participants through a list of trauma symptoms and encouraged everyone engaged in the work of violence prevention to learn to recognize the signs of burnout. As she explained, “you need to put on your own oxygen mask first.”
The nine sites receiving grants under the violence-prevention initiative have one year left in this first round of funding. Many of them are applying to have that funding renewed when the next cohort of sites is picked in 2018, but it is clear the work will carry on regardless. A majority of the first-round sites existed prior to the recent federal initiative, and, as the lively discussions at the summit made clear, all of them will be able to apply the lessons they’ve learned over the life of the grant to their work and long-term sustainability going forward.
To aid in that effort, in a presentation entitled 'Tell Your Story,' summit participants heard from a communications specialist on how sites should pitch their work to prospective funders and how best to use the data they collect to illustrate the impact they’re having in their communities. That said, the overarching imperative driving the work is perhaps not one requiring a sophisticated communications strategy. As one participant at the summit put it, “these kids have unlimited potential.”
Disclaimer: This web page is funded in part through a grant from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions contained herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. References to specific agencies, companies, products, or services should not be considered an endorsement by the author(s) or the U.S. Department of Justice. Rather, references are illustrations to supplement discussion of the issues.