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Gun violence in St. Louis prompts citywide hospital, university prevention program

A police officer speaks to a woman after an October 2016, shooting.
File photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

After 205 people died from gun violence in St. Louis last year, the city's research universities and hospitals decided to take steps to reduce such deaths. Police data show there have been 10 homicides in St. Louis this year so far. 

The St. Louis Area Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Program, to begin this summer, will employ medical treatment and therapy to reduce deaths and new injuries among gunshot, stabbing and assault victims.

Washington University, Saint Louis University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis will collaborate on the effort. The medical centers involved include Barnes-Jewish Hospital, St. Louis Children’s Hospital, SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital and SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.

“We know that for a lot of the people who do die from gun violence, particularly in urban areas, they’ve had previous injuries," said William Powderly, director of Washington University’s Institute for Public Health. "They’ve been involved in violent actions before.”

He said the citywide approach would ensure patients have access to services if they move between hospitals.

Participation by gun violence victims is voluntary, but Powderly said professionals can most effectively help interrupt cycles of violence when someone is first admitted to the hospital. That's clear from research on a violence-prevention pilot program that focused on victims of violence treated at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, he said.

“Victims in their program who went through the counseling and went through the support ... none of them came back to the hospital with a new episode of violence,” Powderly said. “Whereas those who were not participating, there were actually deaths.”

The scene where a St. Louis police officer shot a 22-year-old man at North Kingshighway and McPherson Avenue in 2016.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
People gathered at the intersection of North Kingshighway and McPherson Avenue to watch St. Louis police officers after an officer-involved shooting in 2016.

Children's Hospital President Joan Magruder said funds from the project will help extend existing violence prevention resources to adults.

New Orleans, Baltimore and Boston have implemented violence-prevention programs, but the collaboration among St. Louis hospitals and universities is the first of its scale, Powderly said. Health professionals also expect the project will lower hospital costs and close health service disparities among residents across the city.

The 2014 shooting death of Chelsea Harris, 16, launched discussions at Washington University that led to initiating the program. Harris was the mentee of Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton’s wife, Risa Zwerling Wrighton.

Mark Wrighton called the program “crucial” to interrupting a cycle of violence in the region.

“This kind of program is a wonderful example of the power and impact of research universities and hospitals, working together to face head-on one of America’s greatest public health challenges,” he said. 

Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon). Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.

Ashley Lisenby is the news director of St. Louis Public Radio.