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Public Health launches violence prevention initiative

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Violence Prevention Coalition of Dane County

Participants in the initial meeting of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Dane County, including Anthony Cooper, executive director of the Focused Interruption Coalition, standing center, and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, lower left, share ideas in a small group discussion at the Madison Police Department's training facility. More than 90 people, including public officials, police, service providers and nonprofits, attended the meeting.

Madison and Dane County on Thursday launched a new Violence Prevention Coalition that will treat public safety threats as a public health emergency and forge a comprehensive plan to do it.

More than 90 attendees representing city and county government, law enforcement, schools, and an array of social service providers and nonprofits gathered to begin an effort to bring new levels of cooperation to forge a plan to address violence.

It could be similar to a sweeping “Blueprint for Peace” adopted in Milwaukee in 2017.

“I think we’re all on the same page,” County Executive Joe Parisi told the gathering assembled by Public Health Madison and Dane County at the Madison Police Department training facility on the Far East Side. “We need to be working together.”

Madison Deputy Mayor Gloria Reyes, City Council and County Board members, District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and Sheriff Dave Mahoney also attended the four-hour meeting.

“We do see incidents of violence as a priority for our community,” Reyes said. “Law enforcement is engaged in solving the problem, but it’s not enough. Taking a public health approach will help us tackle the root causes.”

Nationally, more and more, gun violence and violence are being understood as infectious diseases needing a coordinated, long-term, data-based public health response like those used to fight smoking or HIV/AIDS.

A public health approach recognizes the effect of unaddressed childhood trauma and that, like a disease, violence breeds violence.

The approach asks basic questions: Where does the problem begin, and how can it be prevented from occurring in the first place? Then, public health applies a systematic, scientific approach with input from those directly impacted in neighborhoods to find the answers.

In the fall of 2017, as the city and county sought solutions to troubling increases in shootings and homicides, policymakers approved reallocating two full-time positions in Public Health — a violence prevention coordinator and data analyst — for the effort, with $10,000 in seed money.

The challenge of unaddressed trauma in children, youths carrying guns, and calls for developing a public health approach to stopping the violence were the subject of a five-day series in the Wisconsin State Journal this summer, “Gun Violence in Madison — Cycles of Trauma.”

“It’s not just impulsiveness. It’s not just crimes of opportunity,” Randy Molina, who was selected in July as Public Health’s first violence prevention coordinator, told the group. “It really does go much deeper.”

The acts can be gun violence, interpersonal violence, domestic and intimate partner violence, sexual violence and human trafficking, car theft, child maltreatment and exploitation, drug-related violence, and self-harm, including suicide.

The causes, Molina said, are rooted in poverty, racism, health and family issues, failures in the justice system, a lack of voice for youth, and economic opportunity.

In Madison and Dane County, many are engaged in addressing violence but efforts have not been well coordinated, many speakers said.

“There’s a tremendous amount of good work already going on in the community,” said Jerrett Jones of Public Health, who was chosen as the initiative’s data analyst last November. “But we’re working in silos. We’re fragmented. We’re not talking to each other effectively.”

Reggie Moore, director of Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention, shared how that city created its Blueprint for Peace.

Milwaukee, which saw a 76 percent increase in firearm-related homicides from 66 in 2010 to 116 in 2016, spent 10 months and engaged more than 1,000 people to create the public health-based Blueprint for Peace that’s now guiding actions in some of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

The city had support from the highest levels and considerable money to do outreach and produce plans, Moore said. The Blueprint for Peace steering committee included the mayor, county executive, City Council president and 29 more members with representation from business, nonprofits, schools, police, health care, the judicial system and others.

The 95-page plan focuses on six main goals: stop the shooting; promote healing and restorative justice; support children, youth and families; foster strong and safe neighborhoods; and better coordinate violence prevention.

A key is reaching out to and listening to those in the community, and then acting, Moore said.

“We can’t ask the community what it wants and then not be responsive to it,” he said. “It’s important to be accountable and responsive.”

After the event, Molina voiced satisfaction at the turnout and enthusiasm for next steps.

“There was such a diversity of voices,” he said, adding that next steps will include a broad outreach effort and using the Blueprint for Peace as a model but tailoring it to Dane County.

“The work has to be community-driven to take hold,” he said.

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