Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Oak Creek, Sandy Hook Elementary and now the Navy Yard in D.C. As if on cue, the cycle begins: A mass shooting. Around-the-clock media coverage as politicians and pundits march to opine whether anti-gun legislation could prevent the next tragedy. The pro-gun lobby and its citizen cavalry ride out in battle, with the cross hairs of their laser scopes fixed on anyone who dare tread on their Second Amendment rights.
The cycle repeats itself when the next mass shooting occurs, and the response is the same: calls for a moment of silence and flags lowered to half-staff.
The focus on mass shootings is misplaced. In 2012, a record-breaking 88 deaths received significant media attention. But the FBI estimates that 1,214,462 violent crimes occurred nationwide in 2012.
Each year there are 1.3 million victims of physical assault by an intimate partner, 16,800 homicides and 2.2 million medically treated injuries due to intimate partner violence. (Given that domestic violence is one of the most chronically under-reported crimes, these figures are conservative.) There are in excess of 3 million reports of child abuse annually that involve more than 6 million children. The United States has the worst record among industrialized nations, losing five children every day due to abuse-related deaths.
In fact, Americans are more likely to suffer violent deaths than any other peer country. The statistics are alarming, but none take into account the trauma experienced by children, adults and entire communities that witness this bloodshed and brutality, some frequently.
Violence is a public health crisis that has so fully saturated our way of life that it occurs in our homes, schools, churches, workplaces, shopping centers and transportation systems. Rather than continuing to react to events after they occur, we must address what causes the violence and act to prevent it before injury or death happen in the first place.
For decades we have analyzed violence through a public safety lens. I have learned from the experiences of other communities and public health experts that a paradigm shift is necessary to address the complexity of issues, policies and systems at the core of all forms of violence.
Despite a 45 percent decrease in violent crime in Hillsborough County since 2008, violence still plagues us. In 2012 there were 4,570 violent crimes , 7,036 domestic violence incidents, and 10,279 reports of child abuse. Although law enforcement efforts are critical to the security and safety of any community, they are aimed at enforcement and suppression. We cannot arrest our way to prevention.
In response, the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners recently launched the Community Violence Prevention Collaborative, which includes commitment and participation by the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the Plant City, Tampa and Temple Terrace police departments, the school board of Hillsborough County, the 13th Judicial Circuit’s chief judge, the state attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, and community-based subcommittees.
The county has contracted with Prevention Institute, a national nonprofit with extensive experience in planning and implementing large-scale community violence prevention initiatives, as expert consultant. It has worked with 18 other communities across the U.S. to assist high-level leaders and community members in developing strategic violence prevention plans, resulting in extraordinary reductions of violent crimes in many of the communities.
The institute utilizes a public health approach, which is a four-step process rooted in the scientific method. Through facilitated large group dialogs, small group work and individual reflection, the strengths and the needs of Hillsborough County are prioritized. That data is matched with strategies from the best prevention science and vetted through community and local government leaders, resulting in a strategic plan for Hillsborough County that benefits from local and national expertise.
Communities can prevent violence. Targeted neighborhoods in Minneapolis, Minn., documented a 40 percent drop in juvenile crime over a two-year period after implementing a public health based Violence Prevention Blueprint for Action. Similarly, a multipronged approach in Los Angeles led to a 35 percent reduction in gang-related violence and a 57 percent drop in gang-related homicides during summer months.
Using this model, local leaders will craft a strategic plan to reduce violence in Hillsborough County. Designated subcommittees will analyze statistical data unique to the county and recommend targeted prevention strategies. Citizens will be engaged at community forums designed for collaborative members to hear first-hand how their lives have been directly affected by violence and their input on solutions and priorities.
Local communities should not be asked to solve this problem alone. The violence so deeply imbedded in American culture requires a national response, a collective investment in the health and safety of our communities and the people who inhabit them. It warrants meaningful policy changes at the federal level.
As an example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is charged with preventing death and injury on our roads and highways. Between 1975 and 2008, an estimated 255,000 lives were saved by the implementation of a single public health policy that required seat belt use. In 2012, it was appropriated $62.4 million for research and analysis because there was bipartisan agreement that this level of investment has served us well over time.
Yet funding has been slashed for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the federal agency mandated to prevent death and injury in our neighborhoods and workplaces. State mental-health budgets have been cut by $4 billion over the past three years, including community and hospital-based psychiatric care, housing and access to medications. Local and state health departments have cut nearly 50,000 staff since 2008. This combination of state and federal budgetary constraints has resulted in the warehousing of nearly 500,000 mentally ill inmates in our jails and prisons, and the abandonment of millions of individuals and families living with serious mental illness.
But these funding reductions happened before the 2013 budget sequestration in March that further reduce funding for children’s mental health services, suicide prevention, homeless outreach and substance abuse treatment programs, housing and employment assistance, health research grants, and virtually every type of public mental health support.
The federal deficit and debt must be addressed, but without undue harm to people and communities. As a financial planner by trade, I can say with confidence that deficit reduction is possible without obliterating the very programs that decrease violence, already cut by $1.5 trillion.
Elected officials have been vested with enormous power and authority to solve real problems; by comparison, calling for a moment of silence and flags flown at half-staff is a grossly inadequate response to repeated senseless acts of violence.
We must change the environment in which we live if we expect to grow healthy neighbors, families and children. This can only happen if state and federal governments restore funding for programs and services known to prevent violent crime. Millions of people in this country who have lost a loved one to violence will tell you there simply is no dollar value that can be placed on a human life.
It is time to prevent violence before injury or death happens in the first place.
Kevin Beckner is the Hillsborough County commissioner for countywide District 6 and chair of the Community Violence Prevention Collaborative.