Helfrich optimistic about York's gun-violence initiative

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich heard good news in New York City recently when he met with advisers to the city's Group Violence Intervention initiative.

Helfrich said he was able to pull aside the creator of the initiative, David M. Kennedy, for a private moment as the group walked to a restaurant for a working lunch that lasted more than two hours.

The mayor said he quietly asked Kennedy if there were any failures by York City's team in implementing GVI, telling Kennedy, "I want to know if we're having any problems."

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)

According to Helfrich, Kennedy prefaced his answer by saying he's not the kind of person to pull punches, then told the mayor, "York is doing exactly what we want all the other cities (with GVI) to be doing."

York City began implementing the anti-gun-violence initiative a year ago.

Helfrich and York City Interim Police Chief Troy Bankert traveled to New York City on  Jan. 26, and met with Kennedy and others with the National Network for Safe Communities, which oversees the execution of cities' GVI initiatives.

Kennedy is 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. NNSC is a project of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Carrot and stick: GVI's premise is that in any community, it's a small number of people committing the bulk of gun violence. GVI seeks to target those people and offer them and their associates the tools they need to become good citizens.

To that end, York City's social-services partners in the GVI effort provide an array of help including job training and placement, food, clothing, furniture, diapers, counseling and whatever else someone might need to walk away from a life of gun violence. LifePath Christian Ministries, a York City GVI partner, is available 24-7, executive director Matthew Carey has said. 

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

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich gives a speech after taking the oath of office during a ceremony outside City Hall Tuesday, Jan 2, 2017. Helfrich is the 25th mayor of York. Bill Kalina photo

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.

The U.S. Attorney's Office is a partner in York City's GVI initiative and has pointed out that federal prison sentences can be much longer than state sentences.

What's next? Helfrich said he, Bankert, Kennedy, GVI field adviser Laurie Grieco and GVI Director Meaghan McDonald strategized about how to improve the reach of services, including how to focus more on helping juveniles.

The GVI model targets adults already in the criminal-justice system, so York must find a way to offer the same services and consequences to youths, the mayor said.

"We came up with some really good stuff," Helfrich told The York Dispatch. "We thoroughly discussed that and are satisfied that as we move forward we're going to have a system that's also going to ... help our young people."

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 mayor said he can't yet release specifics about those ideas, but he did speak generally about some of the new strategies.

"We will be doing a lot more to reach out to families that have had violence causing trauma in their lives and also to the immediate areas where folks are experiencing violence," he said, adding GVI partners will provide services to people before, during and after shootings.

At-risk youth: "There is already an effort to work more with juvenile probation and possibly the schools to make sure that any of the services we're providing are also being offered to at-risk youth," Helfrich said.

Helfrich said he  still has concerns about how someone who supports his extended family by dealing drugs or through other illegal means can find an honest job that will allow him to continue supporting all those people.

"To make a stronger impact, we have to do more work to help people beyond the individual," he said. "This is one prong of the strategy to create an environment where people can prosper and develop."

Helfrich said York City residents need to understand that GVI isn't a short-term program. It's how the city will be doing business from now on.


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No bad families: "We will be wherever the violence is," Helfrich said. "We will be there with all the services we can provide — and all the enforcement we can provide. Our mission hasn't changed.

"We don't have bad neighborhoods in the city. We don't have bad families in the city," the mayor continued. "We have a tiny percentage of the population of York City — less than 1 percent — that is bringing this chaos to our city."

He said he's optimistic the GVI initiative will convince those involved with guns and gangs to turn their lives around.

"We will do everything we can to redirect what is essentially a handful of individuals," Helfrich said. "But again, if they refuse to choose another path, then the ultimate response will be to separate them from the people who want to live in peace."

— 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.