Surgeon offers hope for reducing violence that pervades our society

Reporter Staff

While it focused on violence, Cuthbert Simpkins' "UB at Sunrise" lecture last Thursday ended with a glimmer of hope.

Drawing on his experiences as a UB associate professor of surgery and a trauma surgeon at Erie County Medical Center (ECMC), he outlined 16 proposals which he claims will lead to "an effective diminishment of violence" in America.

Simpkins called for Buffalo-specific research into how and why violence occurs here, rigorous evaluation of programs already in place, increased screening for mental health, training in schools on principles of justice, increased employment and police accountability to the communities they serve.

"We need to make the process clear in every case," he said. People need to know where to go and what they can do when victimization occurs, he added, and perpetrators of violence need to know that punishment will be consistent and inevitable. According to Simpkins, when the process is clear, and when justice is present, violence will decrease.

"Injustice is the refuge of incompetence," he added.

Simpkins stressed that the problems of violence and injustice transcend issues of race and gender, urban and rural, young and old, rich and poor. Referring to a study restricted to the white American middle class, he pointed out that homicide levels for this group are far higher than homicide levels in other industrialized countries. If you correct for socioeconomic issues and population, said Simpkins, "we're in the same boat."

"We need to see violence as a mental-health issue," he said, and not an issue of race, gender, class or age. At the same time, he was careful to point out that calling violence a disease does not mean society can shift the blame for violence onto the perpetrators alone.

Rather, according to Simpkins, the roots of the disease run throughout our society: in television, in history, in "ultimate" fighting, and in university politics. "Character assassination is a kind of violence," he said. "I'll bet everyone in this room has some experience with violence."

Simpkins described the various ways people end up in his emergency room: a man beaten up by police officers, a woman battered by her husband, a child shaken to death. At the end of the litany, he sang a mournful song about lynchings.

Illustrating the role of history in the problem of violence, Simpkins showed slides of colonial tortures, lynchings, and a photograph of his childhood home after it was bombed. Simpkins' parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement.

Despite the sobering situation America finds itself in, Simpkins concluded that "we must look up from the ground of defeat into the universe of the possible."

It is a phrase that might be used to describe Simpkins' professional accomplishments. Frustrated at treating patients only to see them return to the emergency room again and again, Simpkins founded the Violence and Victimization Prevention Program at ECMC in 1996. Under the program, a social worker talks with the victims of violence to find out why they are in dangerous situations in the first place. These discussions can lead to individual intervention programs, often including job skills counseling, in an attempt to break the cycle of violence. As a gesture of respect, victims are given every opportunity to decline these services.

On Sunday, Simpkins will be the keynote speaker for a program called "Honoring the Peacekeepers." The event will take place at 7 p.m. in St. John the Baptist Church, 184 Goodell St., as part of the YWCA observance of the Third Annual Week Without Violence.

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