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Thursday, Sep 18, 2014
Commentary

Kevin Beckner: The way forward: A safe and sound Hillsborough

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Almost two years ago, the horrendous killings of 20 first-graders and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, shocked the nation. I, like everyone else, felt sickened, angry and frustrated at the tragic loss of innocent life. When I reviewed statistical data on violence, I realized that the focus on mass shootings was, in many ways, misplaced.

In 2013, about 137 people were killed in 30 mass shootings across the United States. That’s an unacceptable number, but others are even more disturbing: the 16,238 people who were murdered last year, an average of 45 people a day. The 2.1 million people who are assaulted each year by an intimate partner. The 1,570 children who die each year from abuse or neglect.

This is the daily drip of violence that fractures our community and corrodes our lives.

In the aftermath of the shooting, the Hillsborough County Commission voted to establish the Violence Prevention Collaborative (VPC) to study violence in the county and to create a strategic plan to prevent it. Tomorrow, the VPC will release that plan: “Safe & Sound Hillsborough.” It provides a structure to unite the efforts of those involved in criminal justice, economic development, education, community building and health.

This plan results from more than a year’s work by the mayors and police departments of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the School Board of Hillsborough County, the 13th Judicial Circuit Court, the State Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and Hillsborough County government — along with 77 committee members appointed by them to serve on seven specialized committees.

The public should be proud of the foresight of its elected officials and citizen representatives to join together and combine resources, insight and experience in an effort to understand and prevent violence where we live, work and play. To my knowledge, ours is the only community of about 21 in the nation to develop a violence prevention plan without having been motivated by a precipitating act of violence.

Violence has so saturated our lives that it occurs in our homes, schools, churches, workplaces, shopping centers and transportation systems. No single organization can be expected to solve a social problem of this magnitude. No single entity can succeed in isolation. Yet for decades, we have placed the burden of preventing violence on the very broad shoulders of our law enforcement agencies.

We cannot arrest our way to prevention. Despite a 45 percent decrease in violent crime in Hillsborough County since 2008, violence still plagues us. In 2012 (the last year of data available when the VPC was formed), there were 4,570 violent crimes, 7,036 domestic violence incidents and 10,279 reports of child abuse.

Beginning with the premise that violence is preventable, the VPC entered into a year-long process to establish data-driven and evidence-based priorities for action, based on a public health approach. A public health approach complements the efforts of law-enforcement agencies by looking at the root causes of a problem and then developing recommendations and strategies that target the causes.

This is the same approach that led us to develop a policy requiring the use of seat belts in 1975. Implementing that policy saved an estimated 255,000 lives by 2008.

Over the course of a year, members of the collaborative assessed the strengths and needs of Hillsborough County. The Data Committee collected 18 data points to provide a snapshot of the risk and protective factors in Hillsborough County that increase or lessen the likelihood of violence. We produced “heat maps” that show the prevalence of poverty, truancy, domestic violence, child abuse and violent crime in ZIP codes throughout the county. We conducted a survey of 1,987 youths, aged 14 to 19, gathering information about their sense of safety, community connectedness, and a host of other issues, and researchers at the University of South Florida College of Public Health provided a preliminary analysis of the data.

Throughout the process, specialized committees reviewed all material and made recommendations for violence reduction strategies using the best prevention science available. Those recommendations inform the plan.

Now we begin a new phase of our work to implement the plan in a way that benefits all residents of Hillsborough County and targets services for specific populations and ZIP codes identified by the data we’ve gathered.

We are currently developing the necessary infrastructure to implement the goals and strategies of the plan over the course of a five-year pilot project, financed by the financial and in-kind contributions of member agencies of the Collaborative.

This strategic plan is based on the understanding that violence can be prevented when all parts of a community — government agencies, community organizations and civic and faith leaders — come together to pursue data-driven, evidence-based strategies that address violence as a public health issue.

“Safe & Sound Hillsborough” is the product of a year of cooperation across sectors that incorporate national best practices and lessons learned for preventing violence, blended with successful intervention and enforcement strategies already in place in our community.

The plan will be located on the VPC website after 10 a.m. on Monday.

Kevin Beckner is a Hillsborough County commissioner. He is the chairman of the Violence Prevention Collaborative.

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