Shock in Louisville
Twelve months ago Louisville, , ranked by the FBI as fifth safest among the eighteen cities with a population between 500,000 and 800,00, committed itself to the creation of an ambitious comprehensive violence prevention/community health plan, which would blend prevention, intervention, enforcement and reentry of returning offenders. Led by the Office of the Mayor through the Chief for Community Building, the Policy director, and the Directors for Public Health and Wellness and the newly-created Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, the planning group grew to include law enforcement and all key city agencies such as Parks and Recreation, libraries, hospitals, the City Attorney in addition to community and faith-based organizations and the philanthropic community. But on March 22, the city sustained a body blow, a blow that could have derailed the planning process. A group of African American teens, some gathering to remember a slain friend, others just hanging out, ended up engaged in a streak of random violence that left more than a dozen innocent victims injured, property damaged and a community afraid and on the brink of a racial divide.
Louisville turned to law enforcement to respond – certainly a wise and necessary response. However, most jurisdictions would have stopped there. Louisville didn’t. The City realized that relying on enforcement alone would take everyone else off the hook. The city, while acknowledging that law enforcement had to step up its enforcement actions, asserted that it is not enforcement’s job to tackle other necessary tasks such as support for fragile families, intervention into the lives of disconnected teens, helping kids stay in school and provision of jobs. Mayor Fischer issued a clarion call to the whole city, a forceful response “blending both strength and compassion.” (press release, April 7, 2014)
We can all learn from Louisville’s initial response, for no city in America is immune to such crisis, a crisis that can permanently derail forward-looking, long-range plans that combine enforcement with community building.
Strength, in this case enforcement, and compassion – helping – are often seen as antithetical concepts. They are not. As parents we set limits and we nurture. Both are necessary. The mayor linked them. He began with accountability for “both those who committed a crime, as well as negligent parents and guardians.” He asserted that “violence in any form will not be tolerated.”
He followed this with a series of proposed actions:
- Increased visible police presence (bikes, foot, horseback and patrol cars) in volatile areas
- Increased number of “eyes” on the street, Fire, EMS and Corrections in addition to volunteer “Ambassadors” from the Downtown Partnership who would walk the streets
- Installation of cameras monitoring activity at sensitive points
- A call to “all 750,00 citizens to be part of our early warning system”
- Accountability: arrests with more expected. Restorative justice approaches for non-violent offenders
- Exploring ways to hold parents/ guardians “accountable through legal avenues, and seeking creative ways to enhance parental involvement and responsibility”
- Enhancement of curfew laws.
While acknowledging that youth and young adults who commit violent acts “should be removed from the streets,” the mayor also asserted that “locking up nonviolent youth for long periods may turn them into future adult criminals,” and that “investing in our youth leads to more resilient and productive adults.” He referenced the “Gentlemen’s Academy, an intensive six-week overnight program for 40 male at-risk teens,” and pointed to other actions to help develop teens:
- Summer jobs and a call to create or ” to sponsor a youth’s employment at a local non-profit”
- Working to ensure the availability of age appropriate out of school time programming
- Extending the hours of community centers during the summer
- A drive to recruit 200 mentors for at risk-youth (at this writing, 60 new mentors had been signed up)
- A call to parents to “know where their children are, who they are with, what they are doing and when they will be home”
- Galvanizing the faith community to: spread the word through bulletins, sermons and websites, provide volunteers, offer safe space for recreation, open facilities for after school programs and job training, and to mobilize the community to take back the streets and clean up neighborhoods
- Crisis Response Training for community members.
Facing such crisis, some jurisdictions might well have turned to law enforcement alone thus scrapping long term plans blending enforcement and community health, plans that would spur and focus the energies of all. Although Louisville is in the middle of a crisis, it remains fully committed to maintaining the political and intellectual will to focus on the city’s health and safety over the long term, helping to achieve its vision of a Louisville that “will be a city of safe neighborhoods, where all citizens feel secure, supported and prepared for lifelong success.” (“Louisville’s Blueprint for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods.” Draft, p. 4).
It is worth noting that weeks after the violent episode a huge public gathering was held in the same area without incident. Louisville is developing a plan and following it, even in moments of crisis. We can all learn from Louisville.