Columbus leaders look at national crime prevention initiative

Columbus' most violent neighborhoods have some commonalities.

One is abandoned property -- vacant, dilapidated, boarded-up houses, trailers, apartments and stores. Another is a low-cost attempt at personal security some residents employ -- fences, barbed wire, "private property" and "no trespassing" signs, and dogs, often intimidating breeds such as pit bulls. A third is a prevalence of young men out on the street -- the older ones jobless, the younger ones out of school. A fourth is clutter -- trash strewn through lots, junk piled in yards.

This was what Frank Perez of the national initiative Cure Violence saw Tuesday as Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and Police Chief Ricky Boren took him on a tour of the city police beats with the highest frequency of violent crimes.

The most violent beat was designated No. 9, running along Victory Drive from the Chattahoochee River to Cusseta Road, encompassing mobile home parks along Plateau Drive and Bull Creek. Two shootings happened there just this week.

The second highest area for violent crime combined two beats, No. 14 and 15, running from Wilson Homes to the river. Ranked third was police beat No. 3, an area adjacent to beat No. 9, also along Victory Drive but farther south, bordered partly by Fort Benning Road.

The mayor invited Cure Violence director Perez and founder Gary Slutkin to Columbus this week to explore how their strategy could work here.

Their strategy is to treat violence like a contagious disease that will spread if not contained and treated.

It's a concept Slutkin, a physician, came up with after seeing charts showing violence comes in waves, with peaks and valleys just like a communicable disease, such as tuberculosis or cholera. One infected individual, if not treated early, can start an epidemic, a wave that rises, falls and rises again.

Also like a disease, violence clusters in a specific area, like in Columbus' beat No. 9.

The Cure Violence approach works like this: Paid workers called "interrupters" go to the emergency room when a gunshot victim comes in, to talk not only to the person wounded, but to his friends and family, to persuade them that the consequences of retaliation are not worth it. After that initial encounter, outreach workers follow up and work the neighborhood to try to head off further conflicts.

Another component is a public education campaign to promote nonviolent responses to perceived insults.

The key is that violence begets violence, Slutkin told educators and law enforcement officers during a presentation Wednesday at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. Getting gunshot victims to value their own lives enough to change their behavior is one goal. Talking allies out of seeking revenge is part of the approach, too. But the contagion may not end there.

The trauma of violence can infect any witness, making the person "hyper-vigilant" and "easily triggered" by any insult or potential threat, Slutkin said.

Where that attitude becomes common, a "social expectation" of violence develops. Even an unintended offense may provoke gunfire, as the aggrieved party fears losing the respect of peers, Slutkin said.

The "interrupters" that Cure Violence trains come from the neighborhoods they work. Sometimes they're ex-cons or former gangbangers. The program model requires "credible messengers" whose clients see them as their peers and part of their community, not outsiders of another race and social class, Slutkin said.

Said Perez: "The community has to buy into this. We have to get back to old-fashioned community organizing."

One advantage is that once residents become familiar with the idea, they will call a Cure Violence staff worker to give tips they would never give police, like when a mother knows her son is loading up for an assault. "Mom isn't going to call police on her kid, in most circumstances," Slutkin said.

Perez said the program is needed because cities can't afford violence: "It costs too much money." Most gunshot victims from poor neighborhoods don't have health insurance, and the public winds up paying the estimated $25,000-$45,000 that treating one bullet wound costs, plus another $45,000 or so to prosecute the assailant.

The Cure Violence program costs money, too -- an estimated $250,000 a year for the seven-person team it would take to handle one of Columbus' crime clusters, though that team probably could cover two adjacent police beats. The program usually runs three years.

Studies have shown that in just one year, the program can reduce violence 40-70 percent by targeting the 4 to 6 percent of the area population that's causing 75 to 80 percent of the violence, Perez said.

Tomlinson said she believes Columbus can find the money for a homegrown Cure Violence team without dipping into the city's public safety budget. Grants, foundations and public health agencies could chip in the $750,000 needed for a three-year team, she said. "I really don't think money's going to be a problem," she said.

Cure Violence gets funding from the MacArthur Foundation, which paid for Perez and Slutkin to visit Columbus, she said, adding that Cure Violence is much in demand both in the United States and overseas. If people here don't embrace the idea, its proponents will find others who do. "We might not make their cut," she said.

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