TAMPA — Can communities reduce violence by borrowing from strategies that cut smoking and increased seat belt use?
That question is shaping how Hillsborough County responds to the mass murder of first-graders in Newtown, Conn.
"The issue of violence needs to be addressed from a public health standpoint," said County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who proposed an initiative that is just getting started.
In January, when Beckner proposed a gun buyback as a result of the Newtown massacre, his colleagues on the County Commission said no.
But they did agree to create a task force of law enforcement, local officials, school administrators and mental health specialists to explore a data-driven effort to reduce violence through a public awareness campaign.
County officials already have met with local sheriff's and police officials.
They plan to hold a roundtable with local mayors on March 19, with a followup report to the County Commission on April 3.
"At the end of this we will have a community action plan," Beckner said.
If Hillsborough moves ahead, it likely will consider teaming up with the nonprofit Prevention Institute, which is affiliated with the Harvard School of Public Health and has worked on similar projects with 18 cities around the United States.
One of those is Minneapolis, which has worked with the Prevention Institute and its programs since 2007, after the city, once tagged "Murderapolis," organized its own campaign in response to a two-year surge in homicides, armed robberies and aggravated assaults involving youth.
Using a public-health model to tackle youth violence led to "hugely successful results," Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said. "I would strongly recommend doing it."
The Minneapolis campaign was organized around four goals:
• Making sure there was a trusting adult in every child's life, whether through family, mentors, job-training, college and career centers in local high schools or after-school activities, which have seen youth participation rise.
• Intervening at the first sign of risk, which has included focusing on teen pregnancy rates, which have dropped, curfews and truancy and graduation rates.
• Bringing troubled kids back from the brink through diversion programs and employment for gang-affiliated minors.
• Unlearning the culture of violence. In Minneapolis, this has involved developing a public education campaign focused on youth, broadening the discussion to include mayors from other cities.
"That issue of intervening at the first sign of at-risk behavior is, I think, most important," Rybak said, but the exercise of creating the four "buckets" to organize the capabilities and efforts of local organizations is "a way to map out what you have in your community."
The campaign first focused on five neighborhoods, and in those juvenile crime dropped 40 percent in two years, said Rachel Davis, a managing director of the Prevention Institute, which is based in Oakland, Calif.
Now it its sixth year, the program has seen the citywide number of youths arrested or suspected in violent crimes drop from 2,652 in 2006 to less than 1,100 in 2011, according to a city report last year.
Incidents involving guns and juveniles dropped by nearly two-thirds for the same time, and assault arrests are down.
Addressing the culture of violence also led Minneapolis officials to "support sensible illegal gun laws" — such as stronger penalties for people who sell or distribute illegal guns to juveniles — and working "to change community values around the acceptance of guns," according to the blueprint for action in Minneapolis.
While such programs don't always "look exactly the same in every place," Davis said, their similarities to public health campaigns include a comprehensive effort focused on what contributes to the problem in the first place, ranging from what kids learn to the policies of large organizations.
But the goal in each is to shift the norms surrounding seemingly entrenched behaviors.
Take smoking, which in California is not only banned in restaurants (like Florida), but, since 1998, also in bars.
"When people walk into those places, that's really taken for granted," Davis said. "That was pretty unimaginable 20 years ago."
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he's open to meeting with county officials and other mayors.
On a recent Saturday, he was at a scene of a Jackson Heights shooting where police had placed about 20 small orange cones on the ground — one for each shell casing recovered from the scene.
"So, yeah, I'm concerned," Buckhorn said. "We've got young men killing each other over neighborhood disputes and putting everyone at risk in the process."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.