In the first nine months of this year, Cedar Rapids saw more incidents of gun violence than it has in any full year since police started keeping track.
According to police data, 2018 had been the worst with a total of 117 shots-fired incidents. But this year, the number of shots-fired incidents soared to 131, and that was only through the end of September.
When it comes to quelling gun violence, there is no institution, no organization, no setting, no conventional method and no one-size-fits-all solution that will work.
Instead, said David Kennedy — founder of the National Network for Safe Communities and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City — tackling the issue of violence means taking a whole-community approach and addressing long-standing issues of inequity, oppression, discrimination, disadvantage and fear.
“My office is very blunt about this: Violence is visited with massive disproportion on people and communities of color in the United States,” Kennedy said during his address Friday as a keynote speaker at The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas virtual conference. “Black men are about 6 percent of the nation and they are about 50 percent of the homicide deaths. … We live in a country where if you cannot finish high school, one in three Black men will go to prison. It is not OK.
“Communities that have to live with that level of violence and fear and trauma and that level of the failure of our state institutions, none of this is OK.
“These communities of color and concentrated disadvantage where violence presents itself did not create themselves,” Kennedy said. “They weren’t created by outside forces — they were created by white folks, they were created by government and business that made decisions to make them as they are. They have been oppressed, they have been neglected and they are subjected to all of the root cause issues that have been recognized forever — bad schools, lack of family support, food deserts, transportation issues, health care problems — all of that is true. And they deserve all the help that we can give them.”
The National Network of Safe Communities is a research center that works with communities to reduce violence, minimize arrest and incarceration and increase trust between law enforcement and the public using a “Group Violence Intervention” model. That model involves addressing peer dynamics in a group that promotes violence — offering group members an “honorable exit” from committing acts of violence and providing a supported path for those who want to change.
When it comes to violence, the facts are the same regardless of the community’s size or location, Kennedy said:
“Homicide and gun violence (are) concentrated among a very, very small population of extremely active folks. Most of them, most of the time are not operating as individuals, but as part of recognizable groups and networks of different kinds. The high risk folks are in gangs, they’re in drug neighborhoods, they’re in crews, they’re in cliques, they’re in posses — however you want to say it — they overwhelmingly are extremely active on the street and criminally in a variety of ways — they are not specialists. They mostly hurt one another, and that cycle of vendetta and retaliation is very familiar to anybody who has dealt directly with these issues. That’s really what drives the action.”
Group violence is seldom about money or drugs, Kennedy said. Instead “it’s (about) respect and disrespect and social friction of different kinds.”
And though gun violence is a multilayered issue, Kennedy said the solution to reducing it consists of “remarkably common-sense engagement with that small high-risk group.”
“You get a core partnership of city and community service providers and folks with a natural standing in their community, you enter into sustained direct engagement with these folks who are at high risk, and you say to them: ‘We love you. We want you to succeed. You deserve and we want you to be safe, alive and free. We don’t want you to be hurt, we don’t want you to hurt anybody else and we don’t want you to go to jail.”
In Oakland, Calif., where the model has been used for about seven years, Kennedy said homicides and gun violence are down by about 60 percent and arrests are down by 80 percent.
This fall, a “transformational” grant of $465,000 over three years was awarded to a program based at the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation and involving Linn County, Cedar Rapids and the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
The Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities program will use the grant to support the group violence intervention model locally.
Recognizing a community’s trauma, homing in on those at highest risk and addressing their needs, providing them with safety and security and showing them that their lives are valued is often profoundly impactful, Kennedy said.
“This work is a way, not only of saving lives and creating public safety,” Kennedy said. “It’s a way of resetting relationships between communities and police and producing a fundamentally better kind of criminal justice, and I could not be more excited about that at the beginning of this work in Iowa and in Cedar Rapids.”
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