There wasn’t a blueprint in North Carolina when Tracie Campbell and her colleagues at the Mecklenburg County Department of Public Health set out to start an Office of Violence Prevention. No other city or county in the state had taken on such a task, nor was there a state-level office at the time to serve as a model. In November 2020, Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte and several of its suburbs, became the first in the state to do it.

Three years later, the Mecklenburg Office of Violence Prevention is a centerpiece of a growing public health effort to combat gun violence in and around North Carolina’s largest city. Driven by a combination of data and community input, the office leads, coordinates, and funds programs and partnerships, with the overarching goal of reducing violence in Mecklenburg County by 10 percent over five years. And it could serve as a model for local public health departments across the country that want to start their own amid an increase in funding from the federal government for similar programs.

A dedicated violence prevention office housed within a public health department is certainly not a new idea; several states and localities across the country have done this. But it was a new idea in North Carolina — and relatively new in the South. Campbell and her colleagues were also determined to deviate from the way government normally works, seeking from the outset to take a community-driven approach.

“Typically, what we find with government plans is that government kind of sits down and decides what they think that people need,” Campbell told me. “They come up with a plan and say, ‘This is what we’re giving to you and you should be so grateful.’ And that is not what we did.”

Instead, the fledgling office reached out directly to Mecklenburg County residents, seeking input through online surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews, including with people detained in county jails who had previously contributed to the violence. 

“This is a lofty plan. And these are certainly very aspirational goals. But, you know, you have to start somewhere.” 

Tracie Campbell

In a few months, more than 400 residents of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County had weighed in. Their perspectives informed “The Way Forward,” the office’s comprehensive plan to reduce community violence. The plan includes more than 20 strategies ranging from improvements to community infrastructure and services, like trash pickup and investments in public spaces, to people-first initiatives like hospital-based violence intervention, community youth mentorship, and parenting education programs. Each of the strategies comes with a specific target goal and evaluation metrics to ensure the plan is actually working. 

“This is a lofty plan. And these are certainly very aspirational goals,” Campbell told me. “But, you know, you have to start somewhere.” 

Like most other cities across the country, Charlotte and Mecklenburg County saw a surge of gun violence in 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Public outcry for a plan to blunt the surge soon followed, leading to the idea for an Office of Violence Prevention. “People in Mecklenburg County were noticing this rise in violence that we were having,” Campbell said. “And they literally were asking our local leaders, what are you going to do about this?”

Among 26 American cities with a population between 500,000 and 1 million people, Charlotte had the 10th highest rate of fatal shootings from 2018 to 2022. In 2020, homicides in the city spiked some 15 percent. But some communities bore the brunt of that surge, particularly Black communities that have long suffered from the effects of redlining and disinvestment — and higher rates of gun violence.

A community member who responded to the office’s outreach process put it bluntly: “We don’t talk about the fact that there’s not good public transportation, there’s food deserts, there’s not good educational opportunities, not good job opportunities, there’s environmental inequity.”

By targeting resources, collaborating with other agencies, and working with local officials to drive policy change, the office hopes to make a dent in that inequity. “A lack of investment has occurred historically in many of these areas that are experiencing high rates of violence,” Campbell told me. “We are thinking about the disparities that people face and this holistic approach helps us address all of the issues that people are having.”

Each strategy relies on partnerships between the county, the city of Charlotte, and dozens of community organizations and nonprofits working on the ground. That’s essential because the office can’t implement many of the strategies on its own: It doesn’t have the authority, the money, or the people to go at it alone. The office itself runs with a modest staff of three (though that will soon grow to five), and its role is not to directly run all of the programs but to coordinate partnerships and provide funding, training and technical assistance, and other types of support and guidance. 

“Although work has been done before this plan existed — before this office existed — there was no one driving the bus, if you will,” said Campbell, who oversees the Office of Violence Prevention as its senior health manager. “There was a lot of silo work. And so this office is about breaking down those silos.”

Some of the strategies are already operating, like Alternatives to Violence, a community violence interruption effort in Charlotte first piloted two years ago. That’s a partnership between the city, county, and several nonprofit service providers. It uses the Cure Violence model, which relies on credible community members to interrupt cycles of retaliatory violence.

Alternatives to Violence is expanding now to two more sites in Charlotte, through grants from the city of Charlotte and the Mecklenburg Office of Violence Prevention, and some funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. An early evaluation of Alternatives to Violence by the University of North Carolina Charlotte’s Urban Institute found promising results, including evidence that gun crimes — specifically homicides and gun assaults — were significantly lower in the program’s catchment area, though it’s too early to say if the results are conclusive. Evaluations of the program and of the other components of the strategic plan are continuing. 

Aside from Alternatives to Violence, the office also runs public awareness campaigns, a free gun lock program, and a Violence Prevention Collaborative to support grassroots organizations. It’s also working with partners to launch a program called Handle With Care to support students who’ve experienced trauma, including exposure to gun violence.

Working toward a 10 percent reduction in gun violence in five years could be challenging. But so far this year, homicides in Mecklenburg County are down 35 percent compared to this point in 2022. That is part of a nationwide trend of declining murder rates this year, but it exceeds the national decline of 12 percent.

Throughout the process, community members will continue to have direct input, including through advisory panels of community members who will help guide the implementation of the strategic plan.

“We want them to keep us honest,” Campbell said. “It makes sure that we don’t deviate from what we said we were gonna do. And so that is one of the ways for us to keep community voice at the forefront.”

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