Central Nebraska agency will take on unique program to counter violent extremism

March 10, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

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Funding for a prevention program targeting violent extremism will concentration on an unlikely place - central Nebraska. The funded program has an unusual approach: identifying signs of radicalization using a public health approach.

Grant Winners Reject
Anti-Terror Funds

Four recipients of Homeland Security's Countering Violent Terrorism funding rejected the grant in the wake of statements made by President Donald Trump.

According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, one group, a Minnesota nonprofit that works with Somali youth, withdrew its request for $500,000 citing “an unofficial war on Muslim-Americans.” Ka Joog made the decision shortly after Reuters News reported signals that the White House would narrow the focus of its counterterrorism strategy to concentrate on Muslim communities.

Three other organizations in Michigan, Virginia and California have since followed suit.

Critics of the program claimed it was ineffective, asserting the program failed to focus on “Islamic Terror" as the trigger for many violent attacks.

There have been no statements from the White House or the Department of Homeland Security confirming the program will be restructured or scrapped.

The Nebraska project, submitted and managed by the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), is one of 31 funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“The first concern is, if somebody's demonstrating this type of self-radicalization or violent behavior, who reports it?” said Bryan Tuma, NEMA’s assistant director.

Tuma says there have been many recent examples of friends and family not responding to signs an individual may be considering violence. “The common theme behind all those is people observed behavior that led them to believe that the individual was going in a bad direction.”

Following the mass shootings at an Orlando night club, county offices in San Bernardino, and the killing of two police officers near Des Moines, people close to the shooters chose not to come forward when they had concerns prior to the incidents.

“What are the barriers for people to report that kind of information?” Tuma asked. “The concept with this grant is maybe a public health entity might be a different or an alternative pathway to get that information to community.”

NEMA and the University Of Nebraska Public Policy Center (PPC) will administer the $300,000 grant. Two Rivers Public Health Department will implement the local public health element.

“Usually in Nebraska you don’t think about countering violent extremism as an issue,” explained Jeremy Eschliman, the executive director of Two River. “I’m taking the approach that this is more community violent and, within that, we address extremism too.”

Local public health agencies are “no stranger” to programs designed to reduce violence in their communities, said Denise Bulling, the senior research director at the PPC who authored the grant. “This seems like an odd fit, but it really isn't,” she explained.

“We use a public health approach to prevent suicide, so why not use a public health approach to prevent other kind of targeted violence?”

Broadly, the project has three goals: identifying reasons individuals and community organizations failed to recognize warning signs of an individual developing dangerously radical views, educating the community on how to share concerns with community organizations, and preparing materials that can be shared with other communities.

Identifying the signs of radicalization have common themes regardless of the cause. The program is designed to cover any extreme from causes rising from the Middle East, groups targeting certain ethnic or religious groups, or extreme takes on social issues like animal rights, the environment, or sides taken in the abortion debate.

“Our goal is not to look at the political or issue side of it, but the folks who take this grievance they have to a more violent desire,” said Mario Scalora, the director of the Public Policy Center.

Scalora’s background includes analyzing the potential for violence in individuals and doing risk assessment for communities and major events.

“Regardless of politics,” according to Scalora, “we see some of these folks becoming more socially disengaged with some parts of the community,” while simultaneously “becoming more identified with other things that raise concerns, like certain hate language or ideology.”

The most unique aspect of the program is making violence prevention an aspect of local public health programs. A majority of the other projects funded with the $10 Million provided by Homeland Security focus on law enforcement agencies in urban areas.

“The traditional model might be the person observes the behavior and reports it to the police,” Tuma said. “Maybe that isn't always the most efficient or effective process.”

Tuma went on to explain a public health entity, in their day to day contact with individuals, might be a more comfortable setting for someone to talk about upsetting behavior shown by a friend or family member. For someone who doesn’t know what to do, it gives someone options other than reporting it to the police.

Research supporting the grant application showed even if people are very concerned about someone showing a threat of violence they may feel hesitant to report it directly to law enforcement. People sometimes showed a greater willingness to share the information with other trusted entities in their community.

“If you think of public health models, that's a lot of what they do,” Scalora said. “How do we get people dealing with very sensitive and difficult situations and make them feel comfortable doing it.”

Using Two Rivers Public Health as a center point, the group hopes, will provide that type of outlet.

The district serves seven counties in central Nebraska, Buffalo, Dawson, Franklin, Gosper, Harlan, Kearney, and Phelps. It’s reflective of the state’s rural diversity, mixing traditional residents along with recent immigrants drawn to employment opportunities.

The grant was announced by Homeland Security the day before the Trump administration took office. The specifics of the community education program and other elements are still taking shape.

Making the program something that can be replicated in other communities is the final element.

Eschliman says “if this is successful, how are we going to sustain that” in his district and provide tools for others to use.

As the specter of violence prompted by radical ideologies becomes a fact of life, NEMA’s Tuma believes rural areas are vulnerable in ways that differ from major metropolitan areas.

“We're not immune to this,” Tuma said. “I think we're coming at it from a different angle. We need to take a look at this issue ourselves.”