Greensboro officials interested in public-health model for combating violence

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cure violence
Irving Allen, Sharon Hightower, CJ Brinson, Skip Alston and Nancy Vaughan (l-r) met on Monday to learn more about the Cure Violence program. (photo by Jordan Green)

Greensboro and Guilford County officials are interested in implementing a program that uses a public-health approach to prevent violence.

Local officials in Greensboro and Guilford County are exploring the possibility of implementing a public-health-based model for preventing violence that has demonstrated success in New York City, Chicago and Baltimore, along with other locations around the world.

On Monday morning, dozens of local officials and community leaders gathered around a table in the Plaza Level Conference Room in Melvin Municipal Office Building to speak with Lori Toscano, the executive director of US programs for Cure Violence.

“The core of the work is using the same methodology that has historically been used to stop the transmission of diseases like AIDS or cholera — using those methods to interrupt, treat and then change norms around violence,” Toscano said. “Those are the three core steps of it: Interrupting the transmission, reducing the risk for those who are highest risk for involvement in violence and then changing the community norms.”

Greensboro city council members Goldie Wells, Sharon Hightower and Michelle Kennedy, along with community leader CJ Brinson, met to discuss the possibility of bringing Cure Violence to the city at Prestige Barber College on Phillips Avenue on March 1. Four weeks later, the group had ballooned to six city council members, police Chief Wayne Scott and Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston, among others.

Founded by Dr. Gary Slutkin, a professor of epidemiology and international health at University of Illinois at Chicago, Cure Violence’s program is premised on the idea that violence operates like an epidemic disease.

After working for decades to fight epidemics of tuberculosis and HIV in Africa, Slutkin started thinking about how to address the problem of children shooting each other in the United States.

“For this particular problem, we designed a new category of worker, who, like a SARS worker or someone looking for bird flu, might find first cases,” Slutkin said in a 2013 TEDMed talk. “In this case, it’s someone who’s very angry because someone looked at his girlfriend or owes him money.”

Violence interrupters and outreach workers on staff also work with people who are proximate to the individuals at highest risk and with the larger community in a designated project area. By changing shifting community norms, the program aims to inoculate the community from violence.

“And that means a whole bunch of community activities, remodeling, public education,” Slutkin said. “And then you’ve got what you might call group immunity. And those combination of factors is how the AIDS epidemic in Uganda was very successfully reversed.”

An evaluation of Cure Violence programs in the South Bronx and the East New York section of Brooklyn in October 2017 by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found a significant reduction in gun injury rates — 50 percent in East New York, compared to 5 percent in the control area of Flatbush, and 37 percent in the South Bronx, compared to 29 percent in East Harlem, from 2014 through 2016. On a separate measure, the study found a significant decline in shooting victimizations in the South Bronx, but no discernible difference in East New York.

The John Jay study also found that respondents in areas with the Cure Violence program were more likely to express trust in the police than those in the two control areas without the program.

The city and county leaders at the meeting on Monday didn’t need much persuading. County Commissioner Skip Alston said that Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes has committed to providing $4,000 from the inmate welfare fund to help pay for Cure Violence’s $7,500 assessment fee. The county commission will have to vote to release it. He asked Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan if the city could make up the remainder of $3,500.

“I have a lot of faith in our council,” Vaughan responded. “We have six people sitting here.” With nine members each, both boards require a 5-vote majority to get approval.

As an indicator of what the program might cost in Guilford County, Toscano said the cost for two sites in Durham is about $400,000 each per year, with 80 to 85 percent going to salaries and benefits for community staff. Toscano also said that many of the local projects in the United States have received significant financial support from the US Justice Department.

Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy suggested the partners in Guilford County should reach out to Cone Health for assistance as a front-end investment to help the hospital system avoid financial losses from treating uninsured victims of gun violence. Toscano said Sinai Hospital in Baltimore dedicated $300,000 to expand the program in that city.

Alston said he wants to launch sites in both Greensboro and High Point. James Adams, a community leader from High Point, attended the meeting, but no representatives from city government were present.

“Months ago we had energy around Cure the Violence; it kind of waned,” Adams said after the conference call. “Now, there’s new energy because of the possible partnership with Greensboro and Guilford County.”

The eagerness of city officials in Greensboro is matched by community partners, Brinson indicated.

“Our very first meeting we had identified about 10 individuals who could serve as interrupters,” Brinson said. “Those individuals already live in the community or they are reformed individuals who may have been incarcerated and they are returning to the community, and they have a certain level of trust already built and established with the community. And they may be reformed gang members as well who would already know how to speak the lingo, who would already be aware of the culture, know how to go in and immerse themselves in the culture so they could go in and help deter anyone else from being involved in violence.”

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