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by Matthew Malamud
Memphis Lights In its coverage of the FBI's most recent data on crime in the United States, Memphis-area WMC–TV news reported that "Memphis is now the second most violent city in our nation" behind Detroit, while WREG called the 2014 crescendo in murders a "trend."

The FBI's report warned against ranking cities based on its data for good reason: A closer look at violent crime in Memphis reveals a different, less somber tune.

For one thing, the increase in homicides from 2013 to 2014 does not a trend make. The homicide rate this year is back down (as of September 30, there has been a decline of 10.6 percent compared with last year) and, except for 2014, violent crime in Memphis has been on a downward trend since 2006. That year, the city and surrounding Shelby County launched an initiative, Operation: Safe Communities, which can take partial credit for the reduction in violence.

Of particular interest in violence prevention is how cities are aligning their resources, not only to effectively address violence, but also to address the root causes of violence. For the past several years, the city of Memphis, Tenn., has adopted two Department of Justice initiatives: the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention and Defending Childhood. Both leverage community assets and willpower to achieve what they hope will be lasting change.

Not Just Another Initiative
Historically, youth violence has been treated as a law enforcement issue, with a range of punitive measures aimed at deterring behavior and recidivism.

In recent years, a tectonic shift has brought about a different view of youth violence, examining the problem as a public health issue and placing equal emphasis on prevention, intervention, enforcement, and reentry.

When some people hear the word "initiative," they start tuning out. The United States continues to experience higher homicide rates than most other developed countries. In this context, antiviolence initiatives may arouse greater criticism and scrutiny, despite being underresourced or lacking in widespread community buy-in.

But the National Forum's Operation: Safe Communities is different. At its core are alignment and collaboration among hundreds of stakeholders—including local government agencies, law enforcement, schools, businesses, religious institutions, and community-based organizations. The crime reduction strategic plan has five goals: 1) reduce violence in the home; 2) reduce gang and drug crime; 3) reduce blight, problem properties, and crime in apartment complexes; 4) reduce adult repeat offenses; and 5) reduce youth violence—orchestrated by the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.

It is under the fifth goal—reduce youth violence—that the commission operationalizes the Memphis Youth Violence Prevention Plan and Defending Childhood initiative, which work in concert to effect a 25 percent reduction in violence committed by Shelby County youth under 24. In Shelby, young people make up more than half of those arrested for violent crime.

To reduce youth violence, the commission identified 13 strategies, along with 34 action items and detailed action plans. For example, Strategy 17, "Implement county government's Defending Childhood initiative to help ensure young victims of exposure to violence are nurtured so as not to become perpetrators," has 10 associated action items. One calls for the Le Bonheur Center for Children and Parents, Exchange Club Family Center, and Child Advocacy Center to expand trauma-focused therapy for youths 19 and under. According to the most recent quarterly report, the centers are on track to fulfill this action item.

An important feature of Operation: Safe Communities is its emphasis on youth violence as a public health issue and strategies to address the root causes that lead to violence.

By taking their cues from the strategic plan, which has a reporting and accountability component, coordinators for the Memphis Youth Violence Prevention Plan and Defending Childhood initiative avoid duplication of effort and wasting resources.

"Like many communities, we continue to struggle with collaborative approaches," said Brona Pinnolis, project coordinator with the Memphis Shelby Crime commission and liaison for the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention. "Not everything runs smoothly at all times, but we are working hard to be as collaborative as we can."

The volume of collaborators is impressive. Pinnolis works with more than 100 partner organizations to execute the prevention, intervention, suppression, and reentry components of the youth violence reduction plan.

She also enjoys a close working relationship with Malrie Shelton, project coordinator for the Defending Childhood initiative in Shelby County. Both believe coordination of the two initiatives is imperative. They don't work in the same office, but Pinnolis and Shelton said they meet weekly. "Either I'm in one of her [Shelton's] meetings, or she is in one of mine, or we are both together in somebody else's meeting," said Pinnolis.

"Sometimes there is just so much going on, trying to organize the multiple pieces we are working on, but it's important to keep each other in the know," said Shelton. "For instance, when the Office of Justice Programs sent out a list of upcoming grants, we communicated about it. But, we'll also ask each other, 'Who else might need to sit at the table?' That way, we're not competing for the same resources."

"You are hearing nationally how cities and communities have to manage, and we are seeing upticks in violence, but we are also seeing creative solutions," said Shelton, who stresses patience in waiting for results. "We have identified many opportunities to reduce youth violence, but probably the longest wait time to see results is through the Defending Childhood initiative," which seeks to address the root causes of violence.

As a coda, Shelton added, while researchers are learning more about the adolescent brain and better understanding children's behavior, policymakers have to keep pace. "We need to expand opportunity for youth, reform the juvenile justice system to stop criminalizing normal adolescent behavior, and work with courts to become trauma informed," she said. "There's the perception in the public that youth are out of control, but that's not necessarily true."