Darío Maciel

Darío Maciel
2014-2015 Health & Equity Fellow

Darío Maciel is Human Impact Partners’ 2014-2015 Health and Equity Fellow. Darío is passionate about the health and wellbeing of immigrant communities, social justice policy, popular education and community-based participatory research. Darío shares Human Impact Partner’s mission to promote health equity and community capacity-building through research and advocacy to influence the development and adoption of sound policy, and is thrilled at the opportunity to learn about health impact assessment hands-on. In the past, Darío has worked as a clinical researcher, patient advocate, healthcare policy consultant, Peace Corps Volunteer, science educator and in various capacities to plan, evaluate and support health and social programs for newly arrived immigrants. Darío received his master’s degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley and his bachelor’s degree in biology from Stanford University.

Dignified & Just Policing: Gang Injunctions and Other Policing Practices Have Uncertain Impacts on Community Safety and Health

Today, HIP and Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities (SABHC) released a report on the health and equity impacts of a gang injunction in the Townsend-Raitt neighborhood of Santa Ana, California.

A gang injunction is a controversial policing practice that essentially acts as a group restraining order against alleged gang members within a safety zone, a specific geographic area thought to be “controlled” by a gang. Since the 1980’s, over 60 gang injunctions have been imposed in California in an attempt to curtail a historic spike in violent crime in the state (and in the nation) during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, a topic we tackled in a previous blog post.

The injunction in Santa Ana, the city’s second, would prevent alleged gang members from associating with each other or carrying out certain illegal and legal activities within the safety zone. The injunction has stirred up heated debate in Santa Ana since June 2014, when it was first implemented, and has been a flashpoint for controversy more recently amidst allegations of police brutality. Supporters of the injunction say it will lead to decreased crime and violence for all residents, while opponents say the injunction fails to address the root causes of crime and may lead to increased police mistreatment of local youth.

The HIA, which worked locally with SABHC, Chican@s Unidos de Orange County, KidWorks, Santa Ana Boys & Men of Color, Latino Health Access, UC Irvine’s Community Knowledge and Community & Labor projects, and the Urban Peace Institute, examined the impact the gang injunction would have on crime, safety, community-police relationships, education and employment, and collected data on community safety through surveys, interviews and focus groups. The HIA focused on populations that may be disproportionately affected by the gang injunction, including youth, undocumented immigrants, transgender or queer-identified people, the homeless, and those with physical and mental disabilities. Members of these groups fear that increased police presence in the neighborhood will exacerbate the potential for profiling and discrimination.

The HIA concluded that the injunction is unlikely to bring about significant and lasting reduction of serious crime, based on the outcomes of other gang injunctions and input gathered from residents, city officials, community organizations and police. On the contrary, the injunction could have negative effects on public safety, public health and public trust.

The HIA found that:

  • The evidence is insufficient that a gang injunction will reduce violent crime, gang activity or gang membership, or that it will improve community-police relationships.
  • An injunction could make some in the community, particularly parents, feel more safe, but members of marginalized groups may, in contrast, feel more threatened by increased police presence.
  • An injunction could lead to significant disruptions to education and employment opportunities for those named in the gang injunction, with immediate harm to their health and well-being and long-term harm to their chances in life.
  • Young black and Latino men who experience repeated, unsubstantiated searches and other forms of suppression-based policing may experience higher levels of anxiety and depression than their peers.
  • An injunction could divert funding from community programs that address the economic and social problems that are the root causes of much crime and a detriment to public health and well-being. In contrast to the mixed evidence on the effects of policing strategies on crime, there is solid evidence that correlates reductions in crime with environmental, educational and economic factors.

Our findings led us to make specific recommendations for the police and other law enforcement and criminal justice agencies, city officials and community organizations. Our partners plan to use the data from the HIA in their campaigns on healthy policing practices and in upcoming court proceedings to determine whether the gang injunction will be upheld or reversed.

This report marks HIP’s third HIA on criminal justice policies, with a fourth HIA on policing in Ohio in the works (stay tuned!).

The efforts of groups such as those in Santa Ana to evaluate the public health impacts of policing practices, especially on communities of color, help to move us forward into rethinking how to best promote community safety for all.

Does less lead mean less crime?

According to FBI crime statistics, between 1961 and 1991, the rate of violent crime in the United States rose by nearly fourfold. But between 1991 and 2013, the crime rate dropped by more than half, to the lowest level since 1970.

Why? Was it “tough on crime” policing strategies? The rise of mass incarceration? The economy? Something else?

This was a key question for HIP’s Heath Impact Assessment on dignified and just policing, currently being conducted with several community organizations in Santa Ana, Calif. How do law enforcement strategies such as injunctions against gang activity impact health, including the rate of violent crime?

In “The Crimes of Lead,” published last year in Chemical & Engineering News, Lauren K. Wolf cites an abundance of peer-reviewed literature arguing that exposure to lead may be the key to the rapid fluctuation in crime rates over the last four-plus decades. In the 1970s, landmark environmental policies reduced children’s exposure to lead, which has been shown to cause brain damage that can lead to increased levels of aggression and violence:

Cars burning leaded gasoline spewed the heavy metal into the air until 1973, when the Environmental Protection Agency mandated the fuel’s gradual phaseout. Lead-based paint was banned from newly built homes in 1978. Because of these actions, children born in the mid- to late-1970s grew up with less lead in their bodies than children born earlier. As a result, economists argue, kids born in the ’70s reached adulthood in the ’90s with healthier brains and less of a penchant for violence.

