Initiative lays down law on gun violence, offers 2nd chance
Seven young men and one woman sat in a row inside the large church meeting room Tuesday evening, facing a stage lined with 13 oversized posters of York City gang members doing hard time. The eight of them listened as members of the York City community — plus city, state and federal officials — explained that gun violence will no longer be tolerated.
Behind them, a room filled with members of the community sat in a silent show of support.
"Nothing about tonight is a negotiation," Edquina Washington, the city's director of community relations, warned the eight. "We will stop you if you make us. But we'd rather help you, if you let us."
The simple message of the Group Violence Intervention initiative was stressed over and over by every speaker: We want you safe. We want you alive. We want you out of prison. And we will help you in any way we can. But if you or one of your group members shoots or kills someone, police and prosecutors from the local level up to the federal level will come down hard and relentlessly on every member of your group for every infraction, no matter how small.
"Today marks a new day in the way we're going to respond," Mayor Kim Bracey, who was born and raised in York City, told the eight. "As your mayor, I'm tired of the violence. I'm heartbroken every time there's another funeral to attend."
'Change your life': The Rev. Frank Hawkins, school board member for Helen Thackston Charter School and a member of the Salem Square Community Association, told the eight that they're valuable, whether they understand that yet or not. He said that at one time, he didn't recognize he had value.
"Fifty-one years ago I was part of the problem. I shot and killed someone in this town," Hawkins told them. He was just 19 years old when he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
But after six years, 11 months and 23 days, the sentencing judge "saw something in me that I didn't see in myself," and agreed to release Hawkins if the young man went to college, which he did. The second chance allowed Hawkins to change the course of his own life, his implication being the eight people he was speaking to can do the same.
"You don't have to do it the hard way, like (I) did," he urged them. "I'm here to help you change your life. ... I'm sincerely in your corner. But the senseless violence has to stop."
Matthew Carey, executive director of LifePath Christian Ministries (formerly the York Rescue Mission), told the eight he was at the call-in to talk to them about the future.
Carey gave each of them a card with his cellphone number on it and urged them to call any time of the day or night if they need help with anything from finding a job or housing to buying diapers or food, or even if they simply need a sympathetic ear.
"If you need anything ... we're here for you," Carey promised.
About the program: Months of planning and coordination by government officials, law enforcement, community groups and local leaders culminated Tuesday night in the first "call-in" of the Group Violence Intervention initiative, modeled after nationally renowned criminologist David M. Kennedy's work in Boston in the 1990s.
The $300,000 cost of the three-year initiative, offered through the National Network for Safe Communities, was primarily covered by private donations, Bracey has said.
The premise of the initiative, offered through the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is that a very small number of people in any city perpetrate the vast majority of violent crimes, so to reduce violent crime, law enforcement has to identify and target that small group of people, who are often involved in gangs or the drug trade, or both. Those targeted then carry the message back to their associates.
The eight targeted Yorkers are all on probation and were identified as being connected with various "groups" responsible for much of York City's gun violence. They weren't chosen — known as being "called in" — because they're considered the worst or most dangerous offenders, city officials said. Rather, they were identified as being well connected in their groups and neighborhoods, and therefore able to widely deliver the Group Violence Intervenion message.
Captive audience: That they were forced to attend the call-in under threat of violating their probation ensured a captive audience. It was held at Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene's York City campus on Chestnut Street.
At first, the body language exhibited by several of them left no doubt they felt like prisoners in a room filled with people focused entirely on them. They crossed their arms akimbo, slouched in their chairs and avoided eye contact.
But each of the eight eventually showed signs they were responding to what was being said to them. Most of them started to lean forward and make eye contact with speakers, paying particularly close attention to York City resident Natalie Brown as she talked about the pain of losing one son to murder and another to prison, and to Shilvosky Buffaloe, York City's acting director of community and economic development, who spoke about how he, too, was given a second chance. (See related articles.)
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Houser used his seven allotted minutes of speaking time to school the eight on harsh federal sentencing guidelines for career offenders and noted that a number of them would already be classified as career offenders, as "it doesn't take much" to be on that list.
