York City mayor to meet with Group Violence Intervention leaders in NYC

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich's purpose will be twofold when he meets with leaders of the Group Violence Intervention initiative this week in New York City.

"I'm going to make sure that our investment is producing success as judged by the experts, not just internally," he told The York Dispatch. "And I'm confirming that this is an initiative that my administration should continue with."

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)

Helfrich and York City Interim Police Chief Troy Bankert will meet Friday, Jan. 26, with leaders of the National Network for Safe Communities, a project of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

NNSC field adviser Laurie Grieco, who is York City's lead GVI adviser, will attend that meeting.

"From everything I've heard from the York team, he's really looking forward to continuing the GVI effort," Grieco said of the mayor. "He's going to come to our office and meet with our team, including David Kennedy. We'll be strategizing ... about what comes next for York."

Kennedy is the creator of the GVI initiative and the author of "Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America."

National alliance: He also is director and a co-founder of NNSC, an alliance of more than 50 communities focused on improving public safety, minimizing arrests and incarceration and rebuilding relationships between police and distressed communities, according to the NNSC website.

David M. Kennedy

Helfrich read Kennedy's book years ago, after which he and a friend bought nearly three dozen copies "and started handing them out to any community leaders we could find," he said.

"I'm very excited (about Friday's meeting)," the mayor said. "I do believe in the initiative. ... I look at GVI as a Band-Aid, though it's a good Band-Aid."

Helfrich said he's eager to hear what Kennedy, Grieco and others at NNSC have to say about York City's efforts so far.

"I want a 100 percent blunt and frank assessment of what we are doing," he said. "I don't want anything filtered. I want to hear directly from them what we're doing right and what we're doing wrong."

'Doing great': Grieco told The York Dispatch that York City's efforts so far have yielded solid results.

"They're doing great," she said. "They're seeing a reduction in (the number of people shot), and they've really built some strong community partnerships. ... And they've done a great job putting all the pieces in place that are necessary to do this well."

Grieco predicted York City will continue to see reductions in gun violence as long as the the city continues to foster and build partnerships and as long as the GVI message to the community continues to get out effectively.

That core message, summed up, is: "We will stop you if you make us. But we'd rather help you, if you let us."

"A community can really compel people to stop that type of behavior, more so even than police," Grieco said.

More:York City's shootings drop by half, GVI credited for reduction

More:Initiative lays down law on gun violence, offers 2nd chance

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

Shooting reviews: She said York City's GVI partners implemented weekly shooting reviews in October, and she said NNSC has seen other cities do the same thing with good results.

Those short, informal reviews bring together representatives from city police, probation/parole officers, county sheriff's deputies, prison officials, the York County Drug Task Force and members of federal agencies such as the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to talk about the most recent gun violence in the city. The York City School District Police have been invited to join as well.

They share information, the idea being that prison officials or probation officers could easily have information about a shooter or shooting victim that city detectives weren't aware of.

"I'm really impressed with how York implemented it with such success, so quickly," Grieco said.

Reaching out: Helfrich said the aspects of GVI designed to help people leave the criminal life need to be stressed to the community, as does the message that York City hasn't turned its back on young, violent residents.

"If you've given up on the world, it's unlikely you're going to win a citizenship award," he said. "And if people feel the world has given up on them, then they give up on the world."

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich holds a tank top given to hem by Latino leader Lou Rivera during an oath of office ceremony outside City Hall Tuesday, Jan 2, 2017. Helfrich is the 25th mayor of York. Bill Kalina photo

The mayor said that while he doesn't believe in "a handout system," he does believe in making sure people have the tools they need to live successful, prosperous lives.

"Unfortunately, way too many young people have already created the expectation that they're going to be in prison or a grave by the time they're 20," he said. "We have to show them — and show the community — that we're not trying to be part of a system that pushes things in that direction. ... It is a popular belief that the system wants to (lock people up), especially young people of color."

Community partners: York City's GVI initiative includes partners such as LifePath Christian Ministries that respond 24 hours a day if someone targeted by GVI says they need help, LifePath Executive Director Matthew Carey has said.

York City's Group Violence Intervention model has so far held two "call-ins," in which young people are brought before community members, elected officials and law enforcement and asked to spread the message that the community wants to help young people who want to stop living violent lifestyles. Those who don't heed the message receive special attention from police, as do their neighbors and associates.

Help can include food, clothing, shelter, job training, finding a job, furniture, diapers, counseling — virtually anything. LifePath evenhas donated beds to the children of a GVI target because the children had no beds.

Grieco said strong community partners, such as LifePath, can help GVI span political administrations and turn it into an institutionalized initiative, rather than a "program" that can be ended when a new mayor or police chief takes office.

Helfrich said most people don't want to be part of a gang lifestyle once they get over the "fake coolness factor" of it.

He said the York City community must ask its violent young element, "What is it that we can do to keep you from this life that's going to force us to put you in jail?"

Consequences: GVI's message of help and hope comes with consequences for those who continue to fire guns and shoot people in York City. Those people 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, locally and federally, for every possible infraction, no matter how small.

— 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 GVI model encourages communities to allow a reporter early access, in part to encourage more thorough reporting.