Los Angeles Times (Sunday)

Curing the violence pandemic

Biden’s plan to boost community programs may best fix the systems that lead to poverty and harm.

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When President Biden announced his executive action Thursday to deal with the nation’s surging violence, most attention understand­ably went to his plans to stop the proliferat­ion of so-called ghost guns — firearms that can be hastily assembled from untraceabl­e kits.

But let’s not overlook the importance of the community violence prevention and interventi­on aid that Biden is offering concurrent­ly with his gun control plans. They represent welcome and desperatel­y needed federal support for local programs that treat violence much as we treat infectious disease — as public health problems that can be diagnosed and treated before they become epidemics, or even inoculated against altogether.

With some effort and creativity, cities and counties can use the opportunit­y presented by Biden’s program to turn the tide of not just violence but also its underlying causes, such as poverty and inequity.

Los Angeles at first adopted the public health approach to violence in dribs and drabs, generally choosing instead to respond to violent crime with harder-hitting policing and mass incarcerat­ion. That was a policy decision made here and in jurisdicti­ons around the country in the 1980s in response to the profusion of crack cocaine. It ravaged communitie­s of color.

We suffer today from the policy failures of the 1980s and 1990s. Biden’s program represents a sort of do-over, already in progress at the local level.

L.A.’s violence prevention strategy has so far focused mostly on gang crime, and it floundered for a decade as a succession of programs — Hope in Youth, L.A. Bridges — failed to demonstrat­e or document any positive impact on violence. The situation improved in 2009 with the creation of GRYD, the Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Developmen­t, which combines long-standing summer and afterschoo­l activities (to counter the influence of youth gangs) with peer peacemaker­s who keep their finger on the pulse of communitie­s and intervene to prevent outbreaks of retaliator­y gang killings.

But much of the deadly violence that began last year and is continuing unabated is not gang-related, and addressing it goes beyond the scope of GRYD’s reach.

Los Angeles County, meanwhile, in 2019 establishe­d an Office of Violence Prevention within the Public Health Department, incorporat­ing mental health, youth justice and poverty programs. The county’s ambition is commendabl­e, but implementa­tion lags.

Biden included $5 billion for violence prevention in his infrastruc­ture proposal, but it’s in Congress’ hands and is hardly assured of passage. Still, the executive actions he announced Thursday make already available funding more accessible and flexible, and would support the public health approach to violence that L.A. and the nation desperatel­y need.

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