Police mistrust has devastating health, community effects
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LaTonya Jones holds a picture of her mother during a vigil in Chicago on Dec. 27, 2015. Bettie Jones was fatally shot by police who were responding to a domestic dispute call made by her neighbor. (Photo: Scott Olson, Getty Images)

Last updated 7:41 a.m. ET, Jan. 16
By Jayne O’Donnell

Some Baltimore teenagers think they are so destined to die young, they have accounts on social media with headings such as “RIP Me.” When I heard that from the group Cure Violence, my mind immediately went to the mothers. What would it possibly be like to see that?

Rushing around the Bronx while reporting on the Montefiore Health System’s urban initiatives this fall, I met social workers who described a single mother they were trying to help because she was about to be evicted. Oh, and she has multiple sclerosis and her toddler son is autistic. How do you even get up in the morning when your life’s challenges seem that insurmountable?

And I often think I have a lot to stress about.

Like most parents of teenagers, I worry about my daughter’s grades and use of social media. Soon, I’ll be stressing about her getting into cars driven by teenage boys (the risk of death increases with each additional teen who gets in the car, especially when young men are driving).  After all, so much of what our teenagers do is learned behavior.

So imagine if the behavior they were learning wasn’t to race around corners, deadly as it could be, but to resolve conflicts with guns? That it wasn’t fears of speeding tickets from police but violence at the hands of officers?

As I report on health care challenges among the poor, I’ve learned these are among the grave concerns of my parental peers in many inner cities. In these urban areas, gunfire doesn’t just injure and kill intended targets and the occasional bystander. The regular rat-a-tat-tat sears the psyches of all who live around it, from babies to the elderly.

Health care experts are starting to pay more attention to the violence that can envelop inner-city life. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced $157 million in funding recently for programs that link people to social services that address issues including adequate housing, food and interpersonal violence.

Harvard health researchers recently called for deaths by police officers to be officially reported in public health data. In a paper published in PLOS Medicine, researcher Nancy Krieger and colleagues noted that the British newspaper The Guardian was tracking U.S. deaths by police officers, yet there was no reliable official database here.

Trust in police has been low for a long time in many minority communities, and despite some progress, residents have good reason to fear turning their teens over to law enforcement, says Gary Slutkin, the physician who founded the group Cure Violence in 1995. Slutkin, an epidemiologist who worked on infectious disease outbreaks around the world before turning his attention to Chicago’s violence, says the health field has a clear advantage over law enforcement.

“We don’t have arrest powers, and there is more trust,” says Slutkin. Our presence “never makes a situation worse.”

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A boy holds a sign at a rally to end gun violence in Chicago on Dec. 31, 2015. (Photo: Scott Olson, Getty Images)

Mothers call Cure Violence all the time when things at home begin to spiral out of control. Slutkin describes a common scenario when a mother sees her son run in the house, grab a gun and run out of the house. “She’s at her wit’s end worrying that it’s the last time she’s going to see her son,” says Slutkin. “She doesn’t want to call the police seeing he was loading weapons with four or five friends” and may already be committing a crime.

Even though police don’t always make the situation worse, Slutkin says their presence can make “very hot situations escalate.”  And all these mothers need to hear is “one of those stories” about an innocent young person killed by police to quickly rule out law enforcement.

Besides, mothers call Cure Violence’s outreach workers to settle things that police wouldn’t bother with anyway. “Police don’t care if someone slept with someone. Police don’t care if someone owes someone money,” says Slutkin.

On the other hand, Cure Violence’s trained workers “come from the same life and can stop retaliations and prevent other events from happening in the same place,” he says. Often, the police aren’t spending the time on killings in their neighborhoods that many think they should be, which further erodes trust.

In her powerful book, Ghettoside, Los Angeles Times reporter Jill Leovy chronicles the Herculean efforts Detective John Skaggs makes in violence-ridden South Los Angeles to actually solve murders that other officers often write off.  His efforts and those of a small group of partners help rebuild ties between officers and the community they are supposed to police.

Skaggs overcomes challenges to investigations including intimidation tactics that make eyewitnesses unwilling to cooperate. And he wins over the mothers of victims who can’t trust the police to get justice.

“If every murder and every serious assault against a black man on the streets were investigated with Skaggs’ ceaseless vigor and determination … conditions would have been different,”  Leovy concluded.

“The violence could not have been so routine.”

Jayne O’Donnell is a health care policy reporter for USA TODAY.