Mike Sherry — The Hale Center for Journalism
The physician community can play a key role in helping reduce the shootings and killings plaguing the urban core of Kansas City, Mo., the leader of an international violence-prevention organization argued during a visit to the city this week.
But the contribution won’t come through patient care, said Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who advocates a public-health approach to violence through his Chicago-based organization, Cure Violence. Rather, he said, physicians must take on the role of “credible messengers” to convince policymakers to move away from the law-and-order approach.
“Not advocating means really allowing the continuation of what is going on right now,” Slutkin said, “which is lack of success, a lot of punishment, a lot of imprisonment, a lot of ineffective and really outdated solutions.”
Slutkin’s presentation came Wednesday evening at the offices of the Metropolitan Medical Society of Greater Kansas City on the Country Club Plaza. The audience of about 30 people included local medical students.
In Slutkin’s presentation, he advanced the notion that violence is like any other infectious disease, such as tuberculosis, AIDS or even the plague that struck Medieval Europe.
Frank Perez, national director of Cure Violence, spoke the next night to about 60 attendees at a community forum at the offices of the Kansas City, Mo., Health Department at 2400 Troost Ave.
Slutkin founded the organization nearly two decades ago, and it now has partner organizations in 15 U.S. cities and in several other countries, including England, Iraq and South Africa. Its partner in Kansas City, Mo., is Aim4Peace, a health department program that began in 2008.
Dr. Lancer Gates, president of the medical society, said the organization would likely heed Slutkin’s call to action. He said the society has a history of taking up community causes, such as helping start the Community Blood Center of Greater Kansas City.
Physicians, he said, could spread the word to public officials and law enforcement representatives. In addition, Gates said, they could take the message back to their offices.
“Knowing something like this, having this information,” he said, “we have time with patients and families to talk about these things.”
The Cure Violence approach is to prevent exposure to, and transmission of, violence.
Programs like Aim4Peace use violence “interrupters” and other outreach staff in an effort to reduce shootings and homicides in the city. Workers use conflict mediation at violent-crime scenes in hopes of easing tension and discouraging more violence through retaliation.
Aim4Peace focuses on the Kansas City Police Department’s East Patrol Division, which covers a swath of the city stretching from the Missouri River in the north to far southeast areas near Independence and Lee’s Summit. The area generally lies east of Wabash Avenue.
According to crime statistics from the department, East Patrol accounted for approximately 40 percent of the city’s 106 homicides last year. Homicide totals in East Patrol have been the highest among the department’s six patrols for each of the past five years.
Aim4Peace, however, has focused its effort on one of the four sectors within the East Patrol, according to Tracie McClendon-Cole, Aim4Peace director. And in that sector, she said, the seven homicides tallied last year is about half as many as occurred in previous years.
A new $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice is allowing the program to expand into two more sectors.
Program officials estimate that Aim4Peace covers only about a third of the most violent part of the city. If the program could beef up its coverage to perhaps 80 percent of that section, McClendon-Cole said, it could nearly cut in half the number of homicides in the city.
Aim4Peace considers living and employment situations to be significant contributors to violent offenses. Its efforts include a life-skills program that works to prevent school delinquency and drop-outs. Aim4Peace also teaches job readiness and anger management.
It also has a Hospital Prevention Program in conjunction with Truman Medical Centers, where workers respond to gunshot and violence-related traumas. By working with emergency department staff, Aim4Peace contacts residents who are most at risk of being involved in future shootings.
Perez’s Thursday night talk explained the Cure Violence approach to the audience, which included neighborhood leaders, clergy and health care workers.
Perez implored faith leaders to become more involved in stopping the gun violence.
“It’s fantastic you are saving souls,” he said, “but I need you to help me save some lives. I need you to come out of those temples, those churches, those synagogues … and work in your own communities. Don’t be afraid of these young people — get them involved.”
The Rev. Wallace Hartsfield, pastor emeritus of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, 2310 E. Linwood Blvd., agreed that clergy could do more. “We can’t wait for someone else to come in.”
Meanwhile, Kansas City, Kan., resident LaVita Gassoway said she hoped Aim4Peace could expand into her city.
“We really need this program in Wyandotte County,” she said, “because we have a bad problem with retaliation murders.”
Learn more about Aim4Peace and Kansas City’s gun problem by watching excerpts of KCPT’s hour-long special “Shots Fired: KCPT Takes Aim at Gun Violence,” which aired last summer.