Violence is an Epidemic Destroying Southern Virginia

If you listen to the well-informed leaders in our community, there are many issues facing Danville and surrounding areas. Turn in one direction and you’ll hear that obesity is the greatest health danger we face. Turn in another direction and it’s the school system. One leader will say it’s a lack of jobs, while others will say it’s racism, confederate history, crime, college kids not returning home, the list is endless. However you look at it, the region is in trauma.

And, as in any trauma situation, the first step is to stop the bleeding. What should be metaphorical is unfortunately quite literal. Too many people are bleeding from violence, dying from violence, and yes, simply being violent.

For years, politicians and activists have called violence an epidemic, a word used to express that it is truly a health issue facing communities all over the country. A 2017 Harvard and Yale study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that violence is a contagious disease spread socially the same as AIDS, chicken pox, or any other infectious disease. Violence is a health issue that must be treated as a health issue.

If you are aware that someone in your family or social circle is a drug dealer, gang member, or simply carrying an illegal firearm and you don’t report them, then you are absolutely a moral accessory to murder when they kill someone. When you give a family member, who is a repeat offender, a soft-landing place when they get out of jail, again, you are absolutely a co-conspirator when they commit another crime. You can live in denial all you want. You can say you “ain’t no snitch.” Whatever. You might not be a snitch, but you are transmitting an infectious disease. You might as well be going around giving everyone AIDS.

I’ve watched politician after politician, religious and local leader after leader, place the blame for violence in one direction or another. One common direction is at the police, for the police are an easy target for blame in a society where police actions are far too frequently unnecessarily violent. But, police forces do not exist to stop violence. We don’t live in a Minority Report society where pre-cogs can foresee the violent actions of criminals. Police forces exist to solve crimes and arrest criminals, not to stop crime from happening. Trust me, nobody wants the police in charge of social change. Crime and violence are by-products of the community. Only the community can stop crime and violence before they happen.

In the Harvard/Yale study, the conclusion is quite simple. “Violence prevention efforts that account for social contagion, in addition to demographics, have the potential to prevent more shootings than efforts that focus on only demographics.” In a recent story on NPR, one of the earliest researchers of the violence epidemic recounted how placing non-law enforcement professionals in the community addressing the social contagion aspect of gun violence can decrease gun violence by over 60 percent. Simple things like counseling victims of gun violence and their social circle before there is retaliation make a tremendous difference. But programs like this take money to implement. Money that isn’t going to come into our area from anywhere but within our area because there are far too many communities throughout the United States dealing with the exact same issues with the exact same lack of solutions.

But, there is another aspect to the crime in Danville. It doesn’t take a super-genius from Harvard and Yale to connect the dots between our neighbor Martinsville, Virginia having the highest rate of opioid prescriptions per capita in the entire United States and gangs locating in the area. On average prescriptions in Martinsville are 100 times more than the national average. Throughout the United States, on average, 40 milligrams of opioids are prescribed per person per year. In Martinsville, it’s 4,000 milligrams per person. The fact that this statistic came out in July and the DEA didn’t raid every pharmacy and doctor’s office in the region the next day shows just how little our area means to anyone else in this country.

The cavalry is not coming to rescue us. We must do it ourselves. Our area non-profits and foundations must redirect their efforts and resources at the epidemic killing our community and destroying our future. Our local politicians need to stop racing each other to take credit for the simplest of pointless accomplishments and realize we don’t have two cities. There isn’t one city where economic development, fancy restaurants, and walking trails make the city a jewel of Virginia and a parallel universe city where unemployment is devastating, drug addiction is off the chart, and store owners are being gunned down in their local small businesses. Local religious leaders need to worry less about making sure this month’s sermon series has great music and find a way to get their parishioners active in saving our community. Our police need to use old- fashioned police tactics to identify all the criminals in the area and then put them in jail, all of them. (“Old-fashioned” is not some code-word for busting knuckles or whatever, it’s using intelligence to covertly identify the criminals.) But, most importantly, our citizens have to take it upon themselves to rid the community of the infectious viruses.

Landlords need to pay attention to the properties they own and stop renting to drug dealers. If you own a property and it’s a drug house, then you are either complacent and therefore an accessory to crime or you’re an idiot. Grandmothers need to stop letting drug addicts and drug dealers live with them. Parents need to stop bailing their kids out of jail when they inevitably fail another pee test. When you bail him or her out, you might as well be putting the meth pipe in their mouth and flicking the lighter. Women need to stop having sex with thugs and having babies with thugs who won’t be there to help raise the child who will most likely continue the cycle. (“Thug” is not a code-word and simply means any P.O.S. who is committing crimes.) Oh, and case in point, once a domestic abuser, always a domestic abuser. Once a drug dealer, always a drug dealer. Once a cheater, always a cheater. Once a gang member, always a gang member. Yeah, there are exceptions, but why not err on the side of caution and give that rehabilitation a good unbroken seven years to take root before you give them the benefit of the friggin’ doubt? I mean, know a few simple facts, like that 80 percent of domestic violence victims were already victimized by the same person before. Oh, and 80 percent of drug addicts go back to using drugs after prison or rehab. (Before you fact check me, realize, I have google too and I like round numbers.)

There are many long-term solutions to violence. Economic development, better schools, more jobs, using our community’s foundation money to fund four-year college educations for all local students, you know, all that stuff that happens at a snail’s pace. But, what can have an immediate impact is using science to address the issue of violence. Start by treating the problem as the epidemic it is and use “violence prevention efforts that account for social contagion.” Immediately, today, using local funds and local manpower and local accountability. We don’t need to hire a consultant to come in and tell us what Harvard and Yale have already told us. We need to choose a local person with the intelligence level necessary to implement a local treatment to a local sickness and put him or her on the job. Today. Give them a mandate and the funds and resources needed to put boots on the ground treating the social contagion before more innocent people die.