02/07/2013 06:15 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Obama Points to Minneapolis as a Model for Reducing Youth Violence

President Obama picked the right place when he took his campaign to reduce gun violence to Minneapolis on Monday. City and community leaders there have organized a remarkably effective effort to prevent youth violence, cutting the number of shootings and homicides of young people in a city that once earned the nickname "Murderapolis." The visit highlighted the need for Congressional action to enact his plan, which is aimed chiefly at preventing mass shootings. It also showed that cities can take effective steps to reduce the daily drumbeat of ordinary shootings, mostly by handguns, when they identify the resources and gather the political will to act in a meaningful way.

"A few years back, you suffered a spike in violent crime involving young people," the president told a crowd of law enforcement officials and state and local leaders. "So this city came together. You launched a series of youth initiatives that have reduced the number of young people injured by guns by 40 percent... You've shown that progress is possible."

So how did Minneapolis do it? The effort there has been grounded in the idea that violence is a public health problem that can't be solved merely by locking people up. What's required, Minneapolis has shown, is a comprehensive approach that brings city agencies and community groups together to coordinate a broad array of services.

Minneapolis was one the first members of UNITY, a network of cities around the country that are working to prevent youth violence. We at Prevention Institute, with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been honored to convene and organize this network as a place where cities can learn from each other. In October, we held the annual UNITY meeting in Minneapolis. Representatives of 22 cities came together to hear about the city's work and to share ideas and experiences.

As we learned, success in Minneapolis has been made possible by extraordinary leadership from the city's public health department and some of its elected officials. The first step was to see and understand the impact of the violence in human terms. City Councilman Don Samuels started holding vigils at the site of every shooting where a young person was killed, raising awareness about the impact of violence.

"This seemingly simple act of Don having a vigil was hugely transformative for our city," Mayor R. T. Rybak told the people gathered for the UNITY meeting. Rybak's own awakening started when he began attending funerals and visiting the hospital rooms of young victims. After one death, he and Samuels talked in a funeral home parking lot and vowed to take action.

The next step was to study the nature and causes of the violence and start making a plan to tackle it. The City Council passed a resolution declaring violence a public health issue. The mayor's office convened city agencies, community organizations, business and civic groups. The group met for months and created a Blueprint for Action with four basic objectives:

• Connect every youth to a trusted adult.
• Intervene at the first sign of risk.
• Restore youth who have been in the juvenile justice system.
• Unlearn the culture of violence.

The city pushed on multiple fronts. It improved coordination of a bus service that helps young people avoid gang areas. It set up a Juvenile Supervision Center where community workers interview truant kids and convene meetings with parents. Cops were deployed as resource officers and mentors in schools and, during the summer, in parks. An employment and training program was established, leading to jobs in nonprofit groups and companies. An anonymous tip line was set up, enabling kids to text or call in with information on potential violence.

The efforts, carefully coordinated and monitored, bore fruit. According to the city, the number of people under 18 arrested for, or suspected of, violent crime dropped 61 percent between 2006 and 2010. Killings of people 24 and younger fell 76 percent from 2006 to 2009.

The experience in Minneapolis, as in Los Angeles -- where a similar comprehensive approach has slashed gang-related homicides by 35 percent -- shows that progress can be made even in the absence of gun controls. Other cities have also set up innovative, effective programs. Think of how much more we could achieve if we could limit the easy availability of powerful guns. President Obama's proposals to ban assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, require universal background checks for gun buyers, increase availability of mental health services and resume research into the causes and remedies for gun violence are a big step forward. They enjoy public support and are worthy of support in Congress as well.

We also need to go a step further by helping cities take the kinds of steps Minneapolis, Los Angeles are taking. Cities need stable resources -- for cops, recreation centers, social workers and job training. It's an investment in the future for all of us.