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York City's GVI efforts impress national adviser
York City's Group Violence Intervention initiative called in eight Yorkers on probation who have connections with area "groups" responsible for much of York's gun violence. They were told gun violence will no longer be tolerated.
As York City works to make a national gun-violence reduction initiative a permanent part of its long-term philosophy on crime, a national adviser says York's efforts so far have been impressive on several fronts.
Louisa Aviles, associate director of the National Network for Safe Communities' group-violence portfolio, said York City's officials and community-support agencies have "gone beyond lip service" in embracing and implementing the Group Violence Intervention initiative.
"There are a couple pieces (to the initiative) that cities can get right — right out of the gate — that are really important," she said. "Some cities nail them, and other cities take longer to get them in place."
York City has nailed some of those components, Aviles said.
"We are really impressed with the overall shape of implementation at this point," she said, "particularly in regard to support and outreach infrastructure that York City has put in place."
About the initiative: GVI targets the people at the most risk of committing and being victims of gun violence by frankly telling them that gun violence won't be tolerated, then giving them the tools and support they need to become better citizens.
In other words, shootings bring police and gun violence brings police.
The GVI message is simple: 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.
Fair game: Neighbors aren't spared either. Enforcement details have included everything from warrant sweeps to littering citations and parking tickets — 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.
GVI, modeled after nationally renowned criminologist David M. Kennedy's work in Boston in the 1990s, cost $300,000 and 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.
'Powerful' message: "It's extraordinarily powerful," Kennedy told The York Dispatch on Wednesday.
"Twenty and 30 years ago when I got involved in this, there was nothing that worked to prevent homicides and gun violence," he said. "That's not true anymore. ... It took inventing something different to get anywhere."
While the message didn't go over very well with officials two decades ago, "it's not radical anymore," Kennedy said.
And the reason it works, he said, is because the community is a full participant, a full partner with police, city officials and prosecutors.
Support and outreach: Aviles said one aspect of the initiative that York City aced early on was the inclusion of its support and outreach community to help those targeted by GVI with social services and other needs. They could include help finding a job or housing; securing addiction treatment; providing food, clothing or diapers; and even helping with utility bills or schooling.
"York got that right off the bat," she said. "It's amazing when you have partners who can meet those needs. ... They found all these partners willing to come to the table. That's no small thing, and it's been really impressive to us."
Systemwide support: Aviles also praised the fact that "there's real buy-in from the very top" and real leadership for GVI coming from Mayor Bracey and her staff.
"When it comes to sustaining the work over the long haul ... there's no substitute for that," Aviles said. "We've been really pleased by the commitment we see in York."
Also, she said, the GVI partners have shown enthusiasm for training as well as great camaraderie. That bodes well for the initiative's long-term success, according to Aviles.
She noted some cities that implemented GVI years ago are still improving on it.
Stopping the next shooting: She said her office has been told by York City officials that rank-and-file officers also are on board with GVI.
"The totality of what York is doing — and they're right on point with this — is they've been quick to internalize the concept that everything we're doing is about stopping the next shooting," Aviles said.
She said York City residents have every reason to feel hopeful the GVI initiative will reduce homicides and gun violence here.
'Large reductions': York City Police Chief Wes Kahley said that, aside from the past two weeks, the amount of gun violence has dropped.
"We've seen some very large reductions," he said. "This (gun violence) is not going to be cured overnight — we expect ups and downs."
Kahley is one of the city officials who has "bought into" the program wholeheartedly.
"It's been great," he said. "We've built relationships we didn't have before. ... We have fantastic teams."
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.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.