CeaseFire veterans: York needs patience, commitment

Sean Philip Cotter

The upcoming policing plan in York City will involve hauling in violent offenders, having community members tell them to stop shooting people, offering the offenders services on the condition that they indeed don’t shoot people, and promising they’ll go to jail if they and their friends keep committing violence.

And it works, say police in High Point, North Carolina, a city that's had this program as the bedrock of its department for 20 years.

High Point is often used as the example for what's called focused-deterrence policing strategies. Through tweaks to it, the city has cut down on gang violence, open-air drug markets and armed robberies, according to High Point Police Capt. Tim Ellenberger.

Now York is taking High Point's lead. The city is contracting with criminologist David Kennedy, who came up with the program in Boston in the '90s, and the National Network for Safe Communities, his organization that is based out of the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York City.

The York City program is known as CeaseFire York; the city contracted Kennedy's services for $300,000, which comes from undisclosed private sources and doesn't involve local taxpayer dollars, officials have said.

This Southside gang graffiti taunted law enforcement, but a joint investigation into Southside that led to federal indictments against 21 purported gang members disproved that taunting claim.
(Photo courtesy of the U.S. Attorney's Office)

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Several officials who have dealt with these strategies say they can help but require a full buy-in from the city and the department. And, importantly, they require patience.

Ellenberger, the High Point captain, said the key is to institutionalize these focused-deterrence programs — the strategy has to be central to how the department operates and not just a project. He said High Point Police have been conducting the "call-ins" of criminals four times a year for the last 20 years.

The program: The strategy is premised around the idea that only a very small number of people in any city are perpetrating the vast majority of violent crimes. So law enforcement has to identify and target that small group of people, who are often involved in gangs or informal groups or crews of people — not go for the "clearing corners" strategy of big sweeps of arrests in troubled areas.

"We used to go down there and invade the neighborhood and snatch up everybody we can for everything we could," he said. "All it did was piss off the community."

Kennedy's strategy for dealing with that violent few involves the metaphorical carrot and stick. In his initiatives, police work with social services and community partners to identify and then "call in" — often using the probation department or some other immediate threat of arrest — violent offenders to a moderated community meeting. In the weeks before, law enforcement will have carried out a major raid on one of the local criminal groups to show the cops mean business.

Criminologist David M. Kennedy

At the meetings, community members give the attending criminals first a "moral message against the violence," then organizations offer a helping hand in the form of social-services programs, such as mental-health treatment, education and job-placement programs.

And then there's the threat: Take the carrot, or else the heavy stick of the criminal-justice system will come down on the entire gang if any one member shoots someone. That idea is called group responsibility.

Ellenberger said the "informal sanctions" of the community members speaking out against violence are a very important part of this plan, "just as powerful" as the "formal sanctions" of the criminal-justice system.

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High Point Police Capt. Tim Ellenberger

"What (criminals) are not used to seeing is having someone who goes to their grandma’s church standing up at a call-in and saying, 'Stop doing that — we’re siding with the police if you keep doing that,'" he said.

Ellenberger unequivocally credits the focused-deterrence programs for the fact that violent crime is down in High Point. He said the city of about 100,000 used to see about 1,500 violent crimes a year, of which 20 were homicides. When he started on patrol in 1992, Ellenberger would often go to five shootings in four days, he said.

But the captain said that within a year of the implementation, reports of violent crime dropped by about 200 and then trended further down; there are about two to five homicides a year these days.

He said another key is making sure the city and police are willing and able to follow through with any promises they make. If they tell people they can connect them with mental-health services, they have to do that if the gang members ask. And if authorities tell criminals that they're going to conduct a massive investigation into the next gang that shoots someone, they better do that, too.

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"Don't make promises that you're not willing to keep," he said. "It's not the severity of the charges — it's the certainty of them."

It comes down to understanding that people shooting each other are making rational decisions, if not good ones, Ellenberger said. He elaborated: With the number of crimes that go unreported and the reported shootings that go unsolved, it's not an irrational choice for people dealing drugs to use violence to further their causes. But the reason major crimes don't get prosecuted isn't because the police don't know who did them — it's that they don't have the witnesses willing to come forward publicly so they can make a case.

The police can pretty much always get an off-the-record account, so they know which people and which crews are committing violence, he said. So then they can launch a massive investigation into that group — as York City Police and federal authorities did to the city's Southside gang two years ago — putting them behind bars and showing that any gang that does commit violence is going to face the consequences as a group.

That makes it an irrational choice for anyone to shoot someone, he said.

CeaseFire York: On Sept. 8, Jim Tice, coordinator for Ceasefire York, was on his way home from the CeaseFire University training by the National Network for Safe Communities in New York City that several city officials attended that week.

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“One of the things that we really emphasize — and they really emphasize — is ‘Take your time,’” he said. “There are a whole lot of steps involved in it.”

