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Coalition of city and county groups strives to tackle violence, uplift poor communities

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 20, 2013: A minister and a civil rights group are credited with pulling together what’s being described as the first city-county effort to focus on addressing crime, building trust and reducing conflict among young people, and improving the quality of life in underserved communities.

The effort, still a work in progress, is called the St. Louis Initiative to Reduce Violence or SIRV, set up at the urging of the Rev. B.T. Rice of New Horizon Christian Church, and the St. Louis County branch of the NAACP.

The group has set up several task forces:

  • Reduce Violence Task Force to leverage law enforcement, court and community relationships to reduce violent crime.
  • Faith-Based Task Force to encourage religious leaders and organizations to support the program’s mission.
  • New Hope Task Force to reach out to children and teens through schools to demonstrate alternatives to violence.
  • Business Task Force to establish relationships with businesses.
  • Behavioral Health Task Force to work to understand the role of behavioral health in violence and improve mental health services.
  • Finance Task Force to raise money for the organization.

Among those speaking at a news conference to announce the initiative at the University of Missouri at St. Louis were Rice, former St. Louis Police Chief Daniel Isom, now a criminology professor at UMSL; St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, and St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch.
Organizers say both County Executive Charles Dooley, who was scheduled to speak, and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay had other commitments and couldn’t attend.

Isom said when the county NAACP mentioned SIRV to him, "I knew I had to be part of it." Isom said crime dropped in St. Louis last year, but added that there still are areas "that need some special attention." The two areas SIRV will focus on as a pilot project are Jennings and the 6th District on St. Louis’ north side.

"We want to see how many young people, how many residents we can serve," Isom said.  "The Criminology Department will look at what type of progress we are making. This is a long term process, and over a long period of time we think we have the key people involved to make a difference."

Few specific programs were announced, but Rice made clear that part of the focus would be on bringing peace to the streets, saying he was "tired of burying" young victims of street violence. "People shouldn’t be scared to sit on their porches. Our children shouldn’t be worried about being able to ride their bicycles and play in the yard."

When he was growing up, Rice recalled that "we would go out to play, play all morning, come in and eat a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk, then go back."

Some in the audience chuckled when Rice, who is a heavy-set minister, added, "some of us ate two or three sandwiches. We need to reclaim our communities and we need to do it now."

He said the group hoped to find an unspecified number of volunteers and raise an unspecified amount of money to focus on crime and family issues.

Chief Dotson said police alone cannot solve the crime problem, noting that his department made more than 30,000 arrests last year.

"We still need the community’s help to do more. Arrests will not make our neighborhoods safe. We must all work together, stand together -- law enforcement, politicians, the clergy, families and everyone -- to demand change."

St. Louis and St. Louis County "must work together as a whole and we must start to address children and youth (issues) as a regional problem, not just a city or county problem, he said."

The leaders were asked why they didn’t adopt one of the evidence-based approaches to crime that’s working in other cities.

"There is a program in Cincinnati working very well," Rice said. "There is a program in Boston that’s working well. Because it works in Cincinnati or Boston or Baltimore, it doesn’t mean it will work here. We wanted to craft a program that would work for the St. Louis region. That’s one reason we took a long period of time to dot every I and cross every T before we launched this pilot program."

SIRV seems in line with the type of community work James Buford said he wanted to do as he prepares to retire as CEO of the St. Louis Urban League. Buford has signed on as vice president of SIRV, with Rice as the president.

Buford has said finding ways to bring young black men into the economic mainstream is one of the biggest challenges left undone in St. Louis. He notes that many groups, including an Urban League unit, have worked on this issue. Through SIRV, he says, a coalition of groups will bring their skills to bear on this and other community problems.

"All those groups and initiatives were invited to the table," Buford says. "Let’s sit down and use the resources of everybody who has experience. It’s not just one initiative; it’s a collaborative. What’s good about this is that it’s inclusive. We value everyone’s effort. No one has the answer, but collectively if there is an answer, we will find it."

Among those welcoming this initiative were Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of the Jennings School District.

"This could make a large difference in that you have many partners who are now collaborating in how we mentor youth, support youth," Anderson said. "Many are doing great things in this area. But this is about bringing them together and sharing resources. We see problems in schools in terms of gangs and crime and economic issues. So it’s a serious problem, and it’s going to get some serious attention."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.