In a way, public violence is much like a virus: easily spread, fast-moving and devastating, advancing from block to block without mind to our fragile defenses.
That's why Allegheny County's new Public Health Commission on Preventing Violence and Promoting Community Mental Health will take a medical approach, bringing health advocates and neighborhood activists together to work on a persistent problem.
"We're approaching this from a public health perspective," Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said Thursday at a news conference announcing the commission. "It's something we'll have to look at as a community."
The commission, 23 people strong, is headed by Ron Voorhees, acting director of the Allegheny County Health Department, and the Rev. Earlene Coleman of Bethlehem Baptist Church in McKeesport. They're charged with coming up with a plan to reduce violence in Allegheny County, a challenge that has seen plenty of takers before.
This time will be different, said state Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Lincoln-Lemington, whose request for a comprehensive look at violence prompted the formation of the commission. A perennial figure on anti-violence boards and initiatives, he's looking to harness the political will generated after high-profile attacks -- Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; the shooting at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland -- to craft a lasting strategy.
"This cannot be a document that goes on a shelf," he said. "Today is the focus. The difference this time is the will."
But despite the invocation of recent national tragedies, Rev. Coleman and others on the commission were careful to keep the scope of the group wide, saying they're aiming higher than just preventing the next Western Psych shooting. Indeed, even the use of "community mental health" in the commission's title initially prompted concerns, officials said.
Rev. Coleman and Dr. Voorhees preached a more sociological version of community mental health, focusing on large-scale issues rather than specific interventions for severely mentally ill people.
"We must be very careful -- everyone will think we're referring to a psychological issue," Rev. Coleman said.
The concept of treating street violence as a medical epidemic isn't new. It was pitched four years ago by Rashad Byrdsong, a veteran community activist who heads Community Empowerment Association Inc. in Homewood.
Mr. Byrdsong, who is a member of the commission, suggested its creation again while sitting on Mr. Fitzgerald's Public Health Vision Team, which released the recommendation earlier this year.
Echoing Mr. Gainey's comments, he said government only now is finding the time to thoroughly examine the causes behind the stories on the 6 o'clock news.
"The issue of violence and gun violence have become part of the national consciousness," he said. "But many of us already know there are hundreds and thousands of black children dying every day."
The commission's preliminary suggestions are due in eight months, followed by a full report next May.
Andrew McGill: email@example.com or 412-263-1497. First Published May 9, 2013 12:00 AM