County exploring program to reduce gun violence with ARPA funds

The violence prevention coordinator position, and subsequent program, are being funded by COVID-19 relief funds and will aim to curb violence in the county.


Madyson Gomez

The Johnson County Administration building in Iowa City is seen on Jan. 30, 2023.

Alejandro Rojas, News Reporter

Johnson County could be following Cedar Rapids’ lead by creating a new violence prevention program in the county, with the goal to curb violence locally.

Johnson County Board of Supervisors will vote on the position on Thursday. The agenda packet stated the coordinator will bring together community partners to implement programs to curb violence in the county.

The goal of the coordinator is to bring together different groups in the community to combat violence, Rachel Rockwell, executive director of Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County, said.

“I think in the context of what Johnson County is looking to implement is someone who would pull together stakeholders, pull together research and data, and kind of convene folks around the issue of community violence to implement a comprehensive violence prevention model in the community,” Rockwell said.

Rockwell was previously based in Cedar Rapids, where she helped establish a similar violence prevention program. She helped win a $465,000 grant for programs to reduce youth violence and worked directly with the community to educate and help implement the program.

The county will spend an estimated $262,600, for the program, although the money will be spread out from fiscal 2023 to fiscal 2026. The position will be funded using American Rescue Plan Act COVID-19 relief money.

Johnson County, with a population of roughly 150,000 residents, received $29.3 million from ARPA in 2020.

Johnson County Attorney Rachel Zimmermann Smith said the coordinator will work with community partners that were identified last summer, including law enforcement, juvenile court representatives, the Iowa City school district, and United Action for Youth, among others.

“This person will reach back out and bring those folks back to the table and talk about what the program’s going to look like, and organize outreach workers and, you know, basically set the program up,” she said.

She also clarified that while the program and the coordinator will attempt to curb violence in general, there will be an emphasis on gun violence.

Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel told The Daily Iowan in December 2022 that arrests relating to guns including carrying weapons, gunfire incidents, and displays of weapons in road rage incidents increased.

The county attorney reported that there have been 50 cases of people prohibited from possessing a firearm through October 2022  and 35 cases in 2021.

After connecting with community partners, the next step for the coordinator is to conduct outreach and intervene with people to help avoid violence, Zimmermann Smith said.

“Gun violence is caused by a very small number of individuals, and those individuals are most likely to be perpetrating the gun violence, but they’re also most likely to be victimized,” Zimmermann Smith said. “So the idea of this program is to do outreach and intervene with those folks before things happen.”

Although the program is new, Smith said its creation has been in the works for years now after a number of homicides occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. Smith said she worked with Janet Lyness, who at the time was the Johnson County Attorney and is now retired, to brainstorm about the program.

After her initial discussion with Lyness, Zimmermann Smith said, she held meetings last summer with the future community partners where the idea was initially introduced, as well as what it would take to get the program started. The pair also met with Rockwell and her partner, who helped guide them through the process.

“We’re lucky to have her close by,”  Zimmermann Smith said. “There are a lot of folks around the country doing this kind of work and we’re just fortunate to have her in the area. She’s helped us a lot, just kind of guiding us because it’s all new.”

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Rockwell said she thinks Iowans feel they cannot be impacted by gun violence.

“In the United States, gun violence and youth violence has been growing especially since the pandemic,” she said. “We’ve got kids in school who have lost friends to gun violence or people my age know mothers or know grandmothers who’ve lost kids to violence. And nowadays, it’s not as easy to say that that’s not something that has impacted your life.”

Supervisor Royceann Porter was also involved in the program’s creation. She said the program will not only help curb violence but will help in areas underserved by cities or the county.

In Cedar Rapids, the police department reported a 24.5 percent decrease in shots-fired reports in 2021 and a 50 percent decrease in gun violence victimization rates for Black men.

“We know gun homicides and assaults occur at a high rate within cities and have a disproportionate impact in historically underfunded neighborhoods within our cities,” Porter said. “So those are the people that we plan on, you know, hitting those neighborhoods, those communities.”

It was Porter’s idea to use ARPA money for the program. She also said the idea of a violence prevention program came after the county sheriff asked for a new Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle for his office. For her, it was more important to implement an intervention solution rather than have a military vehicle like the MRAP patrol the county.

“I don’t want to do a repast for families of homicide victims, people who have been murdered or, you know, killed in our communities, that’s not what I want,” she said. “So, anything I can do to prevent and do what we can to stop [violence] from happening in our community.”

If the position is approved, Smith said, the county will open the job posting and wait for applicants.

Smith said when the program formally starts is dependent on how fast the application process goes, but is hopeful to have the program fully underway by May.

Regardless of when it starts, Rockwell said the program will be a good investment for the county.

“I think it’s wonderful that Johnson County is using ARPA funds to address community violence, and it is an investment that no one will regret,” she said.