Courtesy of James Dodington

Doctors and law enforcement officials in New Haven are utilizing their expertise and experience with patients affected by gun violence to improve community conditions through the Hospital-based Violence Intervention Program, or HVIP, at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

James Dodington, assistant professor of emergency medicine pediatrics and medical director of Yale New Haven Hospital’s Injury and Violence Prevention Center, said that he realized early on in his professional career that his hospital work was only the first step in providing patients with the holistic support and treatment they need to overcome the dangers posed by gun violence. 

Many medical practitioners are primarily concerned with attempting to treat a victim’s injuries. With HVIP, a first-of-its-kind initiative within the Connecticut health system, Dodington, alongside many others, hope to address the impacts of gun violence by taking into account the community and social context of the patient. 

“Hospital-based intervention programs specifically address community violence, so [that includes] victims who are injured in communities, whether that’s a victim of a gunshot wound … stabbing or any type of the assault,” Dodington said. “Of course, firearm injuries are the most prevalent here in Connecticut. New Haven, Bridgeport [and] Hartford, particularly.” 

Before arriving at Yale, Dodington worked at an adolescent clinic in Philadelphia. During his time there, he said that he recognized the severe limitations of only attending to the needs of individuals vulnerable to gun violence through medical treatment. 

Dodington explained that his experiences in Philadelphia “opened [his] eyes.” He has since worked to employ proactive measures and strategies in his practice as a healthcare professional, focusing on community violence and how to address it from a medical standpoint. This has led to his being a major proponent of HVIP.

Dodington believes community violence intervention is essential because individuals injured by gun violence come from an environment where the threat of violence is pervasive. This causes them to live under a cycle of danger and violence, he said. 

According to Dodington, this reality undermines the assistance and life-saving care provided by the hospital to patients, as individuals are likely to face similar obstacles and threats to their livelihoods once they return to their communities. 

Dodington noted the holistic and comprehensive efforts now being made to address this cycle of gun violence.

“We’re also part of a kind of national movement: […] the ability to speak openly and freely about firearm injury prevention research, seeing people kind of galvanized to actually make interventions to improve safety, and particularly address the significant disparity in injury,” Dodington said. “Victims of violence in our communities, particularly victims of firearm violence, are disproportionately Black, African American [and] Latinx community members, and we have not had a concerted effort as a state and as a nation to address that.” 

As part of his work implementing HVIP in New Haven, Dodington began collaborating with Pepe Vega, who leads outreach efforts at the HVIP. Vega, a resident of New Haven, sustained two gunshot wounds more than two decades ago, and he has since used these traumatic experiences to fuel his desire to support and advocate for community members. Through his work, he has supported and guided community members who may be facing these similar challenges with gun violence in their neighborhood.

“When I was younger, I didn’t have a great experience with getting assistance after I was injured,” Vega said. “[Now] I assist our patients when they leave the hospital, and finally we get them resources in whatever open interest, whatever [capacity that can] deepen our reach.” 

Moreover, through his work, Vega attempts to serve as a trusted resource for community members who may be skeptical and distrusting of hospital intervention practices. 

In communities with a high incidence of community violence, he said, there is a tendency to “associate doctors, nurses and social workers with police,” which can make implementing effective and meaningful intervention strategies challenging. For this reason, Vega strives to instill a sense of confidence in all those he works with and highlight the benefit these interventions can bring. 

Dodington and Vega noted that, in comparison to other disease processes, funding for community violence and firearm injury-related research has decreased over the past few years. In addition, they said increasing the engagement of government officials and those in positions of authority is essential to garner the necessary attention and focus on gun violence intervention.

Anthony Campell ‘95 DIV ‘09, chief of the Yale Police Department, said there has long been a gun violence problem in New Haven. Prior to his arrival on campus as a student, Campbell and the rest of the Yale community had to reckon with the shooting death of Christian Prince in 1991.

“After Christian Prince was killed in 1991, Yale went through what I would call a fortification process, and that fortification process meant creating the systems that now exist for students to be able to get in and out of the colleges and […] how could they partner with the city of New Haven police officers to reduce gun violence,” Campbell said.

Experts and individuals from various parts of the Yale community, such as the HVIP and the Yale Police Department, are collaborating to address gun violence in a comprehensive and strategic manner, despite the fact that the level of gun violence prevention desired by community members has not yet been achieved. Campbell said this progress has been achieved by investing in the community to expand development opportunities and prevent the emergence of social dynamics that contribute to gun violence.

“Over the years, Yale has definitely stepped up its partnership with the City of New Haven, and that partnership when it comes to gun violence includes development by using its resources to employ people, to educate people and to develop areas that typically have been plagued by this violence,” Campbell said. “And it seems to be working.”

With Yale’s community of leaders and talented students and experts, Campbell said he believes there is room for many individuals to contribute to these efforts to holistically intervene to prevent gun violence in New Haven. 

“I believe in data-driven policing, so anything that we’re going to do, policies that we’re going to develop procedures that we’re going to follow should be data-driven,” Campbell said. “And this is where scientists and the scientific community really can be helpful to us in law enforcement. By providing us information as to who is coming into the emergency room with signs of violence, or victims of violent activities, such as gunshots.”

As efforts to reduce gun violence extend beyond the hospital room, Campbell is interested in the constant evolution of the strategies and tactics various stakeholders can employ to combat the dangers of gun violence.

Kirsten Bechtel, professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics, highlighted the importance of addressing the gun violence problem locally and nationally with a multi-pronged approach. Her own work focuses on safe storage of firearms and how that can play a key role in ensuring incidents are minimized. 

Bechtel’s area of focus within gun violence prevention is working to prevent and deter individuals, especially ones with suicidal tendencies, from obtaining lethal weapons. She engages parents and children to ensure safety measures surrounding guns, knives or medications. 

Bechtel also discussed how the Yale community can continue to support the work towards addressing gun violence.

“You need to think about the different prongs to this approach,” Bechtel said. “You know, folks, things that reduce poverty, and address violence within neighborhoods, we probably [can] do a lot in terms of improving the lives of folks in those areas, namely, by also reducing firearm injury, and fatality from firearm usage.” 

Learn more about Yale-New Haven Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Program at Yale New Haven Hospital here

Abel Geleta covers Yale New Haven Health (YNHH) for the Science and Technology desk at the News. Previously, he covered stories and topics at the intersection of Science and Social Justice. Originally from Ethiopia, Abel has lived in northern Virginia for the past 12 years. He is currently a junior in Berkeley college studying History of Science, Medicine and Public Health as a scholar in the Global Health Studies Program