Kansas City: It's About Interpersonal Relationships

 

Violence, particularly among youth, is an epidemic in American cities. Youth violence is the leading cause of injury and death for young people aged 10-24 years old, and in many of the country’s largest jurisdictions, homicides and violent crime rose significantly in the first half of 2015. 

Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence reports that 46 million of the nation’s 76 million children - roughly 60 percent - are exposed each year to violence, crime and abuse. The result: the nation pays a high price in lives, money and in lost potential.

Those who experience repeated exposure to violence can begin to process the experiences as something that is part of normal social life. Consistent exposure to violence at home or in the community can become desensitizing to individuals. Violence makes it hard to feel safe, leading to anxiety, depression, less physical activity in communities, and social isolation.


Kansas City officials began addressing violence as a contagious disease a decade ago. That’s when a city-appointed commission issued a report recommending that violence be treated like a public health issue, not from a traditional policing approach, to reduce the city’s consistently high annual homicide rates.

Homicides, along with aggravated assaults and firearm assaults, were “happening at an epidemic level,” says Tracie McClendon-Cole, Justice Program Manager and director of Aim4Peace program at the Kansas City Health Department. Rather than believing violence is inevitable, Kansas City officials today see violence as an unacceptable learned behavior resulting from preventable and controllable factors, including family instability, poverty, domestic abuse, educational failure and substance abuse.

Accordingly, officials have put in place a series of strategies to “cure” violence, especially retaliatory violence. Treating violence as an epidemic has gotten eye-catching results in the city. For example, the city’s Aim4Peace Violence Prevention Program, which operates in the one-tenth of the city’s neighborhoods with the highest rates of killings and shootings, has seen a 70-percent reduction in the number of homicides between 2010 and 2014.

“Violence is definitely a public health issue,” notes McClendon-Cole, adding the sections of the city with the highest violence rates were also those with some of the highest health disparities and inequities. “We began to see some patterns emerging,” she says. For example, retaliations and arguments were the main reasons for homicides and these were driven by firearms, particularly handguns.

Public health officials “know how to stop epidemics,” McClendon-Cole notes. Putting in place a public health-focused program that interrupted the transmission of violence, prevented it from spreading and changed group norms was essential. City officials looked at the evidence and considered 50 different anti-violence programs worldwide. One stood out: a Chicago-based effort that today is called Cure Violence, for both its potential to be replicable and its focus on cultivating interpersonal relationships.

Kansas City created Aim4Peace, which looks at violence as a learned behavior, and sets out to rewire some of those learned behaviors by those who are most prone to retaliate after a violent act. “We engage people in the community who are at the highest risk of the disease spreading,” says Rashid Junaid, the department’s violence prevention manager. “We try to interrupt that process.”      

In the city’s East Patrol section, they use a proactive team of first responders who work to change the language, expectations and responses to violence with those closest to the victims of a violent act in order to prevent retaliatory violence. Supported by a partnership involving schools, police, faith-based organizations, hospitals, and neighborhood and civic associations, the effort works to identify high-risk individuals (loved ones of those who’ve been the victim of violent crime, for example), interrupt the spread of retaliatory violence, change behaviors of victims and offenders, and reshape community norms around violent behavior.

To do so, the city sends “credible messengers,” respected individuals from the community, who can help to calm individuals after violence erupts and broker peace within high-risk neighborhoods.

The City has a core group of 25 outreach workers and violence interrupters to be called upon to intervene. Aim4Peace workers also are embedded in the Truman Medical Center’s trauma team. Program workers are notified as soon someone arrives with an intentional penetrating injury (i.e. a gun or knife wound) in order to work with victims and loved ones to mediate conflict and change expectations around retaliation.

Aim4Peace is heavy on conflict resolution and mediation and does so via neighborhood outreach teams as well as the hospital prevention program.

Kansas City’s violence prevention program has broad support, and is funded in part by a voter-approved “Health Levy.” A 2013 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) grant is enabling the city to expand the program beyond the target area. In addition to reducing homicides by 75 percent in the target zone, the citywide homicide rate fell 28 percent between 2010 and 2014.