Opinion: Public health knowledge important in fight to reduce crime

Voters agree crime will likely be big issue in November election for new Atlanta mayor

Voters agree crime will likely be big issue in November election for new Atlanta mayor

In a recent editorial the AJC called for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to lead the fight to make Atlanta and our region a safer place. As violence research and prevention specialists, we support these sentiments and believe the key to producing immediate and lasting results lies in a science- and evidence-based approach that brings law enforcement, the community, and anti-violence researchers together.

Like other U.S. cities, Atlanta is experiencing an alarming uptick in crime and violence. This was not unexpected. Criminologists and public health researchers have been predicting a 2020-21 crime surge for some time now, resulting from a perfect storm of warm summer weather (which encourages more social interaction among young people out of school), relaxing of social distancing requirements, plus a festering absence of trust between citizens and the police. And of course, the wide availability of guns.

Volkan Topalli

Credit: Georgia State University

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Credit: Georgia State University

But, the city’s attempts to address the problem in the form of a new violence reduction initiative by Chief of Police Rodney Bryant and a new anti-violence advisory council leave us skeptical. Every major city in the U.S. creates these task forces and every police department throws together anti-violence initiatives in response to crime spikes. They often produce mixed results, with some strategies making no difference and others making things worse.

Even when they show promise, strategies are frequently abandoned in response to changing political winds or budgetary considerations. But, those that do work (Dallas, Boston) are known for integrating evidence-based solutions from violence prevention scholars and experts. They’re there to advise on which courses of action will produce the best chance of success. Their contributions make the biggest impact when they are integrated into the decision-making process from the get-go and are there throughout the planning and implementation of anti-violence policies.

Dr. Mara Schenker

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

They are particularly critical as such plans unfold, to evaluate and monitor what’s working and what is not.

The mayor’s current group seems to have no scientific representation, based on the members named in a city press release.

That’s a problem.

Anti-violence taskforces like the one convened by Mayor Bottoms are unlikely to be successful if they do not include violence prevention scientists.

Take a close look at who she has appointed to the council: It’s an admirable group of important individuals from law enforcement, neighborhoods and the faith and business communities.

But none of those named in the announcement are violence- or crime-prevention research experts.

No criminologists. No social work scholars. No public health researchers. No legal or medical scholars. No one trained to make sense of the vast research (much of it supported by your tax dollars) on the causes and cures for violence.

If you had cancer, would you skip a diagnosis and treatment plan with an oncologist and go directly to have a surgeon cut you open?

Atlanta is blessed with world-class universities, research-based anti-violence nongovernmental organizations, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, housing the Division of Violence Prevention. Georgia State University’s criminal justice and criminology department is a mere three blocks from City Hall. Emory University and Morehouse School of Medicine employ dozens of trauma surgeons and medical personnel at Grady Memorial Hospital, where most shooting victims land.

This rich array of knowledge is available for the asking.

Our city has neither time nor resources to waste.

We need a proper, evidence-based assessment of the crime problem facing our city and a treatment and monitoring plan driven by scientifically proven strategies. Such solutions are readily available, but it’s important to consult with those who know the difference between programs that work and those that don’t -- with a specific focus on Atlanta.

Last month, the two of us met under unfortunate circumstances that magnify the problem. A fight between two groups of young men in Buckhead erupted in gunfire that struck three people at a retail-store parking lot, including Volkan. It sent him to Grady, where Mara performed surgery to remove the bullet from his arm and fix his broken ulna bone with plates and screws.

We’ve reached out to the mayor to offer our help during these difficult times. We don’t work in ivory towers. Our work takes place on the streets of Atlanta and in its emergency rooms.

Other cities, like Dallas, Boston, and Miami have developed strong traditions of working with bona fide researchers to produce real solutions with lasting effects.

Atlanta can join their ranks, but they need to bring in scientists like us to make it work, and make violence reduction last.

Volkan Topalli is a professor of criminology with the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. He has studied street violence for 21 years, and has interviewed hundreds of justice-involved individuals -- drug dealers, carjackers, street robbers -- in Atlanta’s neighborhoods.

Mara Schenker, M.D., is associate professor and the chief of orthopaedics and director of orthopaedic trauma for Grady Memorial Hospital and Emory University. She’s performed nearly 3,000 surgeries in her time at Grady, many of which were the result of gun-related violence.