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St. Louis urged to invest in comprehensive solutions to youth violence

 Mike McLively, policy director for the Giffords Center for Violence Intervention said St. Louis needs comprehensive solutions to gun violence among young people.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis officials aim to address a rise in gun violence by young people. To effectively do so, the city needs to address the housing, mental health and other needs of those involved in violence, said Mike McLively, policy director for the Giffords Center for Violence Intervention.

St. Louis leaders are looking for ways to protect young people in the face of rising gun violence.

After a shooting downtown left one teenager dead and 11 others injured last month, Mayor Tishaura Jones called on youth leaders to help find safe activities for teens.

The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and other organizations have pledged to help young people find employment. The city also extended weekend hours for two recreation centers – one in north St. Louis and one in south St. Louis — until 1 a.m.

The Giffords Center for Violence Intervention is helping cities across the country find solutions to gun violence. In 2022, the center published a report about violence in St. Louis and suggested strategies for the city to implement. St. Louis Public Radio’s Lilley Halloran spoke to the organization’s policy director, Mike McLively, about the city’s efforts to reduce violence among young people.

Lilley Halloran: What should the city’s next steps be in addressing youth violence?

Mike McLively: I think honestly where the city needs to start – and I think this is happening right now – is conducting a very thorough problem analysis. It’s a technical term, but really it's just reviewing, in an intentional way, the shootings that have happened and figuring out … the commonalities. Where are the communities where we need to be investing the most resources? And to me, it's really like scaling up the investment in the systems that address risk factors. So it's not like any community-based organization, but those that are working on housing security, those that are working on behavior and mental health at the intersection of people who are involved in violence. That is where we're going to get the most traction on this issue.

Halloran: What are the risk factors that lead to increased violence among teenagers?

McLively: Contact with the criminal justice system from an early age is one of the primary risk factors. Economic indicators — lack of employment opportunities, living in communities where there's high levels of racial segregation, housing density and lack of housing. Then there's the individual risk factors, obviously, of drug use [and] being out of school. Not a lot of cities are set up to offer services to that population. But those who are making the decision to do that are seeing results.

Halloran: Is there an environment where young people feel like they need weapons to protect themselves?

McLively: People feel like they need a gun because their communities are violent. I think the quickest way we're going to get to people putting down their guns is creating safety in communities. And that means investing in a whole lot of systems that we have not invested in, and not just law enforcement. In many communities where violence is high, more law enforcement is not making them feel safer.

Halloran: St. Louis, in response to youth violence, has extended the hours of its recreation centers in the city. Is that something that teenagers are interested in?

McLively: We hear a lot from folks in areas where violence is high that there's a lack of services. So offering after-school services … is an important part of the strategy for reducing violence, especially in the summer months when kids are out of school and there's more opportunity for them to be interacting with each other. So overall, I think yes, there is appetite for that. But it has to be done in a way that appeals to them, or else forget about it.

Halloran: On top of extending its recreation center hours, what else can the city do to make sure that youth are safe?

McLively: The city and county are completely separate entities, and a lot of violence that happens in the city and the county [moves] across borders and don't mind those political lines. And from what we've heard, there's still a lot left to do in terms of coordinating the work that's happening in the county, particularly the areas that border on the city. And the city itself, [there’s] still a lot of room for improvement there.

Halloran: What strategies are being used elsewhere to make cities safer for young people?

McLively: We need interventions that are tailored to folks who are actually doing the shootings. One of the things we know is it's a very small percentage of any given population. So you really need to be able to scale up your ecosystem to identify and intervene with those groups. So the cities that are doing that well … are like Los Angeles, New York. Those are cities that had like 2,000 homicides in the early '90s and now are in the low hundreds.

So we've seen huge progress, and St. Louis can do the same thing. It just requires building out a lot of systems and really bringing lots of different stakeholders to the table. I think for the longest time police have been thought of as the only response to violence. … And there's so much more we can do with health and education and employment opportunities. All of those things are important when it comes to reducing violence. It takes this all-hands-on-deck approach, and the cities that are doing that all-hands-on-deck approach are seeing more results.

Lilley Halloran was a Summer '23 News Intern at St. Louis Public Radio. She is studying Journalism and Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri.