'Violence is a disease': Arnitta Holliman explains role in turning violent trends around

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Violence is a disease. It can be transmitted. It can be treated. It can be prevented.

That's how Arnitta Holliman, the director of the city of Milwaukee's Office of Violence Prevention (OVP), perceives her job.

"We take a public health approach to addressing violence prevention," Holliman said.

Milwaukee is on track for another record-breaking year when it comes to violence.

The Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) reports 118 homicides and 434 non-fatal shootings so far in 2022 as of Tuesday, July 12.

OVP was created in 2008 with a focus on reducing domestic violence and sexual assault in Milwaukee. The office has since expanded to include other issues plaguing the city, like gun violence.

"It's key for the community to understand that OVP is not a direct service agency. We contract and fund programs that direct service in the community, and then we work with our system partners to fill gaps and to provide resources to community members," Holliman said.

The main arm of OVP is 414 Life, an organization housed under the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). The team deploys outreach workers, violence interrupters and a hospital responder to neighborhoods where the most shootings happen, neighborhoods like Old North Milwaukee and Walker's Point.

"The outreach team is out there. They're going door-to-door. They're talking to neighbors. They're building relationships with those neighbors. They're building relationships with business owners in the area," Holliman said.

While Holliman points to a decrease in gun violence in those neighborhoods to prove this method works, she admits they can't be in every neighborhood. There's simply not enough money to make that happen.

"Violence prevention historically has not been invested in and supported to the degree that it needs to be to see the kind of immediate or long-term and sustainable change that people are looking for. You cannot expect the work of 1,700-plus sworn officers from an office of seven people," Holliman said.

Holliman told CBS 58 that OVP's annual budget is funded by the city and competitive federal grants. That money staffs the office and funds community programs like Running Rebels, a group focused on mentoring Milwaukee's young men.

"It changed the landscape of what we could do, not only summer, but year-round with our young men," Co-Executive Director Dawn Barnett said.

OVP requested $16.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding. So far, the office received more than $11 million of that request, $8.4 million from the state and $3 million from the city.

In the next five years, OVP plans to hire six or seven more employees, grant community programs and expand 414 Life's footprint.

"The return on investment and prevention is clear and common sense and is smart public policy and smart public safety to invest in prevention," director of violence prevention, policy and engagement at MCW,  Reggie Moore, said.

Holliman's predecessor, Moore, continues to advocate both locally and nationally for better funding.

"We're committed to doing everything possible to prevent harm on the front end or we are going to bankrupt cities and states by investing on the back end and all of the costs," Moore said.

Whether or not OVP gets the full support it needs, Holliman told CBS 58 her office of about seven people remains committed to finding a cure for this violent disease.

"We want to see a safer, healthier city," Holliman said.

This is part one of a two-part special report. Part two will air on CBS 58 News at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, July 13.

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