Jim Tice, coordinator for York City's Group Violence Intervention initiative

Therefore, he continued, the city isn’t going to release information on the program at this time.

But he said he and the city are confident in this program and dedicated to making it work.

“We’re committed to making it successful,” he said.

Newburgh: York City Mayor Kim Bracey has mentioned the city of Newburgh, New York, as another good example of the success of this strategy. Newburgh, right along the Hudson River in Orange County, started with the program a year and a half ago, according to Lt. Richard Carrion, who is in charge of the initiative at the city’s police department.

It took about half a year of work behind the scenes to get the initiative up and running, he said. They held the first call-in in October 2015 and have held a few more since. Carrion said violence recently has begun to decrease in the city’s historically troubled east end, and he credits a combination of programs, including Kennedy’s, and simultaneous community-policing initiatives to helping get there.

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The department targets any group whose members commit a homicide or the police department decides is the most dangerous in the city, he said. Before each of the call-ins, the city has done a major raid on whichever group best fit those criteria.

York City Mayor Kim Bracey. Bil Bowden photo

At first, community support was hard to come by, the lieutenant said. After all, he said, the poorer east end, with its history of many people of color living in poverty, had seen many police raids, and this just seemed like another one of them.

“There’s a history here of blanket arrests,” he said. So people complained about the first raid on a gang.

But then, with the program getting better publicity and the the community seeing that law enforcement was only targeting people committing violence, the people of the east end began to come around to it.

“There wasn’t a peep from the community” after the latest raid, he said.

There’s no way to know if a decrease in crime is due to any kind of group responsibility or if it’s just through the arresting of the small amount of actively violent people, he said — but either way, violence is down, community relations are up and the police are only going after the specific people committing crimes, Carrion said.

The lieutenant cautions that a department has to fully commit to this program, and it requires some fundamental changes to how a department does business.

Newburgh Police Lt. Richard Carrion

“We had to restructure our police department,” he said, adding he now has four of the department’s 100 or so officers working mostly full time on the focused-deterrence efforts.

Agencies: Martin Colavito, the executive director of the Newburgh Next community organization and the coordinator for Catholic Charities for the region, said he “absolutely” believes it’s helping. His program is the “guiding agency” for people seeking to use the services offered in the call-ins. Catholic Charities serves as a central location for people to call to get help for anything from getting a birth certificate to helping find affordable housing.

He said any city trying to pull this off has to have a range of people invested in the program.

“The city of York has to do due diligence and bring everyone to the table,” he said.

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Ike Hileman has run Bell Socialization Services for the last 40 years. He said money is scarce for social services in Pennsylvania, especially since the amount was cut a few years ago. His organization offers many different services — "We're like an octopus," he said — mostly for people with intellectual or mental disabilities, which both show up at elevated rates in areas of concentrated poverty, he said.

"The long and the short of it is we received a 20 percent budget cut three years ago from the state," he said, adding that his organization needed to take out loans to get through the recent budget impasse. "We’re still suffering from that. The money’s going down; the donors are going down."

Hileman said he'd heard the name CeaseFire York, but he didn't know what it was and hadn't been approached by the city about it. After hearing a brief explanation, he said it mostly struck him that there should be job-placement services as part of the social services offered, and that's a place where services in the York area are somewhat lacking. There are some funds and programs out there, such as Bell, for people who are disabled who are looking for jobs, he said, but there's not as much for the general population.

"But if you're just plain low-income, no job — there’s not funding for you," he said. People in those positions can fall through the system's cracks, and that's something it seems like a program such as CeaseFire would need to address, he said.

"That’s still lacking," he said.

Lancaster: Closer to home, Lancaster tried to replicate part of the High Point model, too — the version of the initiative that focuses on open-air drug markets, which police say bring violence and disruption to the communities around them. Capt. Mike Winters, head of the Lancaster City Bureau of Police criminal investigations division, said they tried a focused-deterrence-type plan without contracting Kennedy. They went to High Point to learn about the strategies and then began putting them into practice in about 2008.

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“I would say we had mixed results,” he said.

It’s a different program than York City has discussed — dealing with the drug markets rather than group violence — and therefore has many differences among the finer points; it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. But the way High Point runs it, it still uses the same focused-deterrence tenets: using the threat of punishment, the moral voices, the offer of services and the notifications that make it clear that the perpetrators are being watched,

Lancaster only ran a few call-ins and only had a few people at each before it shuttered the program in 2013, Winters said. He said the police force also went through significant cuts during that period.

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He did see a definite silver lining to the program, though: After getting little community buy-in at first, the department put more effort into trying to rally other organizations around the program. They had some success in doing that, he said, and that has outlasted the program.

“If there’s one extremely positive thing that came out of it, it’s that core group of community members and business owners are still meeting regularly,” he said. “I would like to think we played a part in bringing them together.”

— Sean Cotter covers York City for The York Dispatch. Contact him at scotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @SPCotterYD.

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