Architect of Mayor Frank Jackson’s anti-violence, crime efforts with youth leaving post

April 25, 2018

Architect of Mayor Frank Jackson’s anti-violence, crime efforts with youth leaving post

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Duane Deskins, the architect of Mayor Frank Jackson’s plan to address violence and crime in city neighborhoods, has resigned and will leave his $120,000-a-year post Friday. 

Deskins is expected to disclose his decision at a Wednesday morning meeting of City Council’s Safety Committee, where he is to give an overview of the plan for addressing youth violence as a public-health issue. 

His departure comes just 17 months after his appointment as as chief of prevention, intervention and opportunity for youth and young adults, a newly created post. He told cleveland.com in an earlier interview that he is leaving of his own accord.  

“When you’re given a charge by the mayor you do it,” Deskins said. “But when you’ve completed that charge, that’s it.” 

What was his job? 

Jackson has long maintained that crime and violence -- particularly crime and violence involving youths -- are symptoms of a larger health issue that results from social problems. 

Children who are constantly experience to poverty, crime and violence and a sense of helplessness can suffer health consequences from the release of stress hormones in their bodies. This “toxic” stress can affect behavior and lead to violence.  

Left untreated, the impacts of the stress can remain into adulthood.  

Deskins charge was to build a strategy to address the triggers of those health issues.The plan he unveiled in 2017 seeks to draw together government offices, nonprofit agencies, the private sector and corporate community. 

The idea is if issues such as poverty, unemployment, hopelessness and the accompanying stresses can be reduced, it will lead to lower levels of crime as more people share in a neighborhood’s prosperity. 

“The counterbalance to violence is opportunity,” Deskin said. “Safety is more than an absence of violence. It’s about the presence of opportunity.” 

What was accomplished? 

Deskins’ job was to coordinate efforts between separate departments as part of addressing youth violence.  

In the short term, that meant working with Parks and Recreation to expand the programs offered in recreation centers last summer. Dozens of programs were added with the goal of providing youth with opportunities that would help keep them busy and out of trouble. 

That effort also involved finding outside partners to help fund the programs. The Cleveland Foundation, for example, helps to fund a dance program that continues this year. 

In 2017, about 50,000 people used the rec centers. The goal for 2018 is 90,000 people. 

Deskins said he also worked with the Building and Housing Department toward demolishing 500 abandoned houses within 500 feet of grade schools. That program was expanded in this year’s budget. 

The long-term goal, though, was to develop the plan to address the causes of violence. 

On Monday, City Council gave the administration approval for a key part of that plan, hiring a firm to put registered clinical counselors in the city’s 21 rec centers.  

Among other duties, the counselors will identify children who are suffering from toxic stress and will have the ability to make referrals to social services. 

The city also intends to provide workers at rec centers - desk staff, coaches, custodians and security personnel - with extensive crisis-intervention training to recognize potential health issues in young children and teens.   

Meanwhile, 400 to 500 other city workers who deal regularly with the public also will be given training to help recognize symptoms of health and behavioral issues, so they, too, can offer help.  

Why is he leaving? 

Deskins said he has yet to line up another job. 

But the 63-year-old former federal and county prosecutor said he feels the time is right for turning over his City Hall job to someone else. His plan has been drafted and launched, he said, but there never will be a time when the job comes to a natural end.   

 “This is forever work,” he said. “We’re never going to find ourselves where there is no crime, where there is no violence, where there is no toxic stress.” 

Leaving, he reiterated, is his decision.  

Jackson backed that up. 

“He came to me,” Jackson said. “I didn’t ask him to resign.” 

What happens next? 

Jackson said he will fill Deskins job, hopefully in the next few weeks. That person will be charged with putting the anti-violence plans into action. 

On Monday, council gave its first of three readings to legislation that will allow the administration pay for the work.  

The administration hopes to get approval for hiring the counselors before council breaks for its summer recess. That would allow the counselors to be in place by early June.  

Longer term, the plan is to gather data from all the rec centers on what the counselors find, allowing the city to adjust programs as needed.