Kansas City Community Treats Violence as Public Health Issue

Aim4Peace works to resolve disputes, change attitudes among high-risk populations

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Clara McBride is not in the best of health, thanks to a recent bout with cancer, but she wanted to get out this Saturday evening to join marchers on the city’s east side.

McBride was on hand with her 9-year-old granddaughter, Eramiss Nicholson, to support an effort to end the violence that plagues many of the city’s low-income areas.

“We need some peace in the neighborhood,” McBride said. “There are all these young people losing their lives.”

Saturday’s second annual Walk4Life wound through neighborhoods surrounding the Central Academy of Excellence, a public school at 3221 Indiana Ave.

The walk was part of a four-hour event, which included food, entertainment and children’s activities, put on by the city’s Aim4Peace program. Organizers said as many as 400 participants attended throughout the evening.

It’s no accident that Aim4Peace, which started in 2008, is a program of the city Health Department.

That’s because some practitioners — both locally and nationally — are treating violence as a public health issue.

Dr. Gary Slutkin, a University of Illinois epidemiologist, helped popularize that approach in the mid-1990s. He founded a Chicago-based nonprofit that is now called CureViolence, which Aim4Peace has used as a template for its efforts.

Stopping violence is akin to controlling the spread of infectious diseases, said Aim4Peace Director Tracie Cole. “You have to work at the behavioral level,” Cole said.

One of the key ways Aim4Peace does that is by having trained personnel intervene in a dispute before it spirals into a cycle of retaliations and reprisals.

Through its partnership with Truman Medical Centers, these interventions often happen while a victim is still hospitalized or in the emergency room.

The aim is to give these patients a “brief moment of clarity that they need to, hopefully, choose a different path in life — and the sooner the better,” said Mickie Keeling, a registered nurse and trauma services research coordinator for Truman.

Keeling said Truman wants fewer examples like this one: a patient attended to eight different times at emergency rooms throughout the area, finally ended up at Truman with a fatal gunshot to the head.

In another example from a couple months ago, Keeling said, Truman admitted a stabbing victim that, a year prior, had slipped out of the hospital before seeing an Aim4Peace worker. The first incident had only involved a minor gunshot wound.

The Aim4Peace approach also includes violence prevention programs for high-risk youth, job preparation courses, and partnerships with law enforcement and school officials.

For instance, according to one example cited in a recent program review, a school official called Aim4Peace to help resolve a dispute between three girls who were about to be expelled.

Stemming the tide of violence involves much more than mediating disputes, Keeling said. “We need to find jobs, we need to get more education, or get people involved with education, so they can get better jobs and get them out of this cycle.”

The drive to start Aim4Peace began in June 2006, Cole said, which is when the city’s Commission on Violent Crime issued its final report.

City leaders had convened the commission the year before, as the community was on its way to recording 127 homicides — a 40 percent spike from the year before.

Among the final recommendations was a call to expand mediation and conflict-resolution services.

Aim4Peace operates on annual budget of about $650,000, said Cole. Funding comes through a mix of city money and grants, including assistance from the Health Forward Foundation. The program has 13 employees and a volunteer corps of roughly 300 individuals, she said.

According to the Kansas City Police Department, the city has recorded 77 homicides so far this year. The number of killings last year was 114.

Cole said the homicide rate, though important, is not the only measuring stick by which to judge the level of violence in the city.

Much of what Aim4Peace does, she said, is attempt to change attitudes among high-risk populations that it’s wrong to pick up a gun to resolve a dispute.

Such a change in attitude can’t come soon enough for McBride or her granddaughter.

In fact, just half an hour before attending the Walk4Life, she and Eramiss heard what sounded like a rifle shot as they sat outside a relative’s house in a nearby neighborhood.

People seem almost numb to such occurrences, McBride said.

“It’s getting too regular,” she said. “We are getting too used to this.”

The Health Forward Foundation is proud to partner with the Kansas Health Institute news service to provide weekly health stories about health and policy issues impacting the greater Kansas City region. This News Service is an editorially independent program of the Kansas Health Institute and the Health Forward Foundation and is committed to objective coverage of health issues.

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