Viewing violence as a public health issue

Homicide is the fifth leading cause of death for African-American men of all ages, according to the CDC.

For those between 15 and 34, it's No. 1.

Typically, the issue of violence against black men comes up in the context of criminal justice, but some community leaders are pushing for a public health approach to the issue.

This isn't a new idea — it began in the 1980s — but the Center for Healthy African American Men through Partnerships recently held a forum on the subject: "Reducing Violence against African-American Males."

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MPR News host Tom Weber moderated a panel at the forum with Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a professor at Harvard's School of Public Health; Brett Grant, director of policy and research for Voices for Racial Justice; Gretchen Musicant, health commissioner for the city of Minneapolis; and William Blair Anderson, chief of police for the city of St. Cloud, Minn.

What does it mean to take a public health approach to violence?

"Fundamentally, it means not only are we understanding the risk factors, but we are understanding the risk factors for the purpose of prevention," Prothrow-Stith said.

Approaching violence like health departments have approached tobacco use or illnesses means using familiar tactics, she said, like pamphlets at the pediatrician's office, and doctors and nurses talking about it with families.

Musicant said the city of Minneapolis began to think of youth violence as a public health issue in 2006, after a group of community members pressed the city council to declare it one. She said she thinks people wanted violence to be identified as a public health issue because it brings "a sense of hopefulness, that we can conquer this together."

Chief Anderson shared his own childhood experience with violence, and what helped guide him away from that.

"I grew up in the city of Detroit, at its most violent time, when your chances for survival were greater in Beirut. I grew up in the most violent precinct," he said. "There are a variety of reasons that I'm sitting before you today, but one of the key ones is certainly that people intervened, and that intervention was sustained. As a young person growing up amidst all that violence, you have to have an alternative."

For the full discussion on violence against African-American men and public health, use the audio player above.