Tracie McClendon-Cole is community justice program manager and director of the Aim4Peace program, kcmo.gov/health/aim4peace, at the Kansas City Health Department. Aim4Peace was chosen to host a listening session at the Kauffman Foundation on Aug. 12 for the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. McClendon-Cole graduated from Raytown High School, earned a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s in public education at the University of Kansas and a law degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. This conversation took place at her office in the Parks and Recreation building near Swope Park.
How did Aim4Peace come about and what makes it different from other anti-violence efforts in Kansas City?
In 2005, former Mayor Kay Barnes and mayor pro tem Alvin Brooks were very concerned when the city recorded its 97th homicide (127 by year’s end). They created a commission to look at possible solutions and the historical roots of the problem. The commission released a report in 2006 that laid the groundwork for what we are doing by defining violence as a disease.
Because if someone gets shot, it’s bad for their health?
Not only that, it creates trauma for everyone in the neighborhood where that person got shot. And it transmits messages to the brains of all those people that violence is the norm. People who witness violence are more likely to be perpetrators and more likely to be victims.
There are a lot of (anti-violence) programs locally and nationally that had good anecdotal results, but we were looking for evidence. We found a program in Chicago called CeaseFire — now it’s called Cure Violence, cureviolence.org — that had been shown to lower homicides by 41 to 70 percent in specific areas where it was implemented fully. Its founder, Gary Slutkin, is an epidemiologist, so he believes violence is a contagious epidemic that can be cured by disease control methods.
How is that better than a strictly law-enforcement or tougher sentencing approach?
Because violence is a learned behavior. You can take away Party X, but Party X has family members and people in the community who look up to Party X as a leader, and they are going to replicate that behavior. We believe strongly in trying to rewire some of those learned behaviors.
How do you do that?
You have to find what we call credible messengers. People who are from the same community and who look like and can relate to people in the community. Those people can send new messages and interrupt, if you will, the old messages that transmitted violence.
What are the new messages?
Sometimes it’s just teaching people to stand back and ask themselves, “Do I really need to respond with a gun?” And it’s having somebody to call to talk things through before acting. We have street outreach workers who work one-on-one with high-risk individuals at least four times a week. And they work not just with that person, but with everyone in that person’s network.
We don’t assign caseworkers; they have to come to us and want to work with us and then we vet them to make sure they have existing reputations and connections in the community. We ask them, “Do you know these three people?” Because if they don’t know those three people, they don’t have any credibility on the street.
You have an innovative hospital outreach program. How does that work?
We have a partnership with Truman Medical Center, and our folks are part of the trauma care team. After a person has been shot or stabbed, we are notified. We usually know the person in the hospital bed already, and we use that golden hour to say, “Let’s reflect on your life and how we can change it and move forward.” And then we work with that person’s circle to prevent people from retaliating. Because that is normally going to be your next homicide.
Do you have any evidence that it’s working?
In 2013, we saw a 56 percent decline in homicides in the 330 sector, which is basically bounded by 27th Street on the north, Swope Parkway on the south, Wabash on the west and Jackson on the east, where we had fully implemented the program. Because of that success we got a Department of Justice grant to expand into two more sectors in the fall.
And Mayor James has pulled together the Violence-Free KC committee to combine the efforts of the No Violence Alliance, Second Chance, Aim4Peace and the Police Department. They are all having an effect, and the city is on track as a whole to have the lowest homicide rate in decades, although we are only halfway through the year.