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Akron's public health experts discuss gun violence, racism and mental health at equity summit

"If this many young men were dying of heart attacks this would be a public health crisis," said Juard Barnes, of The Health Alliance for Violence Intervention (The HAVI). Other American cities have successfully reduced violence treating it as such, he said.
Stephanie Czekalinski
Ideastream Public Media
Keynote speaker Juard Barnes told the summit audience that it takes buy-in from city leadership and strong grassroots support to reduce violence with a public health approach.

Public health officials, community members and experts met Wednesday in Downtown Akron to discuss how to prevent gun violence in the city.

The Seventh Annual Health Equity Summits brought together healthcare leaders and workers, employers and social service agencies as well as grassroots groups and citizen advocates to discuss racial health disparities and find solutions to remedy them.

The summit's keynote speaker talked about how other cities have found success addressing violence as a public health crisis that is profoundly affecting Black communities across the country.

"If this many young men were dying of heart attacks this would be a public health crisis," said Juard Barnes, of The Health Alliance for Violence Intervention (The HAVI), a group that brings trauma-informed care to victims of violence while they are still in the hospital.

He said the way to address violence as a public health risk means changing the way a community discusses the problem.

"This language is about systemic oppression. It's about inequities in the system," he said, to applause from the crowd. "We are carrying our brothers and sisters into life. People don't just wake up crazy."

Historically, this kind of approach to violence prevention was not funded, Barnes said.

"When people say 'public safety' they mean policing," he said. "That's not what this work is."

He said the public health strategy is something that communities can do in addition to policing, but it requires buy in not just from the community, but from leaders.

"The mayor has to know what it is, the police chief has to know what it is — they ain't got to love it, but they have to know what it is — and the city council — they have to know what it is," he said.

During this year's summit, which included panel discussions addressing a variety of topics including suicide awareness and youth opportunity, the city released a strategic plan to address youth violence that included "implementation roles" for government, businesses, nonprofit agencies and organizations, individuals and youth themselves.

The goal is to reduce violent crime committed by young people ages 13 to 24 by 10% between 2024 and 2028, according to a city press release.

To get there, the plan calls for one-on-one mentoring, safe recreational and social programs, re-entry support for the formerly incarcerated, initiatives that build trust between youth and the police, more mental health and substance abuse support, strategies that restrict unsupervised and
unrestricted access to guns, a dialogue and feedback process to generate sustained community feedback and training, job placement and coaching.

The city said it used American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars to hire a Youth and Community Opportunity Director to oversee the strategic plan's implementation and to fund 39 local providers with grants.

In 2019, before COVID-19 turned society on its ear, the city had created a strategic plan to address the problem of youth violence. Post-pandemic, the problem, the strategic plan shows, is even more pressing — especially for communities of color.

The pandemic brought an increase in violent crime across the country, the report points out. Homicides increased by 30% in the first year of the pandemic, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) figures show. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of homicides declined slightly, by 4%, but remained well above pre-pandemic levels, according to figures from the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ).

In 2020, Black Americans made up nearly two-thirds of those who died by homicide despite representing less than 13% of the population, and the number of Latinos killed increased by more than 20%, according to the city.

City leaders said they have revised the 2019 plan to meet that new reality. The crime statistics included in the new plan paint a complex picture.

Youth violence actually decreased by 13% in the city between 2017 and 2021, according to data from the Akron police. But the report says the trend is deceptive. While young people were less likely last year to engage in robbery and trespassing, the number of menacing and weapon law violations increased and incidents of violence are increasing in specific neighborhoods.

The East Akron, West Akron and Kenmore neighborhoods accounted for nearly one-third of all incidents of youth violence in Akron's 24 neighborhoods, the plan showed. Downtown Akron, East Akron, Middlebury, Sherbondy Hill, Summit Lake and University Park had the highest rates of youth violence.

Barnes, the keynote speaker, told audience members not to be discouraged. Other American cities have had success reducing violence with similar plans, he said.

"This is about how are we going to put something together that's going to work that's going to stop people from dying," he said.

Stephanie is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.