As an injury and violence prevention program coordinator in pediatric trauma with Atrium Health, Tracie Campbell found herself as a front-line witness to a spike in gun violence against children that occurred during her seven years there.
Between 2014 and 2018, the number of patients admitted into Levine Children’s Hospital with gun-related injuries each year doubled from 30 to around 60 per year.
“I really just ultimately got tired of coming into the hospital and seeing young men that could be my son or my dad or my uncle or people that I know, or from communities where I’ve come from,” she told Queen City Nerve of her seven years working in pediatric trauma. “It just felt like no one was doing anything, almost as if the lives of those folks didn’t matter as much to people, and that didn’t seem right to me.”
A deadly cycle was playing out in front of her eyes.
“There were a lot of folks, particularly young Black males, coming into the trauma center there, and there was just a gap in services for those folks,” she said. “We knew that we had recidivism rates that were super high; there was a revolving door of people getting involved in gun-violence-related injuries and coming back as a result of the same type of behavior. We just weren’t doing a good job of that. And I was saying, ‘How are we letting people walk out of the door and we’re not addressing what their issues are?’ And so that became a really big passion of mine.”
In 2020, Campbell left Atrium to join the Mecklenburg County Public Health department, where she was named senior health manager in the newly formed Office of Violence Prevention (OVP), the first such government department in North Carolina.
Over the first two years of the OVP’s existence, Campbell and her team have been at work formulating the county’s first Community Violence Prevention Plan, which she hopes will act as an umbrella to connect residents, community organizations, government agencies and anyone else doing violence prevention work in Mecklenburg County.
The birth of violence prevention in Charlotte
The idea for an Office of Violence Prevention in Mecklenburg County came after a year that saw the highest number of homicides in Charlotte since 1993. Then in 2020 came a slate of high-profile killings that included a mass shooting on Beatties Ford Road that took four lives.
“There were a lot of incidents of violence that happened that made the news and people started asking, ‘What are we doing and what can be done and who’s doing something?’” Campbell told Queen City Nerve. “So this was really a response to that.”
In October 2020, days before the launch of the county’s OVP, Charlotte City Council approved the SAFE Charlotte plan, which consists of six recommendations that aimed to fuse city council’s goals of “reimagining” policing in Charlotte with its goal to curb gun violence in Charlotte. The first recommendation in the plan was to provide $1 million from the city’s current budget to help Charlotte-based nonprofits address violence in the community.
In 2021, the county partnered with the city to fund a pilot Alternatives to Violence (ATV) program on the Beatties Ford Road corridor. The program has largely been seen as successful; a Community Violence Dashboard — created in a partnership between the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, OVP, and a number of other organizations and agencies — shows that only one homicide has occurred thus far this year in the area along Beatties Ford Road where ATV’s violence interrupters operate as compared to four last year.
According to Federico Rios with the city’s SAFE Communities Committee, as of Sept. 12, ATV violence interrupters had mediated 45 potentially violent situations and seen 19 participants pass through the program, referring to troubled youth whom interrupters had helped to find jobs, graduate school, or accomplish some other progressive goal.
At a meeting on Sept. 12, Charlotte City Council unanimously approved $1 million in federal funding to begin implementing the next phase of Alternatives to Violence, which will bring new ATV teams to the Nations Ford/Arrowood roads corridor, Southside Homes, and the West Boulevard/Remount Road corridor.
A collaborative effort
Though the idea to launch a program like Alternatives to Violence predated the launch of the Office of Violence Prevention, Campbell sites the program as an example of how she wants the office to operate in collaboration with organizations who are doing important anti-violence work in the community.
“There are a lot of efforts that are taking place to reduce violence in Mecklenburg County, but a lot of those efforts were working in silos and not in tandem with one another,” she said. “So this office is really designed to be this overarching umbrella of what is happening in Mecklenburg County.”
That begins with the Carolina Violence Prevention Collaborative (CVPC), which Campbell and her team helped launch at the outset of the OVP’s creation.
Made up of local community-based organizations, nonprofits, government agencies, health-care providers and private sector partners, members of the CVPC meet monthly to discuss how they can collaborate more effectively on anti-violence work.
“We are dependent upon people who are in the community that know what the real issues are, that are trusted by their neighbors to provide them with information and to work with folks within specific communities,” Campbell said. “So we rely heavily on that CVPC group because they are those people with the boots on the ground. Those are the people that are out here doing the work.”
The OVP’s goal is to use a public-health approach to community violence. It’s the county’s first attempt to separate community violence from other forms of violence such as domestic or sexual violence.
“Certainly there are lots of forms of violence, and there are many things that are happening across the county to address some of those other forms of violence,” Campbell explained. “They have comprehensive systems and projects and initiatives in place to address those, but nothing specific to community violence. And so that was one of the things we really wanted to do is to develop a plan to say, ‘How do we move forward and how do we move the needle specifically on homicide and gun-related assaults in this county? And how do we get people to collectively do that so that we’re not individually working in silos?’”
The impact of OVPs around the country
As explained in a Center for American Progress report published in October 2020 and titled “Beyond Policing: Investing in Offices of Neighborhood Safety,” the proliferation of Offices of Violence Prevention — sometimes called Offices of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) — came in response to a growing belief that overreliance on law enforcement was not the answer to confronting community violence.
“An ONS is an important step toward a future in which arrest and incarceration are no longer the first response to every issue in society — a future guided by communities most harmed by the justice system, who have been denied a seat at the decision-making table for generations,” the report reads.
OVPs around the country have seen success in a range of metrics. Richmond, California, which had the highest murder rate in the state when the Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety was launched in 2007, saw that rate drop by 80% in 10 years. ONS programming was associated with a 55% reduction in gun homicides and hospitalizations in that city during that time, along with a 43% reduction in firearm-related crimes, according to a quantitative evaluation published in the American Journal of Public Health.
According to the “Beyond Policing” report, the city of Stockton, California’s Office of Violence Prevention formally launched its Advance Peace program in 2018 and went on to interrupt more than 30 imminent shootings between October 2018 and September 2019, reportedly helping to avert between $30 million and $77.5 million in justice system and medical costs associated with gun violence.
Campbell can’t nail down a timeline for when her office will release the new Community Violence Prevention Plan, but she emphasizes that even after its release, the process will take time.
“This is slow work. It’s not a magic pill. We’re not going to be able to do one thing and see a difference tomorrow, that’s just not how violence works,” she said. “We didn’t get here overnight and it’s going to take time for us to see improvements, but every little thing that happens, every little thing makes a difference. And so we want to make those small changes and work on making these larger changes to help people over time.”
In the coming months, Campbell and her team will put together a final draft of the plan to be presented to local elected officials for feedback, and then the real work begins.
“We hope that as we continue this work that people will see themselves in the plan,” she said. “We hope that this will be something that will stick. It has worked for other places across the country … We’re doing some groundbreaking work here and I think that we have all the components in place to really make a difference.”
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