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Contagion Effect: Treating gang violence like a public health epidemic

By Sara Danish

May 16, 2017   |   0 comments

How officials can shift tactics from a war on people to a war on violence

Los Angeles—Did you know that this city’s war on gangs in the 1970s resulted in an increase in gangs and gang activity?

This decades-long public investment in a suppressive, law-and-order model led to increased incarcerations, as well as homicides and other violent crime. The violence was contagious, serving as the backdrop for the infamous 1991 Rodney King beating by members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The violence and discrimination went unabated until the early 2000s.

Thanks to tireless efforts of civil rights and community activists like Connie Rice and some city officials’ willingness to reflect on their public policy failings, Los Angeles slowly pivoted from declaring war on its people to declaring war on violence.

Sara Danish, Management Associate for Creative’s Citizen Security Practice Area.

The shift began to look at gang violence though a public health lens, equating it to an epidemic. And much like health professionals tackle a quickly spreading disease, efforts began to address the factors that spark and sustain gang violence.

City officials worked to address deep racism within the LAPD and set up initiatives like the Gang Reduction and Youth Development Office in 2007, which promoted community activities in public parks and family counseling interventions for youth most at risk of joining gangs.

As a result, Los Angeles has experienced dramatic reductions in violence while helping to build youth, family and community resilience. Gang Reduction and Youth Development Office is so effective that some elements are being adapted and exported to other cities struggling to reduce violence, both in the United States and abroad. Creative Associates International’s Proponte Más violence prevention program in Honduras is one such example.

I recently attended the 2017 Los Angeles Gang Prevention and Intervention Conference, where outreach workers, faith-based groups and international implementers, like Creative, illustrated the power of treating violence with a public health approach.

A public health approach begins with the premise that violence is an illness that can be treated through prevention, intervention and recovery. The Urban Peace Institute, which trains gang interventionists, stressed that treatment across these three phases requires self-reflection, compassion and empathy. It requires blending street science with social science.

Experts also said we must focus on vulnerable people and pay attention to behaviors that can signal a risk of joining gangs. And our efforts must reach into all major institutions within a community – we need to be in the streets, schools, hospitals and prisons to facilitate a sense of youth belonging and reduce risk.

Taking violence prevention to the streets

Chicago, a member of the National Network for Safe Communities, introduced a partnership between law enforcement and community outreach workers, known as Custom Notifications, to make door-to-door visits to youth involved in gang activity.

The Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy team processes more than 1,000 of these notifications each year. It started with parents asking for a professional to intervene in the aftermath of a gang shooting, fearing that their child would engage in retaliatory violence.

The calls were successful because a credible, visible community member facilitated discussion alongside law enforcement.

Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy is helping reduce repeat offenses. It also generates referrals for what Christopher Malette of Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy calls “the big small stuff,” such as clothes for an interview, a driver’s license or tattoo removal which all help youth to find alternatives to gang activity.

Working within the school system

After-school sports and activities are helpful, but alone are not enough to stop the most at-risk youth from joining gangs. Mentoring and other one-on-one programs are making a difference to rectify the school-to-prison pipeline that resulted from zero-tolerance disciplinary policy.

However, school staff need better training on detecting and diagnosing behavior problems. Research in the United States and United Kingdom shows that many gang-involved youth have experienced trauma, such as childhood neglect, exposure to persistent violence and sexual abuse.

Acting out in class, often treated as a disciplinary problem or associated with other issues like attention deficit disorder, can be a sign of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Working with teachers to identify and provide support to at-risk students can be an effective step to reducing a young person’s chances of joining a gang.

Partnering with hospitals

The Southern California Crossroads Trauma Recovery Center is a powerful partnership between medical professionals, gang outreach workers and researchers to help gang members following hospital discharge. Crossroads targets “repeat customers” to the emergency room or youth with repeat exposure to gang violence.

It helps clients develop coping mechanisms, skills needed for maintaining inter-personal relationships, and provides ongoing counseling and job placement.

Reaching into prisons

Incarcerated youth exhibit higher levels of PTSD, suggesting that we need more healthcare professionals in detention centers. Support for recovery for incarcerated gang members takes many forms.

Working out of California, 2nd Call uses restorative justice techniques with prison inmates to help them reflect on their anger and express their emotions over an intense weeks-long healing exercise. Its work is helping ex-convicts give and receive compassion, and return as healthy members of their communities, contributing to declines in gang violence and recidivism rates.

Final thoughts

My second time attending the Gang Prevention and Intervention Conference showed me that we cannot overstate the importance of treating violence as a public health challenge. We need to further advocate for trauma-informed interventions across settings, from the streets to schools.

And while it’s important for outreach workers and law enforcement to “stay in their lanes,” we must work to establish positive relationships between communities and law enforcement – this builds trust and helps to diffuse tensions before they escalate to violence.

Among fellow practitioners, we need to monitor and rigorously evaluate interventions and impact and the cross-agency mechanisms like the Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy Office that sustain necessary political and institutional support.

Anything worth doing is worth measuring. And the inspiring strength of my colleagues is drawn from measuring the impact of their interventions, which are spreading hope. Thankfully, that’s contagious too.