Cedar Rapids Organizations Starting to Address Gun Violence as Public Health Issue

Apr 18, 2017

Carletta Knox-Seymour says gun violence came to the forefront in Cedar Rapids in 2015 after a 14-year-old boy shot and killed a 15-year-old. 

"Many facets of the city came together recognizing, at that point, how devastating things must have become in order for this to happen," she says. 

The shooting death came in the midst of a large spike in shots fired incidents that started in 2014 and continued through the first half of 2016. Annual shots fired incidents peaked at 100 in 2015.

Cedar Rapids has been trying to figure out what's behind that rash of shootings among young people in recent years and what can be done about it. A few organizations in the city are starting to collaborate in looking at gun violence as a public health issue.

Knox-Seymour and a group called 1 Strong turned their attention to getting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence in Cedar Rapids.

"I called it a pathology, so that we could get at the root causes and look at more preventive measures going forward," says Knox-Seymour.

Shots fired incidents are down significantly so far this year compared to this time last year.

But just last week, two people were shot within 24 hours in Cedar Rapids. One shooting occurred on Knox-Seymour's street. So she and 1 Strong are pushing ahead with the effort to prevent gun violence by treating it as a public health issue.

Linn County Public Health Director Pramod Dwivedi says 1 Strong brought the issue of gun violence in Cedar Rapids to his attention.

"It is a criminal justice issue. It is a law enforcement issue. But the important element we often miss is that we are not including public health in order to intervene in the violence," Dwivedi says.

He says interventions need to be based on concrete evidence. That's why his office is analyzing data from the Cedar Rapids Police Department.

"Shots fired, injuries, when that was happening, where in the community that was happening--so all this information will give you a concrete understanding of the problem. Then it's easier for you to plan an intervention," Dwivedi says. 

Some cities in the U.S. have been successful in addressing gun violence from a public health perspective. In Baltimore, "violence interrupters" mediate conflicts to prevent the use of firearms. They also work in hospitals to help victims cope with trauma.

Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman says he supports any efforts to reduce gun violence, including public health initiatives.

Jerman attributes the recent decline in shots fired incidents to the Police Community Action Team, which was established at the beginning of 2016. The team focuses on building relationships with people who can provide information about potential conflicts or acts of violence.

"So if you look at last year's statistics, we were successful in getting a decrease in shots fired and also some other violent crime diminished a little over three percent," Jerman says. "That success is carrying over into 2017, where we're seeing a continued decrease in violence. We have a marked decrease in shots fired."

The Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Task Force spent a year looking at the underlying causes of gun violence in Cedar Rapids. It made recommendations to local government focused on expanding economic opportunities for vulnerable populations.

Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker co-chaired the task force.  

"In a lot of communities of color, when people don't have access to economic opportunities, when people don't feel hopeful about their futures, when people have been locked out of society proper, it doesn't leave a whole lot of options," Walker says. "And that's sort of a ripe recipe for violence--particularly for gun violence." 

Walker says community leaders need to take his group's recommendations seriously in order to address gun violence. And he says gun violence affects everyone. 

"We can't think of it as an isolated problem. We can't think of it as a problem that just African-Americans have to deal with, or a problem that poor people must deal with," Walker says. "Really, it’s a community wide problem, which leads to an opportunity for folks to work together and address it."

If there's one thing all of the groups working to reduce gun violence in Cedar Rapids agree on, it's that they can't do it alone.