When lawmakers gathered Friday to listen to experts from hospitals and community groups about efforts to reduce gun violence in Connecticut’s cities, there were no calls to defund the police.
But there were no calls, either, to give police more money. Instead, the emphasis was on funding the organizations saving lives in cities like Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury, where 70% of Connecticut’s gun homicides occur.
It was the second time this month that Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport and Senate chair of the Human Services committee, publicly convened lawmakers and intervention and prevention experts to talk about the gun violence plaguing communities across the state. Shaken by the death of a 3-year old in Hartford on April 10, Moore has organized the public forums to spotlight the work of community groups striving to reduce gun violence by providing mentoring, social services and support for violence survivors.
“Many of them don’t have the funding that they need to do the work. Many of them are doing so much work with so little resources,” said Moore.
“We are in desperate need to fund these organizations in our major cities that are woefully underfunded,” Jeremy Stein, the executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence.
Legislators from the Public Health, Human Services, Education and Judiciary Committees participated in the three-hour informational forum Friday. Rather than passing new gun laws that would likely disproportionately criminalize Black and brown residents, further widening racial disparities in the state’s justice system, Moore spoke of the importance of addressing the root causes of gun violence, not just the shootings themselves.
“I don’t always see it as just having a gun,” Moore said. “But it’s the poverty, it’s the lack of housing, it’s the lack of education.”
There is no hospital-based intervention program in Waterbury, Stein said, where community members go into hospitals and talk with shooting victims in an attempt to prevent retaliation. The money that went to Waterbury though the federal relief CARES Act went to the Police Athletic League, Stein said.
“The answer in Waterbury right now is the police. That can’t be the only answer,” Stein said. “You cannot arrest your way out of this problem.”
The first speaker was Susan Logan, the supervising epidemiologist from the Injury and Violence Surveillance Unit, in the Department of Public Health’s Office of Injury Prevention. She laid out the stakes: deadly gun violence increased across Connecticut by 39% in 2020, mirroring upticks seen in cities across the country.
There were 343 gun-related homicides between 2015 and 2019, Logan said. More than half of those victims were Black; almost one in four were Hispanic.
Other speakers reminded lawmakers that these issues aren’t new. Brent Peterkin, the former statewide director for Project Longevity, said the spikes in violence last year “obscure the enduring legacy of tragedy and trauma” that have afflicted communities across Connecticut for generations. Those murders traumatize young people for the rest of their lives, potentially pushing them into a state of despair and hopelessness.
“The youth in our communities, they’re born into a collective social memory for which violence is the norm,” said Peterkin, who said he has lost 14 friends to gun violence.
In his plan unveiled this week for how to spend money from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, Gov. Ned Lamont proposed giving $3 million to fund a package of gun violence prevention strategies, including community- and hospital-based violence intervention services like the groups lawmakers heard from Friday.
“That is nowhere near what we need to invest in our communities,” said Moore.
Several speakers mentioned House Bill 5677, which would extend Medicaid funding to community violence prevention services. Participants at the forum said the bill would demonstrate a commitment to the sustainability of local violence prevention programs.
The bill passed unanimously out of the Public Health Committee on March 29.
“Medicaid covers up to 95% of gunshot victims’ treatment in our hospitals. And that cost, as many of the speakers have already mentioned, runs up into the billions of dollars across the state, and many more across the nation,” said Andrew Woods, the executive director of Hartford Communities that Care, Inc. and the director of the CT Hospital Violence Intervention Program Collaborative.
Woods said prevention and intervention strategies drive down those costs by providing wraparound services, connecting individuals to employment opportunities, housing and mental health supports, helping people get back to their lives and become tax-paying residents.
The pandemic ushered in a violent year for Hartford, Woods said, with 222 shootings in 2020. His agency supported 195 families, most of whom were victims of gun violence.
Only a handful of people do hospital-based violence intervention work in Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven, Woods said. There is no backup “bench,” no relief on the horizon for those who have dedicated their lives to stopping the bloodshed.
“We can no longer do this,” Woods said, noting that it is unsustainable for them to get out of bed in the middle of the night to go to the hospital for hours, working with families, doctors and survivors of gun violence, then going back to their offices to connect families with services so they can bury their loved ones and begin to heal. “This work cannot be done without us building that bench and then resourcing this work for the long haul.”