York City reinforces GVI anti-gun violence message with carrot, stick

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
  • The second "call-in" of York City's Group Violence Intervention initiative was held Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017.
  • Seven young people were given a message to take back to their associates - that there's help available, or 'special attention' if need be.

York City and its county, state, federal and community partners have sent their second message to those responsible for the gun violence that has plagued the city.

As part of the Group Violence Intervention initiative, a second group of young people on Thursday, Aug. 31, was called into a room filled with members of the community, social-services groups, government officials and those affected firsthand by gun violence.

The five men and two women weren't chosen because they necessarily are responsible for gun violence in York City. Rather, they were chosen for their connections to violent groups and areas so they can spread the word to friends, families and "associates."

York County law enforcement prepare for the first Group Violence Intervention "Call-In" at Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene's York City campus on Chestnut St., Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

The seven young people sat in a row of chairs Inside Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene's York City campus on Chestnut Street, looking at photographs of York City men whose lives of violence and drug-slinging have netted them life sentences in federal courts.

The first Group Violence Intervention call-in, held Feb. 21 at the same location, targeted eight different young people.

In both call-ins, officials and community leaders stayed on point by delivering a consistent message of inclusion and help, as well as of consequences. At the core of that message?

"We will stop you if you make us. But we'd rather help you, if you let us."

The message: The message includes telling the group that they are valued in York City, that no one wants to see them dead or in prison and that the community will help them in any way possible. That kind of help includes job training, finding a job, helping the person with food, diapers and clothing, and even just providing a sympathetic ear.

"You are our future," York City Director of Community Relations Edquina Washington told the seven. "Each of you deserve the right to live a safe, prosperous life. We respected you enough to bring you here today — help us help you in putting an end to the violence."

City, state and federal officials, as well as community members, prepare for the first Group Violence Intervention initiative "call-in" at Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene's York City campus on Chestnut St., Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

But that community support comes with conditions.

Those who continue to fire guns and shoot people in York City can expect a very different sort of special treatment. The perpetrators of gun violence — as well as every member of their group — will become the focus of police and prosecutors, both locally and federally, for every possible infraction, no matter how small.

"Our community has come together and completely changed the way we will respond to violence," York City Mayor Kim Bracey warned the group. "You all should be part of that."

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'We know who you are': York City Police Chief Wes Kahley told the group that drug dealers and gunslingers are mistaken if they think they're operating in secret.

"We know who you are, what you're up to and who you hang out with," he warned. "Tell your friends that their actions are going to impact you and that your actions are going to impact them."

York County chief deputy prosecutor Dave Sunday also spoke, as did Assistant U.S. Attorney William Houser.

They outlined the grave sentencing consequences violent group members face, especially in the federal system. Sunday is cross-trained as a federal prosecutor.

In the six months since York's first GVI call-in, more than 41 people have been arrested as a result of the "consequences" officials have warned of, for a variety of infractions, according to Sunday.

Together, they face a total of more than 150 years, he said, and he'll fight for all sentences to run consecutively. Police, prosecutors and probation officers roll out "consequences" each time there's a GVI-related shooting.

The long haul: Sunday later said that York City's Group Violence Intervention partners will keep at it until the violence stops.

Houser explained that someone with two felony drug convictions, no matter how small, is considered a "career offender" in federal court and that such offenders receive decades-long sentences, even for minor infractions.

York County law enforcement prepare for the first Group Violence Intervention "Call-In" at Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene's York City campus on Chestnut St., Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

A career offender convicted of dealing drugs while possessing a gun will receive a sentence of 30 years to life, he said.

Houser also noted that since the first call-in, several career offenders responsible for York City's gun violence are now locked up.

They include Jermaine "Face" Johnson, sentenced to nine years in federal prison for possessing 11 bullets, and Reginald "Reggie" Lomax Jr., sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for firearm possession, he said.

"The feds are in York until the shooting stops," Houser warned.

'I lived the streets': Community leader Chris Woodard also spoke to the seven young people. He is an elder at New Covenant Community Church on West King Street and recently was honored by a local Masonic Lodge for his community work.

He explained that he knows their life, knows their struggles, but found his way to a different reality.

"I lived the streets," Woodard said. "But that life cost me four to eight years in state prison. I wasn't a bad person, I just made a bad decision."

Woodard asked them whether they thought they were prepared to spend years, decades or even life in prison, and suggested that they are not.

He said he communicates with a number of York City men now doing life or decades in federal prison, who are crying. Their "homies" have abandoned them, he said.

He tried to explain the stupidity of drug-dealing groups that war over areas of York City.

"It don't belong to you — you don't own nothing," Woodard said. "Stop getting caught up in all that mess, because it's not worth it."

Grieving mother: He also urged the seven to take to heart the words of Yolanda McCanic, whose 23-year-old son, Ca-Trell "Trey" McCanic, was fatally stabbed 13 times by his best friend on Sept. 7, 2002.

A former all-star varsity York High basketball player, he graduated in 1999 and had two children. He was engaged to be married at the time of his murder.

"I can't even put into words the pain I felt," Yolanda McCanic told the seven. Her grandchildren don't remember their father, she said, who was her only son.

"I put on this facade every day," she said, and urged the young people to think of their mothers and their families before engaging in gun violence.

"The choices you make? There's a lot of people (affected)," McCanic said.

About GVI: The Group Violence Intervention initiative is modeled after nationally renowned criminologist David M. Kennedy's work in Boston in the 1990s.

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.

There will be future call-ins as needed, as well as "custom notifications" for individuals, to spread the message about York City's renewed commitment to ending gun violence, according to program director Jim Tice.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com 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 and call-ins, 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 a reporter early access, in part to encourage more thorough reporting.