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Researchers help young men escape 'killing years'

| Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, 11:51 p.m.

Black males between 15 and 24 accounted for more than a third of homicide victims in Pittsburgh last year, an age range that University of Pittsburgh researchers dubbed the “killing years” in a study blaming preventable peer violence, not gang activity, for the deaths.

Slowing that cycle of violence is the goal of Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health Community Violence Prevention Project, researchers said in a report on Tuesday.

“Ultimately, we're trying to prevent retaliation,” said trauma surgeon Alan Murdock, a contractor with the Air Force who with his staff at UPMC Presbyterian engages with gunshot victims as part of a pilot program for the Prevention Project. “The shooters and the victims are often the same people. It just depends who is on which side of the gun today.”

Murdock and his crew start working with victims the moment they arrive, getting consent to contact outreach workers who talk with the family and community members to get at the heart of the crime.

Interventions include extra legal counsel, relocation, school tutoring, mental evaluations and treatment — whatever patients need to set up a social network to support a lifestyle free from the influences that put them in the hospital, said Richard Garland, visiting instructor in Pitt's behavioral and community health sciences department and co-author of the report.

Garland headed the defunct One Vision, One Life, a county-funded program that used ex-offenders to try to curb street violence by intervening with kids.

Defined as a purposeful, self-motivated conflict or perceived disrespect between two individuals who know each other, peer violence can involve a disagreement over a girl, money or even a pair of shoes, Garland said.

“We started looking around,” Garland said. “What if we could break the cycle of violence in some of these families with an intervention that involves the whole community? It could change the fabric of a generation.”

“People are very quick to label gun violence as criminal or gang-related. It's not that simple,” Pitt researcher Steven Albert said. “There are very specific environmental and policy trends that drive homicide, and that's what we want to address.”

Thirty-six percent of Pittsburgh homicide victims in 2012 fit into the “killing years” age range, Albert said, and more than 31 percent were likely related to peer violence, according to the study.

Researchers said funding for the Prevention Project will come from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. The program would target gunshot patients, often attempted homicide victims, to begin the process of healing psychologically and physically.

All four hospitals that provide Level 1 trauma services in Allegheny County — Allegheny General Hospital and UPMC Presbyterian, Mercy and Children's — have agreed to host the Prevention Project, a first among similar programs nationwide.

Garland, Albert and others addressed Pittsburgh's 2012 homicides with a team of mental health professionals, family counselors, psychologists, legal advocates, police and community members the same way they are looking at this year's 72 reported homicides in Allegheny County.

In 2012, 95 percent of homicides were the result of a gunshot, according to data from the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime.

Murdock estimated the program could reach at least one-quarter of the 200 to 400 gunshot victims the hospital treats annually, potentially reducing unpaid hospital bills, incarceration fees and lives lost to violence.

“I see some patients six times, but others we can help get cleaned up and on a better path before that second and third visit,” he said. “We know we can't reach everyone, but if we help one, it's worth the effort.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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