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Hired To Lead Violence Reduction Efforts, Anthony Smith Leaves Mark — And Work To Do For Louisville

Rush Hour in Louisville, Kentucky Skyline at Sunrise
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Rush Hour in Louisville, Kentucky Skyline at Sunrise

About 16 years ago, Anthony Smith set out on a path to help young black men and boys have better outcomes in their lives. For nearly three years, he's been director of Metro Louisville's Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods.

Last week, he announced he is stepping down from that role to head a national effort to eliminate violence in cities across the U.S., with a focus on young African-American men.

Smith will be the inaugural chief executive officer of Cities United, a Washington D.C.-based collective of mayors from across the nation working to reduce violence by 50 percent in each of their cities.

"This is a dream job," Smith said. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but this is what I want to do."

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said the move is bittersweet.

"I didn't want him to leave," he said.

Fischer appointed Smith to be safe and healthy neighborhoods director in 2013, following a recommendation of an expansive report from a task force the mayor created in response to a deadly shootout in broad daylight in the Parkland neighborhood earlier that year.

Almost two years after that report's release, Fischer credited Smith's department with attracting funding that will support prevention and intervention efforts for years to come. He also points to Smith's effort to help launch the Zones of Hope initiative, One Love Louisville campaign and the Right Turn program as other successes.

But Fischer said the work put in motion by Smith is a long way from finished. Smith's position was created as a long-term action to help combat violence in the city; it was not designed as a quick fix, the mayor said.

That's evident in the statistics. Louisville's homicide rate has remained relatively consistent since 2007 — and increased this year from 2014. The number of gunshot-related incidents has ticked  up slightly since 2010, according to information from Louisville Metro Police.

The number of suicides is spiking this year, and overdose deaths in Louisville are surging.

Metro Councilman Kelly Downard, a District 16 Republican, was initially skeptical of how Smith's position would be used to improve safety and reduce violence. Asked last week if he thought Smith had succeeded, Downard said "violence has not been reduced."

"Whether it would have gone up more without him, I can't tell," he said.

Downard said he didn't know what the position did when it was announced, and "maybe I'm a little confused now."

"I think the one thing he did was created dialogues with people in the neighborhoods," he said.

Despite the numbers, Smith said he is confident city government is making strides to fuel long-term success.

"I think the city is poised to get safer," he said. "I think you've got more kids having better outcomes, but there's still too many people inside that cycle of violence."

He said current and forthcoming initiatives — such as an effort to intervene with shooting victims while they're in the hospital — will help break that cycle.

Still, Smith said the rampant growth of heroin and the perpetual plague of illicit guns on the street are also problems that must be addressed if the city wants to see fewer violent deaths.

To combat these and other challenges, Smith said Metro government needs to do better at keeping school-aged children on track and in school. Additionally, he said the city needs to work harder to find jobs for residents.

"When you look at the unemployment rates for west Louisville and some of south Louisville, where they're double and sometimes triple our average unemployment rate, we've created a system where we've got to do more work," he said. "We've got to create pipelines from those neighborhoods so people can have better opportunities."

Ricky Jones, chair of the Pan-African studies department at the University of Louisville, praised Smith's work.

"(He) has done an incredible job dealing with daunting issues raised by the original task force," Jones said. "He has exhibited sincere passion, connectivity and innovation."

Jones was a part of the 40-member task force, which in 2013 made 80 proposals to help reduce violence in the city.

Smith said at least two items from the task force still need serious attention: better support for residents re-entering communities after serving prison sentences, and more access to employment resources for young people.

Before becoming director of city's violence prevention efforts, Smith was director of network organizing for the now-defunct Network Center for Community Change. He's also served on Louisville's Board of Health and worked with the 15,000 Degrees initiative, a wing of the city's broader 55,000 Degrees program.

The Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhood had one other staff member. Smith earned $81,600 leading the office.

Smith will begin his new role with Cities United on Nov. 2. He'll continue to be based in Louisville. Officials with the city's office of community building are looking to fill his role immediately.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.