DeKalb County commissioner holds town hall to discuss violence prevention

As DeKalb County continues to suffer from increased rates in violent crime, Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson recently held a virtual discussion with experts who are working to curb violence in their communities.

The discussion on April 4 brought together experts in violence prevention to discuss community-based programs that prevent, interrupt, and reduce violence, as well as expand opportunity and decrease recidivism.

“In 2021, DeKalb County hit a homicide record for the second year in a row,” said Cochran-Johnson. “Now we’re seeing one to three homicides a week in DeKalb County. Our law enforcement professionals are doing everything they can to address this issue. Our challenge is how do we address the underlining causes so that we can change this trajectory? I believe grassroots, community services and programs, and resources will assist in that effort.”

Cochran-Johnson was joined by members of nonprofit organizations as well as medical professionals to further discuss violence as an ongoing health crisis in DeKalb County and beyond.

“The cause and effect of something like gun violence is very complicated,” said Natallie Keiser, senior associate with The Annie E. Casey Foundation and Atlanta Civic Site. “We know that gun violence creates community trauma. We know people who are hurt often hurt other people if they are not given the opportunity to heal from the violence they’ve experienced. Research shows that violence can spread like a disease.”

Keiser said that her organization’s work with CHRIS 180, a behavioral health organization that is committed to helping individuals, children and adults heal and change their lives according to its website, has been key in the metro-Atlanta area.

“Our trauma response network works with the community to invite them to engage and reach out to get the resources they need,” said Alfred Garner II, director of Zone 3 community initiatives with CHRIS 180. Garner is responsible for programs in the city of Atlanta’s NPU-V community which includes the six intown Atlanta neighborhoods of Adair Park, Mechanicsville, Peoplestown, Pittsburgh, and Summerhill/Capitol Homes.

“Jumping into the prevention side, we look at our work kind of like we look at a common cold; we interrupt the transmission of violence and try to stop the spread,” said Garner. “We’re trained to counsel and mediate. We have social activities like cookouts and vendor fairs to make connection the norm in these spaces. We partner with other organizations to make sure we hit hot spots and clean up and beautify the community.”

Although Atlanta saw a 1 percent increase in homicides in 2021 compared to the previous year, homicide rates fell by 46 percent in the specific areas where CHRIS 180 worked, stated officials.

Cochran-Johnson stated that more than $30 million of DeKalb County’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding was directly linked to crime prevention and programs associated with reduction of crime.

“Here in DeKalb County, we’ve seen a drop in crime overall, however what we’re experiencing here is a sharp increase in violent crimes, murders and assaults,” she said. “We cannot legislate decency and care and respect for human life. This is a public health crisis that is costing us lives and money.”

Continuous opportunities to learn and exchange ideas and changing the message from fear to hope is challenging, but effective, said Keiser.

“Public support is necessary, and we get concerned about what we see in the news and public forums as far as messages that just raise fear without pointing people towards solutions,” said Keiser. “Gun violence is preventable; it is not inevitable. Research shows that less than 1 percent of a city’s population is responsible for 60 percent of gun-related violence. Healing-centered practices are necessary for changing this trajectory and opportunities for historically underserved communities are essential.”

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