Harsh penalties: Career offenders caught dealing drugs face a guideline sentence of 17½ to nearly 22 years in federal prison — no matter how small the amount of drugs, he said.
And committing a crime with a gun carries, for career offenders, 30 years to life. Such offenders can catch a 15-year federal prison sentence for merely possessing one bullet, Houser warned, adding there is no parole in the federal prison system.
Houser then pointed at posters of the 13 Southside gang members displayed on the stage and identified by name and street name. The U.S. Attorney's Office and York City Police worked together in a multi-year effort to take down the gang, securing eight life sentences and other lengthy sentences.
"My office is going to start taking cases we normally wouldn't take," Houser said, then pointed at the Southside photos. "These gentlemen here don't have the opportunity you have."
York City Police Chief Wes Kahley stepped away from the podium, speaking to the eight while standing directly in front of them.
'We're fed up': He said everyone deserves to live in a community that's free of violence, and that children shouldn't have to be prepared to hit the floor when they hear gunfire.
"As a community, we're fed up with it," Kahley told them, vowing the city will stop the violence, with or without the help of group members. "If you have any doubt about whether we can do that or not, I invite you to look at the posters (on the stage)."
A 14th poster was set up not on the stage, but on the meeting-room floor, close to the eight. As Kahley spoke, he turned it over to reveal a photograph of homicide victim Ryan Small. The 22-year-old was fatally shot Jan. 15 in the city's west end after being lured there by two people who told him they wanted to buy drugs from him, according to court documents.
Share the message: "This young man was scheduled to sit beside you," Kahley told the eight. "Unfortunately, we can't help him. He doesn't get that choice. ... So take my message and share it. Take it to the streets, take it to your friends."
Chief deputy prosecutor Dave Sunday warned the eight that anyone arrested as part of the Group Violence Intervention initiative will have their criminal cases prosecuted by senior prosecutors, "to make sure the maximum prison sentence is obtained."
He told them there will be no plea bargains in those cases and no concurrent sentencing for multiple charges. Prosecutors will also argue for maximum sentences on probation violators who make it on GVI's radar.
"I will review every single case personally," Sunday said.
Spontaneous outpouring: After the hourlong presentation, the speakers all approached the eight to shake their hands and introduce themselves.
At that point, nearly every member of the audience stood up and walked over, waiting their turn to do the same.
Jim Tice, coordinator of Group Violence Intervention, said the audience wasn't coached to introduce themselves to the eight — it was a spontaneous group gesture.
It also was heartfelt. A number of people hugged the eight, and both speakers and audience members spent time having what appeared to be intense conversations with them.
Community members who attended the call-in said they found it to be powerful.
Breaking bread: People stayed afterword to "break bread," as Washington called it. She told the eight that it might initially feel awkward to them.
"But it's the first step in starting your new life," she said.
There will be future call-ins, as well as "custom notifications" for individuals, to spread the message about York City's new commitment to ending gun violence, according to Tice.
Agencies and groups involved in the Group Violence Intervention initiative include York City, York City Police, the York County District Attorney's Office, the York County Probation Office, the state Attorney General's Office, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the U.S. Marshals Service, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Agency, LifePath Christian Ministries, the Women's Giving Circle, Salem Square Community Association and other organizations.
Groups met regularly for months and worked closely with John Jay College to implement the program. Tice, Kahley, Lt. Troy Bankert and others were in contact with cities where the initiative has been launched, and attended a call-in in Newburgh, New York, to get an idea of what to expect. The number of hours spent by York City Police on implementing the initiative are incalculable, but Bankert estimated he alone spent about two hours a day for eight months working on it.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.
Editor's note: York City officials invited The York Dispatch to embed a reporter in the Group Violence Intervention planning meetings as well as Tuesday night's call-in, with the understanding nothing would be written about what the reporter witnessed until after the initial call-in. The group-violence intervention model encourages communities to allow one reporter early access, in part to encourage more thorough reporting.