Keeping people safe is among the most fundamental responsibilities of local government. No single policy or program can meet the challenge and today’s polarizing politics are making the job that much harder.
Responding to violence in the community primarily with law enforcement has not been shown to improve the long-term safety and health of communities and those living in them. As it stands, law enforcement and first responders are expected to solve complex social issues resulting in emergencies, which stem from systemic issues like poverty, personal and family trauma, racism, underemployment, and economic insecurity, challenges for which law enforcement is not suited to address.
What is needed is a public health, community-based solution that partners with local government to prevent violence and address the root causes of community violence. This multi-faceted approach can address the underlying causes of violence with a relentless focus that adapts to changing times, incorporates lessons learned, and is grounded in common sense, experience, and hard data.
That is why, Harris County is launching two new groundbreaking initiatives led by Harris County Public Health with the strong support of law enforcement that will help make our neighborhoods safer, transform lives, and break the cycles of violence in our communities.
Implementing these proven strategies in Harris County addresses both the immediate need to interrupt violence and its root causes by changing lives for those most at risk of being involved in violence.
The first initiative, the Gun Violence Interruption Program, will reduce shootings and stop the spread of further violence. Similar programs in other cities are delivering results: a 63% decrease in shootings and 30% reduction in gun injuries in South Bronx; a 30% reduction in shootings in Philadelphia over two years; and a 50% reduction in gunshot wounds and killings from 2007 to 2019 in Richmond, California. In June 2021, the South Baltimore area (where the violence intervention program Safe Streets Baltimore operates) marked a full year without any homicides.
This innovative prevention program targets gun violence hot spots using credible, community-based messengers to intervene before situations escalate to a loss of life or violent injury — and then connect individuals to an array of services and supports they need to prevent the cycles of violence in our streets. The program also works in hospitals and trauma centers, where victims of serious violence are most easily reached, to break the cycle of violence that can often result from retaliation and other factors.
Coordination care teams work with program participants, providing services such as workforce training, food assistance, medical and mental health services, and other support. These services and support provide alternative life paths to those at risk who otherwise would not have an opportunity, and as a result can change the life trajectory for individuals. At the same time, ongoing public education campaigns and community-building activities communicate clear messages about alternatives to violence and gun use.
The second initiative, the Holistic Assistance Response Teams (HART), will directly dispatch 911 and other calls that do not require a law enforcement response to interdisciplinary first responder teams, trained in behavioral health and on‐scene medical assistance. This initiative employs trained health professionals to respond to the estimated 21–38 percent of 911 calls related to non-emergency health or social issues.
HART is a targeted first responder program that will allow social service, community health, and mental health workers to respond to 911 calls related to behavioral health, homelessness, substance use, and other social welfare issues instead of peace officers — sheriff deputies, police officers, and constables — so they can focus on solving crimes.
For example, if you call 911 about an intruder in your home, we’re going to send a peace officer, just as always. If you call 911 about a person on the sidewalk suffering a mental health crisis, we’re going to send a mental health professional as part of a HART team.
This common-sense program aims to help improve community health and safety, save law enforcement time and resources, and help to reduce deadly outcomes and arrests. And it works. Denver’s STAR team — composed of licensed social workers and paramedics — was able to resolve calls on average six minutes faster than law enforcement, and 34% of their calls originated with law enforcement who showed up at a scene and asked STAR to take over.
Both of these new programs are timely and have proven effectiveness in other parts of the country. We are already putting more resources into public safety, decreasing criminal court backlogs, and stepping up our use of technology to better apprehend lawbreakers.
We have learned that placing our peace officers in untenable positions that require the unique skills and training of a mental health expert or a social worker is neither fair to them nor the people they serve. HART and the Gun Violence interrupter program will use trained professionals to intervene in situations to prevent violence and get help for people experiencing a crisis.
It is all part of our relentless focus to keep everyone in Harris County safe and healthy.
Rodney Ellis is the County Commissioner for Harris County’s Precinct 1; Ed Gonzales is the Harris County Sheriff; Barbie Robinson is the Director Harris County Public Health