Experts urge comprehensive approach to reduce violence

CITY HALL – A staff member for the St. Louis Mental Health Board cautioned members of an aldermanic committee on Tuesday against putting their hopes in a single anti-violence program.

Asked about the highly touted Cure Violence program, Serena Muhammad said it could be effective as part of a larger mix of remedies. But she said, “I don’t think that one program by itself will address the problems that we have in the city.”

Muhammad, the director of strategic initiatives for the Mental Health Board, told members of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee, “Hopefully, Cure Violence will be part of a comprehensive approach.”

Cure Violence works to address the issue of violent crime as a public health crisis, treating it like a disease. There have been reports of sharp declines in shootings and killings in areas throughout the world that have adopted the approach. Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed has introduced legislation seeking $8 million to implement it throughout the city.

Cure Violence uses “violence interrupters” who try to intervene in situations in neighborhoods before they get out of hand.

The committee spent more than an hour listening to Muhammad and Jessica Meyers, coordinator of the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission, talk about ways to reduce shootings and killings.

Muhammad spoke about a progression of violence.

“There is data that suggests that most folks who commit violence start off with small incidents like robberies and carjackings when they’re younger, and move to serious crimes and progression into homicides,” Muhammad said. 

That’s important to know when talking about the root causes and the need to intervene, Muhammad said.

“It’s not just about treating the individual,” Muhammad said. “We’re also talking about community-level strategy.”

Muhammad also said, “Anything that has been proven to work, you need to scale it so it reaches the population level.”

“There are enough strategies around to keep everybody busy,” Muhammad said.

One major problem she mentioned is that programs that may not work to fix violence are getting enough funding, while those that need more money aren’t getting it. 

Meyers mentioned a case of an anti-violence strategy that worked under one leader but not another.

In 2003, when the murder rate was especially low, police promised not to prosecute a juvenile or a family if they seized a weapon. When they got a tip that someone had a weapon, they would go to a home and ask if those at the home would allow a search. In the first year of the program, 98 percent of the households allowed the search, and 402 firearms were seized. 

After that, the strategy and leadership changed. The focus changed to arresting juvenile offenders. As a result, the number of weapons seized dropped sharply, as did the percentage of people who voluntarily allowed people to come into houses. 

Meyers said that leadership in such a process was best done when it came from a community.

She said violence prevention came in various forms. Workforce development is violence prevention, health care is violence prevention and education is violence prevention, she explained.

Meyers said her organization was a regional organization that covered St. Louis and St. Louis County. About 60 organizations have signed membership charters with her group.

“We really feel that we are on the way, but there is no single answer to youth violence,” Meyers said.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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