Local Commentary

Applying the Lessons of Prevention Require Comprehension

By Terry Modglin

Human beings are inclined to more appreciate something — peace, security, or good health — in the absence thereof.

When people’s comfortable assumptions about these things are shattered, they may change their behavior to do what they should have been doing all along. They may also seek to lay blame because it is a simple thing to do, when rarely is the cause of their affliction one element or one person.
Human behavior is also inclined to understand less those essential factors that prevented bad things from happening — things like community cohesion that prevents crime, or vaccines that prevent pandemics. These building blocks are almost always underfunded or paid inadequate attention.

For 25 years I had the opportunity to work with dedicated leaders across the country to prevent crime, drugs, and violence in our communities. I took away nine lessons that apply just as well to our current pandemic crisis.

It takes a comprehensive approach: fixing one part of the system may overload another part. We used to say, “We’ve arrested all the drug dealers, now what?” Every solution for one element of the system — testing, contact tracing, ventilators, for example — must be done with other elements in mind.

Invest resources where they make the greatest difference: In preventing crime we knew that working with at-risk youth prevented the greatest expenditure of public resources later. Likewise, it only makes sense now to prevent infection among the most vulnerable – the old, health care workers, minorities.

Get community-buy-in: Americans are notoriously independent and want to own their own solutions. It takes the “appointed” elected leaders and the “anointed” in communities to attain success. Communities mobilize when they believe “The only one that can save us, is us.”

Could doesn’t mean should: We don’t believe that we should “blame” crime victims, yet often the behavior of the victim, such as confronting a street enemy, inebriation, is intricately connected to their injury. When the exercise of freedom of speech deliberately risks one’s own health and that of others, the results will not be surprising. The victim becomes an offender if they infect someone else.

Talk about the problem: You cannot solve a crime or pandemic problem unless leadership engages and dissects it, even if the causes are sometimes difficult to hear. Confidence begins with the source’s credibility. Specificity is the soul of credibility, and brings more realistic solutions. Keep talking about the problem until people see it as a wider solution.

Be humble: It is good to “steal” when it is others’ best practices. Other countries who have done better in handling crime — and this pandemic. Why is it so bad to say we are smart enough to learn from others? Why can’t we say we have now learned more and so we are changing our strategy? Why can’t we feature people who made a mistake that got others infected and realize the hurt they caused? Maybe it’s time for American Exceptionalism to become Exceptionally Realistic Americanism.

Call to our better angels to take action: It is sad when we turn away as our neighbor is becoming a victim of crime, or when we are pretty sure, being infected, even if by their own action. We know that we are all stronger together, and that the belief that we are our brother’s keeper is not just morality but also a strategy. While we huddle inside our doors to stay safe, our concern for what is happening in our community returns enduring rewards.

Make the call to action clear and simple: The famous “Take a Bite Out of Crime” campaign focused on simple actions people could take that add up to big changes. “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” was the byline of a campaign that saved tens of thousands of lives. Human creativity will fashion a slogan for this challenge, too.

Stop the blame game and act as one: We see individuals, communities, and cities that play the blame game when they feel inadequate to deal with a public policy challenge. That only creates a downward spiral of conditions. Most leaders and institutions at every level were unprepared to deal with this pandemic. Let’s learn from the past, not recreate it. We can be there for the other even if we cannot be with the other.

If we Americans want to save ourselves in this pandemic and remain the shining light for the world, we have to do better. We can start with learning the lessons of prevention.

Terry Modglin has a professional background in crime prevention