York City neighborhoods targeted by GVI after recent shootings

Liz Evans Scolforo

York City officials understand it might take a little time for their anti-violence message to resonate with the city's gunslingers.

And so Edquina Washington, the city's director of community relations, is happy to repeat the Group Violence Intervention mantra until everyone knows it by heart: Shootings bring police and gun violence brings police.

"We want them safe, we want them alive and we want them out of prison," she said of those involved in the violence. "We want to help them, but it has to be a two-way street."

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)

People in York City's west end and south side are learning that lesson the hard way.

In the wake of five street shootings in York City since March, including two homicides, city police officers and York County probation officers descended on the two neighborhoods and conducted a total of 16 details.

And it's not just the shooters themselves who are being targeted by the GVI initiative, launched in February after many months of planning and work.

Anyone affiliated with groups in the west end or the Southside gang, even neighbors who simply happen to be on probation or parole, found themselves targeted by law-enforcement officers looking for any and every reason to make arrests and write citations. Outstanding warrants, littering — it's all fair game as part of the GVI philosophy.

When a shooter's actions have consequences for their neighbors, friends and family, it creates societal pressure on them, according to the philosophy.

"For York City residents involved in perpetrating street violence, the consequences have been real. What we said would happen is really happening," Washington said. "There are consequences for the things we do."

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What is GVI? Months of planning and coordination by government officials, law enforcement, community groups and local leaders culminated Feb. 21 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, available through the National Network for Safe Communities, was largely covered by private donations, York City Mayor Kim Bracey has said.

The premise of the initiative, offered by 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, the drug trade or both. Those targeted then carry the message back to their associates.

The eight Yorkers targeted in the Feb. 21 call-in were 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, officials have said. Rather, they were identified as being well connected in their groups and neighborhoods and therefore able to widely deliver the GVI message.

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The details: During the 16 GVI details conducted since March, city officers arrested six people and seized three illegal guns, while county probation officers visited more than 70 people currently on probation to check for possible probation violations, according to York City Police Lt. Troy Bankert.

Officers also spoke with a number of neighbors and received "overwhelmingly positive comments" from them about the GVI initiative, he said. In all, officers made contact with more than 200 people in the two neighborhoods, according to the lieutenant.

Bankert told The York Dispatch that five incidents of gun violence spurred the details. They were:

Help is available: Washington said the GVI details are having an impact in the community, in part by letting residents see this is a unified effort and an ongoing one.

"We are hearing positive comments from the community and from community organizations that want to be involved — especially clergy in our community," she said.

City of York Director of Community Relations Edquina Washington talks about the 5th Annual MLK America's Sunday Supper at Lincoln Charter School in York City, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017. Washington also is heavily involved in York City's Group Violence Intervention initiative.
(Dawn J. Sagert photo)

Helping to win over the community at large is the fact that GVI isn't solely about consequences. It's also about helping people make better lives for themselves, rather than remaining involved in the street lifestyle, she said.

"We would prefer to offer them services," Washington said. "Whatever they need help with, we can help them. We have a plethora of nonprofit programs and services in the City of York, even if it's just someone to talk to."

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They're not alone: Those services include everything from helping with child care, utility bills, job searches, procuring clothing, navigating the public-assistance process and even providing beds for families who need them, according to Washington. LifePath Christian Ministries, formerly the York Rescue Mission, is integrally involved in providing this help, and the young people targeted by the GVI initiative all have been given a LifePath phone number to call any time of the day or night for help.

"They're not in this alone," Washington vowed.

Some people with felony records might think it's too late for them to live a normal life, she said, but that's simply not true.

"You can make a living with a felony record," she said. "Don't let that be the scarlet letter on your chest."

But if the violence continues, residents can expect to see more police presence, Washington warned, and more call-ins are being planned so the message continues to reach the streets.

"Change doesn't happen overnight," she said. "And we do believe this will make a great change in our community."

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.