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How Might Charlotte Treat Crime As A Public Health Concern?

Charlotte City Council is examining how it might treat violent crime as a public health issue.



After a year in which there were 108 homicides in Charlotte -- the most since 1993 -- Charlotte's City Council is looking at treating violent crime as a public health issue. WFAE’s health reporter Claire Donnelly talks with All Things Considered host Gwendolyn Glenn about what, exactly, that might mean.


Gwendolyn Glenn: Claire, what does it mean to take a public health approach to something like crime or violence?

Claire Donnelly: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually has a four-step processcalled "The Public Health Approach to Violence Prevention," and that’s part of what Charlotte officials are referencing. 


The gist of the CDC method is taking a scientific approach to violence -- so, collecting data and analyzing it to try to find risk factors, or reasons why some communities may experience violence more than others. Then, communities come up with strategies, test them, and, if they’re effective, implement them. 

I asked a couple of Charlotte council members what they think a public health approach should look like. City Council member Malcolm Graham has called the city’s violent crime a “public health crisis.” He says the city should not just focus on police or law enforcement -- but also on social services in communities experiencing violence. 


Malcolm Graham: In terms of illegal drug activity and homelessness and poverty -- I mean, all those things goes hand-in-hand with some of the things that we’re seeing on the ground. And so all these things are health issues.

Donnelly: Similar sentiments were expressed by council member Braxton Winston. He says violence is a disease and officials should move to treat it that way.

Glenn: Are there other cities that have tried approaching violence as a health problem?

Donnelly: Yes, there’s an organization started in Chicago called Cure Violence Global. It was founded by an epidemiologist who spent time working with outbreaks of diseases like cholera and tuberculosis. He wanted to try using health techniques to reduce violence.


The Cure Violence methodhas several steps: First, to interrupt conflicts in a community to keep them from turning violent. Then, to try to identify who’s most at risk of getting the contagious problem and work with those people specifically. Thirdly, Cure Violence works to change the norm in the community.

It’s in about 20 U.S. cities right now and points to successes in several communities. For example, one in Baltimore saw a 56% reduction in homicides and a 34% reduction in shootings.


Charlie Ransford with Cure Violence says more cities are interested in the health approach to violence prevention. 


Charlie Ransford: I think eventually it’ll be viewed along the same lines as 911 services are looked at. Where, if you’re a serious community, of course you’re going to have 911 services because it helps save lives.


Donnelly: There’s also a violence prevention organization called Cities United. According to its website, 92 mayors across the country participate in that group -- which has the goal of eliminating violence in American cities related to African American men and boys.


Glenn: So, what are the next steps for Charlotte going forward?


Donnelly: Right now, everything is in the very early stages. Mecklenburg County spokeswoman Rebecca Carter told me the county health department is working on a "comprehensive approach to address violence as a public health issue," but she couldn’t share any details about what the plan might look like. 


City Council’s Safe Communities Committee is spending the next couple of months looking into what to do next. Council member Graham says they’ll look at what’s worked in cities similar in size and population to Charlotte, like Baltimore, Nashville and Atlanta. Mayor Vi Lyles says the committee will have a report in 60 days.

Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.