Cleveland's New Youth Violence Reduction Chief Says Progress Will Take a Community Effort

Jan 11, 2017

Last month, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson announced a new cabinet-level position focused on reducing youth violence. Last week, Duane Deskins was sworn-in as chief of the office of Prevention, Intervention and Opportunity for Youth and Young Adults. WKSU’s Kevin Niedermier talked with Deskins, a former federal and county prosecutor, about the goals and challenges of his new position.

Deskins' task is coordinating the city’s public and private resources to work together on giving young people alternatives to crime and violence. That includes health and education, law enforcement, social service and the business communities. He says giving families of at-risk kids tools to help re-direct them from crime is one focus, a job made more difficult because of social media.

Social Media Making it Harder to Deal With Violence
“I think that a lot of our disputes are triggered by comments made perhaps by one group of individuals against another group, and many adults don’t have the tools and skills to regulate the habits of their kids.

"Even the best of parents feel somewhat guilted in the idea that if their kid wants a smart phone: 'I’ve got to give the kid a smart phone because all the other kids have smart phones.'

"And the point of it is that it’s a level of maturity. Is your kid mature enough, and are you able to monitor sufficiently their usage of social media?”

He doubts "we can stop young kids from doing or saying things that they shouldn’t. That happens in every community. So, I don’t want to stigmatize people who live in the Cleveland area that they’re somehow different from kids who live elsewhere.

"But one of the things I think are very important and that we can work on is trying to imbue in our children,  -- that small number who do take to violence in response to provocation -- the better tools of how to deescalate that, of how to process that not every slight needs to be met with violence.”

All of the Community Will be Needed to Reduce Youth Violence
While with Cuyahoga County, Deskins developed a diversion program that has successfully kept many first-time juvenile offenders from returning to crime. He says much of what he learned is being applied in Cleveland and will require the entire community’s help.

“You often saw that simply being in the wrong place or bumping into the wrong person could be met with violence on a horrific level. And I think that every time we encounter one of these young people that we actually teach them something that they didn’t know before. And that is how to respond to a slight or provocation in a non-violent way as most children do.

"I think that’s something the research shows can be done. And it just takes a commitment on the part of the community, and I mean that in the broadest sense, public and private, government and non, to try to help our kids who have that propensity. Because if we can change that group now, we won’t have to worry about them when they’re adults.”

Businesses Have a Stake in Helping Reduce Violence
Deskins says his office has not yet rolled out how it plans to involve multiple segments of the community, "but whether you’re in government or in business, safety is in paramount importance to the public.

"Whether it be businesses that come into the community or businesses already in the community, the workers there want to be safe. They want to be able to engage in activities after work and do so safely

"Many of them are looking at the city-center as a place where they want to locate their business and so they have an interest in strengthening that level of safety. We have a thriving convention business, the same is true there. And so, we're trying to show at every stage this is a community-wide issue. Whether it be the bottom line for business or be the matter of community safety, our interests on this issue are completely aligned, and that we have a better chance of success if we collaborate together.”

Funding for the city's youth-violence effort comes from the city’s income tax increase that voters passed in November.