Government

Task force issues 5 recommendations in addressing teen gun violence in Cedar Rapids

The work is just beginning, leaders say

(File Photo) James Baugh, 16, signs a pledge against gun violence at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. l. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
(File Photo) James Baugh, 16, signs a pledge against gun violence at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. l. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A task force convened following a rash of teen shootings more than a year ago in Cedar Rapids has concluded a wide-ranging review of the systemic causes of youth gun violence with a series of recommendations.

Those recommendations were presented Tuesday to the Cedar Rapids City Council and task force leaders have asked to present the information to the Linn County Board of Supervisors and the Cedar Rapids school board.

“Our working theory was if we can improve economic prospects of individuals living in the most impoverished areas, we could decrease incidents of violence overall, particularly gun-related violence,” Stacey Walker, a co-chairman of the Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Task Force, told the City Council.

Walker, a Linn County Supervisor, and Mary Wilcynski, a visiting professor at Coe College and former school principal, led the 19-person task force, which included subcommittees focused on housing, education, law enforcement, economic opportunities, outreach and community engagement and programming.

Community leaders began working on the topic in September 2015, after the shooting death of Aaron Richardson, 15, but the problems quickly gained more attention. Shortly after the task force was officially commissioned, at least three more teens were involved in two more gun-related fatalities last March.

The task force studied a variety of direct and indirect issues related to youth gun violence driving past surface level, divisive arguments over gun control to consider the matter from a public health perspective. They looked at factors such as barriers to quality jobs and housing for parents, training for law enforcement and how they interact with different ethnic groups, and developing a personalized plan for each student who walks across the high school graduation stage.

“We want to lift people up and out of poverty, but also out of despair and out of a life where you feel it doesn’t matter anyway,” said Wilcynski.

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Each of the subcommittees identified a handful of objectives tailored to the topic, and the report presented these five recommendations:

— ‘Ban the box,’ which would remove the box on hiring forms that applicants must check if they’ve been convicted of a felony. The task force members said this would make hiring more inclusive for those with lower level felonies.

— Establish a regional public-private housing entity to provide insight on affordable housing challenges.

— Professional development for law enforcement to improve intercultural relations.

— Adopt best practices from President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

— Develop a web-based search system to replicate the 2-1-1 help line supported by the United Way of East Central Iowa.

The question is what happens next?

Do local leaders in the city, school district and county, which supported the creation of the task force to the tune of $10,000 each, take up the recommendations or do the months of research, analysis and solutions outlined in a 67-page booklet remain on the shelf?

“It is real slick, pretty report, but if it sits on somebody’s desk or in a file, it’s all for nothing,” Wilcynski said, urging the council to act or offer counter solutions. “To say we are done would be the biggest crime for our kids right now.”

Walker said he and Wilcynski hope to present the report around the community to organizations, business leaders, foundations and anyone interested in learning about the research, the methodology and the recommendations.

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It’s not clear how Cedar Rapids City Council members will incorporate the recommendations, but Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said the city’s role will likely be one of assisting and convening public discussion. The city has a track record putting plans into action, such as studies showing the need for urban housing or redeveloping Kingston Village, he said.

“The council has shown we don’t just take these reports and stick them on the shelf,” Corbett said. “Violence in the community is more than just a city government issue, but we’ll do our part of implementing the task force recommendations.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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