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Opinion: Time to reconsider public health approaches to curbing Baltimore’s gun violence

Picture of Lawrence Grandpre

Lawrence Grandpre

Director of Research
Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle

Community violence interventions — public health approaches to gun violence prevention that include street mediation and life coaching — have been promoted as ways to reduce violence through means other than more policing and more police funding.

CVI may be a step above policing, but the question now is whether the communities most affected by violence will be empowered to control the burgeoning CVI industry, and whether CVI will become a new public health mask on the same punitive system.

Since gun violence disproportionately impacts Black communities, this issue would seem to call for deference to institutions that have expertise in addressing the complex historical and economic conditions that drive violence in those communities. In Baltimore, this can be seen in programs such as the Baltimore Peace Movement — formerly known as Baltimore Ceasefire 365 — and We Our Us.

Many in the city have seen these community-based programs at work. But in terms of funding, they too often compete for what are essentially crumbs. The federal government has provided expansive guidelines for “evidence-based strategiesfor community violence intervention, including seemingly anti-community efforts such as installing more bulletproof glass and surveillance cameras. While the recent federal gun safety bill allocated $250 million for CVI initiatives, the bill says organizations must apply for “competitive” federal grants, meaning they will have to compete against proposals that include more politically palatable CVI measures such as surveillance cameras.

They also will probably have to compete against each other, creating a dynamic in which organizations with more political and academic clout are likely to outcompete more grassroots nonprofits. Take the example of Roca, a CVI nonprofit well known for its work in the Boston area that is now working in Baltimore. The organization’s approaches include cognitive behavioral therapy to target individuals at the highest risk of being victimized by violence or committing violent crimes, using an explicitly clinical health services approach. This approach is distinct from that of the Baltimore Peace Movement or We Our Us, which have taken a more communal and spiritual approach to their work, addressing the entire community through events such as community walks instead of targeting the highest-risk individuals.

There should not be an “either/or” choice between these two approaches, but one need only look at guidelines for CVI grantmaking to see that more health services/high-risk individual approaches are preferred in grantmaking. Even “trauma informed care,” a practice programs such as the Baltimore Peace Movement and We Our Us would seem to excel in, are often explicitly defined through the lens of providing clinical health services. This means their experience in addressing community trauma in a spiritual manner would not count as highly on their grant applications. Roca has achieved a kind of stamp of approval from the business community and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. So, while programs such as the Baltimore Peace Movement have evidence proving they are successful at decreasing violence, they are likely to miss out in a funding battle against organizations like Roca. Roca programs in this region being awarded millions in state and federal funds reflects this dynamic.

Focusing on mental health, so that disease becomes the source of violence, has its limitations. It can contribute to the false conclusion that, rather than Black communities being victims of structural violence that leads to street violence, these communities themselves are the vectors of the “disease” of gun violence. Under such a conclusion, outside interventions (i.e., public health professionals) would be seen as needing to swoop in and control the epidemic of violence.

This kind of approach is fundamentally at odds with many theories and practices of the Black community regarding gun violence prevention. The 1992 gang truce between the Bloods and Crips has been credited with decreasing gun violence in Los Angeles and it was brokered by community members who were seeking not to demonize these young men and women, but to engage them respectfully from the perspective of diplomacy. In 1999, a study on community-run patrols in Chicago public housing showed these to be effective anti-violence strategies, with the patrols under the management of a company tied to the Nation of Islam finding success in decreasing violent crimes.

It is essential to build an infrastructure of CVI services based not on the assumption that our communities are diseased, but that they already hold the cure for violence or have the ability to find it.

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