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The Coronavirus Pandemic and Violence

DC Council member Charles Allen’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety held a public roundtable with advocates and experts last week to explore alternatives to traditional policing. It was an interesting conversation; as many as 30 people offered a variety of ideas, including reducing the budget for the police department and redirecting those funds to violence prevention programs; decriminalizing sex work; coupling mental health clinicians with police officers responding to calls; eliminating police from public schools while increasing mental health services; and creating a hotline for those in distress.

Truth be told, none of these ideas is new. Many of them have been floated in other public forums over the last several months. Some proposals already have been incorporated into existing law. For example, the District currently has a program that couples police with mental health specialists — a pre-arrest diversion program that involves the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH). The council reduced MPD’s 2021 budget from the mayor’s proposal while providing $9 million for the expansion of violence prevention programs managed by the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. In 2018, Mayor Muriel Bowser worked with the legislature to expand, albeit incrementally, mental health services in DC Public Schools. Bowser administration officials report that at least $23 million has been budgeted to provide mental health services to 161 schools.

Barbara Bazron, DBH’s executive director, ticked off a half dozen programs and improvements her agency has implemented, including a 24-hour hotline (1-888-793-4357), virtual group counseling sessions, and telehealth visits that allow patients to use videoconferencing or their telephones. “The no-show rates went down substantially,” she told me during an extensive interview last week. The agency also has provided urgent care services on site in Ward 8 while continuing to partner with organizations like the Wendt Center and Community Connections to address stress, grief and trauma.

“Our website is chock full of information for everyone,” added Bazron, during our telephone conversation.

As I listened to testimony at last week’s council roundtable, I wondered how many advocates knew about DBH’s existing programs. I wondered, too, whether I was witnessing an organized campaign to help politically ambitious legislators expand their base using, among other things, animus toward the police.

The root cause of violence and crime in the District is complex and generational. It is mostly anchored in unresolved trauma. As should be obvious by now, that condition does not easily yield to well-orchestrated sloganeering or easy fixes.

Almost everyone, including media organizations like the Washington Post editorial board, has agreed community and gun violence is a public health issue. Nothing new there. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first made that declaration in the late 1970s.

For more than 40 years, groups of people have called for cities marked by significant violence to deploy a public health approach. What is the infrastructure for such an action plan?

There was much talk during the council hearing about the community. I was struck by how few people spoke specifically about family as a crime prevention entity.

While there are some exceptions, family most often can be the bulwark against nearly every social problem. Whether we are talking about the state of black males, juvenile incarceration, substance abuse or teen pregnancy, a strong, attentive and nurturing family is the ultimate antidote. Advocates can organize dozens of protests — and they have — aimed at “reimagining” public safety. However, without a sustained powerful focus on family, issues of crime and violence are unlikely to be significantly altered.

“Approaching violent crime as a public health crisis means understanding and treating the harm trauma does among families. That should include immediate and ongoing counseling services, building relationships with at-risk individuals through violence interruption efforts, and helping families make ends meet in the first place,” Allen said via an email sent by his spokesperson.

Sounds good — except the city seems stuck in a passive or reactive posture.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, there were tens of thousands of fragile families in DC. They were already grappling with unresolved, generational trauma exacerbated by extreme poverty or horrific domestic violence — adult against adult and adult against children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cited over the past year an increase in people displaying signs of clinical anxiety and depression. While Congress has placed $4.25 billion for mental health and addiction issues in the recently approved coronavirus stimulus package, experts say it is not nearly enough to keep up with the growing demands for help.

Last week, my friend and former colleague Colbert King wrote in his Washington Post column that a significant amount of the violence in DC is being caused by youth; they are both perpetrators and victims. He’s right.

Trauma experts and others I have spoken with previously, including DC Attorney General Karl Racine, have noted that “hurt people hurt people.” Consequently, the level of youth involvement in crime, their participation in gangs and their use of guns shouldn’t surprise anyone.

They are indisputable testimony of trauma hiding in plain sight, and perhaps affirmation of the CDC findings.

A public health approach might be to assess the level of trauma, the same way the city is testing for the presence of the coronavirus. Officials might try to figure out how best to treat it, tracing its contagion inside families and in the community where those families live and operate. They might also ask themselves the obvious question: Has the rate of violence or trauma increased during the past nine months as a result of the pandemic and pandemic-related conditions?

Sadly, none of that is happening.

To be fair, DBH has provided early childhood assessment and consultations, mostly through child care centers. It provides some assistance to teens and young adults caught in the grip of alcohol or drug abuse that is affecting their emotional and mental health behaviors. And when families find they need help, they can turn to existing community service organizations.

Those families must reach out, however, in order for the government to respond. That places yet another burden on people already burdened by trauma.

The Bowser administration hasn’t gone on the hunt to address decades of unresolved trauma. There is no systematic, citywide trauma assessment program that reaches out to a broad segment of the population. It also appears that no one in the government is analyzing the relationship between the coronavirus pandemic, violence and trauma — despite the fact that national studies have found a rise in mental health issues, including suicides.

“We haven’t done any research on the causal relationship,” Bazron told me when I asked about all of this.

In response to my questions, Bazron said DBH has a “large provider network in all eight wards. They are known to the community and the community knows them.

“Lots of things have been put in place to address specific COVID-related issues,” continued Bazron. “We really think the District is a model.”

With all due respect, I don’t agree with that evaluation, especially around addressing mental health needs and providing consistent trauma-related care.

The DC government knows the specific locations of fragile families. Officials know who receives Aid to Families with Dependent Children, for example. They know who is receiving housing assistance and Medicaid. They know what parents are incarcerated, possibly leaving behind grandparents to step into the child-rearing role.

While I am no expert, couldn’t all of this firsthand knowledge be used to fashion a more aggressive plan that isn’t just focused on violence interrupters or doesn’t just blame the police? Couldn’t it be used to develop a healing strategy — one aimed at helping children currently being traumatized? Couldn’t that plan also help those suffering the impact of unresolved trauma, including adults whose pain carried from childhood has misdirected their lives?

The coronavirus pandemic presents a unique opportunity. Could DC use its testing sites to begin a citywide assessment of its residents experiencing trauma or living in trauma-inducing environments? Could it use the reopening of schools as an occasion to determine the effects of the pandemic on the emotional and mental health of students and their families? Could the city send a cadre of medical students or others to homes to gather such information?

It’s not too late for elected officials and others to chart a more comprehensive course of action. One section of the Omnibus Public Safety and Justice Amendment Act of 2020, which Allen ushered through the council, may be a hopeful step forward. I am no fan of much of the legislation, which won final approval Dec. 15, but I am excited about its data-sharing component.

Speaking at the roundtable, Misty Thomas, executive director of the nonprofit Council for Court Excellence, offered that “data sharing is extremely limited” at present. She said agencies operate in “real silos” and called on the council to “break down the silo system.”

Making adjustments in that area would “really improve the ability to serve people in the community,” added Thomas. I share her sentiment — although it appears that the impetus for the inclusion of the data sharing in the omnibus legislation was the bureaucratic need for the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to complete a report.

Allen said in his email response to my questions that the first report “will be an ongoing, bi-annual look at the causes of violent crime for young offenders. Getting more information [has] always helped shape and inform our policy decisions and I would expect this data to be as instructive.”

What the government does with that data will demonstrate its intentions. Will it be satisfied with playing the blame game? Will it continue to fixate on symptoms, or will it get serious about addressing the root cause of violence, which begins with a focus on families — fragile, traumatized families?

There is no time for lollygagging. Lives are at stake.

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