What’s the plan for preventing the next violent attack?

Today and tomorrow in Detroit, 20 Democratic candidates will gather to talk about the economy, health care, immigration and the direction of our country. But one issue likely will be left out of the conversation: What to do about the steady rise of extremist and other forms of targeted violence in the U.S., such as the weekend shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California.   

Nearly all the candidates have denounced President Trump’s incendiary rhetoric. Some have focused on limiting gun purchases — Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) would sign an executive order mandating background checks and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) proposed nationwide gun licensing.   

Although each of these actions is important, none of the candidates has weaved such ideas into comprehensive strategy for addressing the growing number of attacks such as we have seen in San Bernardino, Pittsburgh, Orlando, Poway, Parkland and, of course, Charlottesville.  

Protecting against this type of violence is not only about access to guns or more resources for law enforcement, or securing places of worship or other “soft” targets. It’s also about drawing upon and investing in the public health prevention strategies that value early detection and early action by non-law enforcement professionals and others in the community.  

Every day in communities all over the U.S., teachers, health care professionals, clergy and other community advocates have to make determinations and take action if they come into contact with a person who might be dangerous. This means that preventing extremist and other forms of targeted violence is not only law enforcement’s challenge.

Despite the progress in some of the United States’ closest allies, including in Australia, Canada and Europe, our government leaders are not doing enough to make advances in this space. We are reactive, not preventive, and are guided more by fear or assumptions than scientific evidence or sound theory. The limited efforts begun during the George W. Bush administration, and further developed under President Obama, to build civil society’s and local communities’ capacities to protect against extremist violence have been dismantled or undermined by the Trump administration.

Yet, simply replacing the current occupant of the White House with someone who promotes inclusion and diversity won’t be sufficient. This needs to be complemented by new policies, programs and resources — including at the state and local levels. 

To get the ball rolling, at this week’s debates the candidates should be asked to outline steps they would take in this area. Here are some ideas worth considering:  

First: Convene a White House summit within the first 100 days of taking office of leaders from national-level institutions, associations and networks outside of the security/law enforcement sphere (to include mayors, teachers, universities, public health professionals and religious and interfaith groups, as well as the private sector) to formulate initiatives for each of them to contribute to a “whole of society” effort to reduce targeted violence in the United States.  

Second: Commit to reinstating, expanding and reorienting federal funding for locally-led efforts to prevent extremist violence that President Trump slashed. The money would support community-based and other local organizations interested in initiating or expanding programs aimed at helping to identify those most vulnerable to, or at risk of, becoming radicalized to extremist violence, regardless of its type, or recruited into violent extremist groups and helping to steer them down a non-violent path. This can be done through a variety of means, including by specially trained mentors, counselors, mental health professionals and social workers, and sometimes in collaboration with local police   

With the Obama-era funding of $10 million over two years woefully inadequate, to develop and sustain community-level programs and train local professionals and practitioners financing levels should be brought more in line with those of U.S. allies — around $100 million per year, given population size and threat levels.   

Third: Some of this funding could be used to create a national network to prevent extremist and other targeted violence made up of multi-disciplinary professionals and practitioners around the country with violent prevention or other relevant (e.g., mental health, drug or broader crime prevention) experience and expertise. This would establish a network of national-state-local hotlines for people to call, and would train community engaged bystanders and rapid intervention teams so as to increase the capacity of communities to protect themselves.    

When the next attack comes before November 2020 — as we know it will — each candidate will be asked for his or her reaction; each will try to find the right words for the moment. However, this is an issue that needs more than clever words; it requires leadership and policies that emphasize prevention, both of which have been lacking. This week’s debates offer an opportunity to begin to address that lacuna.

Eric Rosand is the director of The Prevention Project, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, and former senior counterterrorism official in the Obama administration’s State Department. Follow him on Twitter @RosandEric.

Stevan Weine, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, where he also is the director of Global Medicine and the director of the Center for Global Health.

Tags 2020 campaign Cory Booker Crime Donald Trump Gilroy Garlic Festival Mass shootings Violence

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