From Wolf 2014, based on data from Rick Nevin and FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics.
From Wolf 2014, based on data from Rick Nevin and FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics.

Lead poisoning has also been blamed for the fall of the Roman Empire, notably by sociologist Seabury Colum Gilfillan, who first advanced his theory in the mid-1960s. (Gilfillan’s contemporary, geochemist Clair Cameron Patterson, agreed and was a key figure in the campaign to remove lead from gasoline in the U.S.) However, other academics have disputed this single-cause theory of Rome’s collapse. In fact, recent research suggests that the increase of lead levels in water because of lead-bearing pipes in Roman aqueducts was unlikely to have been truly harmful.

Critics of the lead poisoning theory point out that there were numerous political, social and economic forces that are just as likely to have contributed to Rome’s demise. To state the obvious, the collapse of a civilization is a complex matter.

And so is crime. Social factors play a role in crime rates: poverty, disinvestment in communities of color, systemized and institutionalized racism and discrimination, and other economic forces.
To me, the thought that a molecule could topple a civilization, or that its removal could revitalize it, seemed like too simple an explanation to be true. In public health, we’re used to the truth being complicated and sometimes not entirely knowable.

But as Wolf shows, the correlation between lead exposure and crime bears out even when adjusting for demographic and social factors, when looking at the phenomenon at the state, city and even neighborhood level, and in various countries. It holds up even in locations where the relationship between lead exposure and crime doesn’t follow the clear “inverted U” curve of the data from the U.S. In the end, the lead exposure theory for the rise and fall of violent crime in the U.S. seems entirely plausible, in fact probable.

It’s encouraging to see that simple policies to reduce lead contamination may have prevented millions of violent crimes. If that isn’t a positive health impact of a policy change, what is? And the data simply do not support the claim that the bulk of the reduction in crime was due to policing strategies or incarceration.

I still have questions. The crime rate per capita was still much lower in the 1960s than it is today, despite lower levels of lead exposure now than ever before. And since 2002, lead exposure no longer correlates so strictly with U.S. crime rates.

What are the current underlying causes of violent crime in our communities? How can policies continue to address the issue and accelerate the decline? As communities – and as researchers working with and within communities – we can proactively address these issues. No longer must we look back at the decline of Rome or the crime wave of the 1980s and 1990s and simply wonder what happened.

Am I a Scientist or an Activist?

For a recent graduate of a master’s in public health program, Human Impact Partners’ Health and Equity Fellowship was a golden opportunity to put those three little letters at the end of my name to good use. Health Impact Assessment combines both analytic rigor and a participatory, community-driven approach to promote health, equity and justice. So on my first day at the HIP office, I had to ask myself: Am I a scientist or an activist?

As a biology undergrad researching the genetics of virulence in human-parasite interactions, I was squarely in the scientist camp. As a public health graduate student, participating in city council meetings to support changes to Oakland’s rent ordinance to protect low-income tenants, I was treading into activist territory. At various points I’ve identified more strongly as one or the other as these split personalities played a constant tug-of-war.

Now, almost two months into the fellowship, it seems that these two sides of me are pulling in the same direction. Health Impact Assessment – the HIP way – is both science and activism.

Public health has always been a complex field, but in the last decade our definition of public health has expanded so rapidly that it seems to burst at the seams every few years, challenging us to adopt ever more expansive and rigorous frameworks to address the full scope of the issues it encompasses. Public health’s scope has expanded from contagion control to prevention to behavior change and more recently to social justice. Given these changes, it seems that the reach of science is simply no longer expansive enough to encompass that scope on its own. Nor are traditional scientific approaches rigorous enough. Public health needs to look more like advocacy and community organizing to remain relevant to the populations it seeks to benefit.

In graduate school at UC Berkeley, I found myself working to promote the health of undocumented immigrant Latino day laborers. I did this in part through ethnographic research, direct services to help meet day laborers’ basic needs and educational sessions on occupational health — all part and parcel of traditional public health practice. But that alone was not enough. It was only a start.

How do you take control of your own well-being when your health is hugely influenced by a city ordinance that prevents you from seeking work and wages to support your basic needs and those of your family? How do you ensure on-the-job safety when your labor is simultaneously a highly sought-after commodity and a political lightning rod for anti-immigrant sentiment?

These issues, and many others like them, are complex and yield no easy answers. HIP’s combination of public health and social justice frameworks help us ask better questions and use the evidence to tip decisions in the direction of health and social equity, and to empower communities to make change happen.

I’m humbled at the challenge of working with the talented team of smart, motivated professionals at HIP — already, I have learned so much, and hope I can contribute as much as I receive. And I’m privileged to work in solidarity with communities and be a part of movements to make good on the promise of health for all.

HIP is pleased to welcome Darío Maciel as HIP’s 2014-2015 Health and Equity Fellow. As one of our strategies to advance health and equity in decision-making, HIP offers a yearlong, fulltime Fellowship for an emerging public health professional, with a goal of increasing the racial and ethnic diversity among practitioners of Health Impact Assessment and Health in All Policies approaches.