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In Louisville, millions in COVID-19 relief will go to stem violence. Advocates say it’s not enough

A view from street level of Louisville's city hall
Eleanor Hasken
City officials will have to decide whether to continue funding for youth violence prevention programs after federal dollars run out next year.

The $67 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds Louisville lawmakers allotted for public safety programs won’t be the permanent solution that advocates, experts and lawmakers say is needed to curb deadly crime in the city.

The one-time injection of funds will pay for a smattering of violence prevention and intervention programs, public safety employee salaries and police technology, but the money runs out in 2024, and a new report that has the attention of policymakers and politicians emphasizes that more sustainable solutions are needed to save lives.

Researchers with the local nonprofit Greater Louisville Project examined how the city is using federal COVID-19 relief funding to impact violent crime. They found young people between 15 and 24 years old were disproportionately victims of homicides. The researchers also looked at data about who was charged for local homicides, and found an over-representation of 15- to 24-year-olds. The current surge in killings comes in the wake of funding cuts for youth development programs, according to the report.

Harrison Kirby, a data scientist for Greater Louisville Project, said the reduction in funds for youth programs can’t be cited as the cause for today’s violent crime surge — but it definitely raises concerns.

“For so many people, when we showed them data about the number of youth being impacted by violence today, they kind of felt like it made sense because of how we as a city have been approaching this issue without the same amount of seriousness that we should have over the past 20 years,” he said.

Kirby found that from 2011 to 2021 lawmakers slashed funding by 37% for four of the city’s core departments that work with youth: the Office of Youth Development, the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, KentuckianaWorks and the Youth Detention Center, which closed in Jan. 2020 after budget cuts. Some state lawmakers are nowadvocating for the reopening of a youth detention facility in Louisville.

In that same 10-year period, annual homicide tallies rose to record highs in 2020 and then again in 2021 — when people aged 15-24 accounted for 30% of the 197 deaths police reported that year, according to the report.

Police, OSHN to share most funds

The Louisville Metro Police Department will get more than $34 million of the federal funds. Their allocations include $6 million for surveillance cameras and more than $17 million to create an Accountability and Improvement Bureau that will help facilitate any reforms mandated by an expected consent decree from the U.S. Department of Justice.

A spokesperson for LMPD declined to provide any more detail about the allocations, or make any police officials available for an interview.

The Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods will get $24 million of the federal funding. Former Mayor Greg Fischer established the department in 2012 and in the years following struggled to convince local lawmakers to provide the budget resources its leaders say are needed.

The federal funds include an $8.5 million allotment for an Office of Youth Development that will consist of three employees to find grants and analyze data, $8 million for the violence interrupters program and $4 million for a trauma therapy, among other initiatives.

A spokesperson for the office declined to comment for this report, and deferred to Mayor Craig Greenberg. A spokesperson for Greenberg did not provide a comment.

‘What are we going to do’

The federal ARP funding will help plug some of the budget holes left by recent cuts, but service providers like Jud Hendrix are already worrying about what will happen when the money is gone.

“That's the question everybody's asking,” he said.

Hendrix is the executive director of the local nonprofit Interfaiths Path to Peace, an organization that’s getting a piece of the federal funding to hire a team of violence interrupters — essentially a group of people that will work to build connections with people at risk of being tied up with violent crime.

“We're gonna have this incredible resource of people doing the work. And what are we going to do when the funding ends,” he said.

This is the “Catch-22” of funding violence reduction programs with the federal ARP money, said Louisville Metro Council Member Brent Ackerson, a Democrats who represents District 26 and is chair of the council’s public safety committee.

“If we did nothing, your story would say, ‘Why did you all not address this?’” he said. “If we do something — which is better than nothing — the concern is what are we going to do in a couple years when this money runs out?”

Ackerson said roads, sewers and police take precedence over social programs when it’s time to hash out a budget — and he doesn’t think there will be much room in the upcoming budget cycles for new spending.

Council Member Brent Ackerson

Council President Markus Winkler, a Democrat representing District 17, said he’s not so worried about what happens when the federal funds run out.

“To me, that's not really the important question,” he said. “If a program is working, and is addressing the specific need in our community, we have an option to fund it.”

But he said it’s critical programs produce results lawmakers can see, which he knows can be difficult when dealing with something like violence prevention.

For one reason, the impacts aren’t often immediate. They happen over time, said Rashaad Abdur-Rahman, a former director of the Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods who now runs the local nonprofit Racial Healing Project. Another reason is that local politicians may be unwilling to envision violence reduction efforts without police, he said.

“Both the mayor's office and city council have a lot of political pressure to continue funding police at unprecedented levels,” he said. “There's a lot of these other programs that are genuinely intended to provide prevention or intervention services that are typically scrapping for any kind of city dollars that are available or relying heavily on federal funds.”

Abdur-Rahman stressed that violence reduction programs cannot succeed on their own. There is an ecosystem of support that’s required to stop violence as it’s happening and prevent people from being exposed to violence. He said that includes access to safe housing, good jobs, education and mental health resources.

“If I’m not being exposed to violence, but I'm still living in a house with lead in the walls, there's pollution in the air and I can't get fresh food to eat, then I'm still experiencing violence, that’s structural violence,” he said. “We still need to be thinking about what human beings need to thrive in this city.”

This story has been updated.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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