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Strategies for stopping community violence discussed

5th November 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Zoe Sullivan
Contributing Writer

Community members, public officials and academics gathered in Loyola University’s auditorium on Friday, October 26 for a symposium focused on turning around the city’s violence. Police Chief Ronal Serpas and Health Commissioner Karen DeSalvo shared the podium with experts such as David Kennedy, Director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College in New York City. Each talk focused on different strategies for understanding crime and stopping it in communities.

The morning began with a heckler who called the New Orleans Police Department the “largest armed gang in New Orleans.” Serpas explained to the crowd some of the factors associated with violent crime, such as unemployment. He said that nine out of 10 murderers or victims are unemployed, and he also noted that the parties involved generally knew each other. Serpas also pointed out that while the city has traditionally had a much higher murder rate than the national average, one of the issues his department faces is people’s unwillingness to talk to the police and report those who have killed.

Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson spoke about the way that poverty and inequality intersect with crime in Chicago. Sampson’s project on human development involved 6,200 children in 343 Chicago neighborhoods. He described the tremendous impact that “concentrated disadvantage” has on children, offering statistics that showed disproportionately large numbers of African-American children falling into this category of intense poverty. Sampson argued that “We cannot think of neighborhoods as isolated units of analysis,” and affirmed that simply removing low-income housing does not end the crime often associated with these places. He described “legacies of inequality” that feed into the social problems associated with crime, and affirmed that counteracting persistent inequality requires “durable policies” focused in this direction.

Human relationships and community involvement were two of the key elements that Sampson identified as reducing “violence and disorder.” “Collective efficacy” is a group’s ability to work together to affect a neighborhood. According to Sampson, increases in collective efficacy correlate to a drop in homicides.

“Education or the lack thereof, is one of the key pathways to crime,” Sampson told the audience. “The pipeline to prison goes through school.” 70 percent of Black male high school dropouts spend time in prison, according to Sampson’s presentation, and he noted that racial disparities in school discipline show up at an early age, setting children on a path towards social inclusion or exclusion.

Commissioner DeSalvo des­cribed violence as “contagious,” but explained that public health also offers “a framework for thinking about prevention” that “inherently focuses on place.” DeSalvo explained that living in a community with a high crime rate has negative health effects on residents, such as high blood pressure. One of the reasons for this is that there is a high stress level associated with being around violence, and this generates greater wear and tear on the body that accumulates over time leading to issues such as heart disease.

DeSalvo showed a map highlighting the parts of New Orleans with the highest murder rates: Central City, St. Roch, the 7th Ward, New Orleans East. But she also pointed out that these communities also suffer from other plagues, such as lead in the soil, sexually transmitted infections and low literacy levels. One result is that the average life expectancy in these areas is 25 years fewer than in other parts of the city.

In her presentation, DeSalvo emphasized that one Landrieu administration goal is to ensure that all New Orleanians life in safe communities with access to recreational facilities such as parks. She described the multi-pronged ap­proach that the City is taking to this issue: stopping the shootings, investing in prevention, promoting jobs and education, and improving the New Orleans Police Department.

One new strategy that DeSalvo unveiled will focus on the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, which provides food to expectant mothers and small children. “60 percent of the babies in our parish are eligible” for WIC, DeSalvo told the audience, also noting that there is “a pattern of murder associated with people who have been in our WIC program.” Since thousands of people use the service, she explained, it also offers a way to connect WIC recipients to information and other social services. As an example, DeSalvo explained how domestic violence screenings could help women escape abusive situations. The expanded program is still in its planning stages, and is not yet operational.

While DeSalvo described the effort to connect real jobs, housing and other services to WIC recipients, David Kennedy discussed the way that community members and police officers can work together to reduce crime. “Mom today trumps the feds maybe three years from now. And if we can actually get these community voices in the right place saying the right things to these people, it is transformative.” Kennedy made clear that there are actually a very small number of people driving violent crime, as a result, they are easily identifiable.

Kennedy’s initiative encourages community members to step forward and make clear that they do not condone violence while also asking the police to engage differently with those at risk of committing violent crimes. New Orleans’ began implementing this strategy the evening prior to the symposium. One critical element of this latter aspect involves officers informing at-risk individuals of the consequences of their actions, such as being caught with a firearm. This approach treats those involved with crime as responsible, moral adults who are capable of making choices. As a result, they can choose to behave differently.

This element of respect formed a critical part of Kennedy’s proposal, and formed the basis for transforming relations between Black communities and law enforcement. He explained that the common ground for communities, police and offenders includes the desire to have a safe community; controlling the most dangerous offenders, and ending profligate, ineffective enforcement.

This article originally published in the November 05, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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