Tuesday, April 13, 2010

An End to Violence?

This semester I've been auditing a course in Public Health Law and it has caused me to research the differences between the law enforcement model for dealing with crime and violence with the model that health care professionals use.

A publication by the National Institute of Justice compared the two models and their approach to violence. The most clear striking difference is the law enforcement focus on punishing offenders and making victims serve as witnesses. Public health professionals see both offender and victim as in need of services, medical and psychological.

Clearly, the modern policing and public health responses to violence have much in common. They both emphasize preventing the occurrence of violence over responding after violence occurs. They emphasize community involvement in identifying violence problems, setting priorities among them, and devising solutions. Both approaches suggest the possibility that carving up the general violence problem into component parts may reveal solutions that would otherwise remain concealed; just as skin cancer and lung cancer call for different preventive strategies, so might drive-by shootings, convenience store robberies, and spouse assaults.

Both approaches recognize that violence or its consequences may be preventable not only by changing individuals' behavior but by changing their physical or social environments--for example, by isolating illegal firearms, alcohol, drug markets, or lone employees who handle cash from places where unemployed young men congregate. Finally, both approaches begin with the notion that a community's violence level may be reducible in either of two ways: through a relatively sweeping intervention, such as reducing media violence, or by accumulating small reductions in violence, each achieved by finding and solving some specific problem that underlies a cluster of violent events occurring at one location, involving one set of perpetrators and victims, or arising from one kind of situation. In short, both approaches seek significant reductions in overall violence by solving one underlying problem at a time.

Agreement on these shared principles by no means ensures that practitioners of public health and law enforcement will approach a concrete urban violence problem in the same way. Comparative analyses have suggested that some subtle differences in priorities may have important operational implications. For example, the criminal justice models, both traditional and new, retain a commitment to punishing perpetrators of violence -- as both a matter of justice and a means of demonstrating to children and youths that society condemns violence. In contrast, the writings of public health practitioners rarely discuss the moral implications of intentionally injuring another person. Public health practitioners tend to view victims of violence primarily as persons in potential need of psychological and other services, whereas law enforcement practitioners often think first of victims' roles as witnesses. Both approaches view communities as important players in violence prevention. However, community policing practitioners tend to view officers as problem solvers on behalf of a community, whereas public health professionals stress empowering communities to solve their own problems, with or without police help. |Reducing Violent Crimes and Intentional Injuries - NIJ Research in Action|(emphasis added, citations omitted)

These views are also reflected in the fact that public health relies on research a more scientific approach, while law enforcement uses a political and moral approach.

As I'm deeply mired in the legal and law enforcement view, I find the public health perspective interesting.

Update: One reader wrote in to suggest that there is a regrettable lack of understanding and trust between the health and law enforcement communities.

Perhaps that is why it can be so challenging to work on a multi-disciplinary team.

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