York mayor: Anti-violence meeting 'an amazing experience'

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

A group of seven men were the latest York City residents called in to a community meeting where they were told gun violence will no longer be tolerated in the city.

It was York City's third "call-in" as part of its Group Violence Intervention initiative but the first for Mayor Michael Helfrich.

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)

"I want you to know this is from my heart," he told the seven men. "This is really important to me, and so are you."

Held Thursday, March 8, at Logos Academy on West King Street, the purpose of the GVI call-in was to deliver a message to the men and ask them to share that message with friends, family, neighbors and "associates."

The GVI message is constant, no matter who delivers it: The community wants you safe, alive and out of prison and will help you with whatever you need to achieve that. But those who continue to commit gun violence will be targeted for "special attention" by local, state and federal authorities.

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

Those chosen as targets for GVI call-ins are currently on probation. They're not chosen because they're considered the worst or most-violent criminals in York, officials have said.

They're chosen because they've been identified as being well-connected in York City and hopefully able to help spread GVI's message.

'Amazing experience': Helfrich said he was pleased with what he saw at the call-in, specifically how everyone in attendance — from police to pastors to community advocates — are "100 percent in on this."

"Personally, it was an amazing experience for me," he said. "Afterward, I had a really good time sitting down with the young men and chatting with them — just eating a couple sandwiches with the guys."

York City Police Officer Chuck Crumpton wands a guest to 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

Helfrich said the seven men didn't have to stick around after the call-in to break bread with the presenters and roughly 50 people from the community who came to support the message.

But they did, he said.

"The best part of it for me was at the very end. All the guys had the opportunity to walk right out the door (after the call-in ended), and they still hung out and ate with us and talked with people," the mayor said. "They didn't have to do that, and I respect them all for listening and engaging."

'One-way conversation': Just before the call-in began, GVI project director Jim Tice explained to community members in attendance that call-in targets are treated with respect but that each call-in is "a one-way conversation," meaning the targets just sit there quietly and listen.

"I know growing up in York isn't easy," Helfrich told the seven men and stressed that perpetuating violence keeps the entire city down.

He noted that after the June 27, 2017, homicide of 48-year-old mother-of-four Elizabeth Vega-Tirado — who police said was an innocent bystander struck in the head by a stray bullet on West Princess Street — planned job training at Salem Square had to be canceled.

"The people who came to help us with job training said it was too dangerous," Helfrich told the men.

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

Interim York City Police Chief Troy Bankert spoke about how officers are tired of people being shot and killed. 

He recounted having to attend the autopsy of 9-year-old Ciara "CeCe" Savage of Lancaster, who was fatally shot by a stray bullet on Mother's Day 2009 while playing on a sidewalk in Southside gang territory. The shooters were members of the Parkway gang and were firing at Southside members.

More:Helfrich optimistic about York's gun-violence initiative

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

Federal, county prosecutors: Assistant U.S. Attorney William Houser spoke to the men about the severity of federal sentencing guidelines compared to state sentencing guidelines.

And York County District Attorney Dave Sunday told the men that if they continue to commit violent acts, "I will make sure we do everything in our power to keep you in jail for as long as possible."

Sunday said he'd rather each of the men take advantage of help and live good lives.

"We don't want any more people to die," he said.

Matt Carey, executive director of LifePath Christian Ministries, gave the men a cellphone number they can call any time of the day or night to ask for all kinds of assistance.

"You're loved. You have value, and you have purpose," he told them. "If you take the first step toward us, we'll take two toward you."

Bishop Carl Scott of Bible Tabernacle Christian Center said that some local pastors are going to two funerals a week, many of them for young men who died too soon.

"My own nephew was killed at the age of 17 on the streets of York," Scott said to the men.

Aaron Anderson, CEO of Logos Academy, told The York Dispatch that the academy hosted Thursday's GVI call-in because "we want our kids to grow up in a safe community."

"I think it's a great initiative," he said — one that's compassionate but with tough consequences.

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Offering help: 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. 

But 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 initiative was created by David M. Kennedy, co-founder of the National Network for Safe Communities, which oversees the execution of cities' GVI initiatives.

NNSC is 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 its website. NNSC is a project of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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