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Cities approach spike in homicides as a public health issue

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin today with a look at a public health crisis that has hit communities hard all over the country in the past year and a half in so-called red states and blue states, in cities and suburbs and small towns. And it's not COVID. We're talking about a spike in killings. You might have been shaken by headlines in your own local news. Here are a few from just the past 24 hours - a 15-year-old girl shot by a stray bullet in Oakland, Calif. A 17-year-old died from a gunshot wound in Austin, Texas after police responded to reports of two groups shooting at each other. In Phoenix, Ariz., two people died in an apparent murder-suicide, and two employees were shot dead at a senior facility in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.

Nationwide, murders were up nearly 30% in 2020, according to recent FBI data. That's the largest one-year increase since the bureau began keeping records on homicides. To those with long memories, the overall number of murders is still down significantly from its peak in the 1990s, but that's not much comfort to families who've gotten that terrible phone call saying a loved one is dead or, in some cases, watched it happen. Nor is that a relief to the communities where this is happening, be they big cities like New York or smaller ones like Des Moines, Iowa and Memphis, Tenn., or even rural counties around the country.

In response to this rise in killings, some cities and counties have chosen to approach the problem as a public health issue. That's the case in Kansas City, Mo. We wanted to hear more about that, so we called Marvia Jones. She's the former violence prevention and policy manager for the Kansas City Health Department. She now oversees community and family health education in the city, and she's with us now. Marvia Jones, thank you so much for joining us.

MARVIA JONES: Thanks for having me, Michel. Big fan of your show.

MARTIN: Thank you for that. So I understand that the homicide rate has actually gone down in Kansas City this year, 2021. I'm sure that's a relief, but can you give me your overall sense of things? I mean, analysts, you know, some analysts that we've talked to have said that they'd kind of been seeing homicide numbers kind of ticking up in certain places in recent years, but then there was this big spike last year. What's it been like in Kansas City?

JONES: Yes. I can say, Michel, that we have just been overwhelmed, you know, with what has been happening with violence in our city. Everyone is very frustrated. We say we are - while we're trying to get COVID under control here, we're also dealing with the spike in violence. And, as you mentioned, we have seen a 20, 21% reduction this year over last year, but it has still been elevated.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is? I mean, what do you think happened last year or has been happening?

JONES: Two of the things that keep coming to the fore are increased access to guns - so there are a lot of guns on the street, legally and illegally right now. More people have access to them - and at the same time that people are just having shorter fuses. We are in a time that most people have not seen who are living today, you know, going through a pandemic crisis as well as all the economic and other sort of feeling of uncertainty that comes from that. And so you have people who may have already been kind of at the point where they don't maybe have a lot of patience to deal with conflict in their lives, and now they just have even less to work with.

MARTIN: I understand that, as we said earlier, that you've gotten a little bit of relief this year, that the homicide rate has actually gone down a bit in Kansas City. Any sense of why?

JONES: Well, that's always sort of the tricky part, especially when you've seen such a high spike. It's hard to say when any one or two things that you're doing to mediate are making a difference or if you're just sort of going back toward sort of your previous normal. I know that's not a very satisfying answer, but it could be many things or none of those things and simply more of a regression.

MARTIN: Well, I respect your candor in saying that, you know, that there's lots of reasons why this is happening, and it's not always clear why it does or does not happen and that there's just a lot of factors at play here. But what are some things that, based on your long work in this field, do you think makes a difference or that people could be thinking about or how people should be thinking about this?

JONES: Yes. That's actually where I prefer to spend a lot of my energy, so I'm glad you asked that. I know there has been a lot of recent study coming out of places like Baltimore and Philadelphia where they have been showing that investing actually in cleaning up neighborhoods - cleaning and greening, if you will - so fixing up vacant properties - we know that in any city you go to, you'll see, you know, blocks where there are, you know, a handful of houses, at least, that are in severe decay. There are overgrown lots. And so what these studies have found is that when you clean those up, you reduce the violence that occurs in those areas. So that's one thing that we know makes a difference.

The other thing that makes a difference is really supporting young families. Young families are at very high risk for violence, and we know that we can't think about this in the short range. So the family you take care of today, and you make sure the child has access to pre-K and the mother, you know, has transportation covered so she can get to work or whatever she needs to do and the dad has some form of access to employment or whatever. We know that that is protective maybe 10 to 12 years from now. So you don't necessarily - by doing that, you don't decrease the violence rate this year or next year. But if we continue to do that and don't give up because it doesn't yield immediate returns, that's something that makes a difference. And so that's where we're trying to focus a lot of our programming here in Kansas City.

MARTIN: What keeps you going?

JONES: I'm sorry?

MARTIN: What keeps you going?

JONES: Oh. I have to say it gets tough. It's hard to talk about the work we're doing for violence prevention all of the time and then also see the news where people are still being killed or maimed. So I will say it does get difficult. I think being in this space where there are other people working toward the same goal - that keeps me going. I also have - my husband and I, we have two young boys. And so I want to do all that I can so that they can see that, hey, we are a part of this. It's not - you know, your community is not something you can just run away from. You have to be doing all that you can to advocate for policies and practices that'll make a difference. So that's what keeps me going.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for keeping going. Thank you for your work. That was Marvia Jones, division manager for community and family health education at the Kansas City Department of Health. Marvia Jones, thank you so much for talking with us. I'm delighted to meet you. I'm sorry about why, but thank you for talking with us.

JONES: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.