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A York City anti-gun violence initiative launched about three years ago has been an effective tool in the city's crusade to combat frequent shootings, according to officials familiar with the program.

The initiative, an offshoot of a national program out of John Jay College in New York, launched in 2016 as the Group Violence Intervention initiative and is now called York City’s Group Violence Initiative. It's morphed along the way to tailor to York's needs — including the creation of a similar initiative for juveniles, said Mayor Michael Helfrich.

"I think that GVI has been amazingly successful in helping to build relationships with people that particularly feel like they've been left out of the loop," Helfrich said. 

But not everyone is as optimistic about GVI's impact.

York City Councilwoman Sandie Walker said the city might need to explore new approaches.

“The issue is, it’s still not stopping the shootings that are happening and the killing of our young, particularly men of color, so what else do we do? We have to see what other options are available,” Walker said in an interview regarding her reelection campaign.

York City officials did not supply The York Dispatch with the shooting data for 2016, 2017, 2018 and the first half of 2019 after multiple requests. On April 4, York City police said the information would be shared without filing a Right-to-Know request. As of April 27, the information had not been sent and The York Dispatch filed a Right-to-Know request.

'We'll help you if you let us': At its core, GVI is built on the basis that only a small percentage of people in a community perpetuate the majority of violent crimes. When identified, they're offered access to resources and services in the community. Gatherings of police, community members and service providers meet with the identified at-risk populations at events called "call-ins." The city has about two call-ins a year, or more if necessary, said GVI director Jim Tyson. 

Identified residents who are uncooperative face legal action. Uncooperative members can face federal sentencing, meaning harsher penalties and longer sentences, Helfrich said. 

"The gist is, we will help you if you let us. And we will stop you if you make us," Helfrich said. 

The city is not stepping away from GVI anytime soon. The initiative continues to be funded by undisclosed private donors and government grants, Helfrich confirmed.

In 2016, York City contracted criminologist David Kennedy and John Jay College for $300,000 through undisclosed private donors. Louisa Aviles, national GVI director, said cities are provided ongoing strategic advice and support; there are also on-site visits and facilitation of communication between different cities that can learn from each other.

The city is holding three informational sessions in May with Kennedy, who created the basis of the GVI approach. Kennedy will speak at 7 p.m. May 9 at the Appell Center for the Performing Arts, 50 N. George St., as well as 4 p.m. May 10 at Crispus Attucks, 605 S. Duke St., and 7 p.m. May 10 at the Shiloh Baptist Church, 740 W. Locust St. 

Decrease in shootings: Tyson, who took the program over in mid-February, agrees that GVI has been effective. From November until March, there had not been a homicide in the city. 

"It had been years since we had gone that long of a stretch without one. And a lot of that is the work that we do here," Tyson said.

Supportive York City officials credited GVI for cutting the number of shootings in half in 2017. Although shootings dropped, the same year police reported a near record high number of homicides.

“We expect to see group-involved homicides coming down, and if the work falls off or this work is somewhat vulnerable to transition and things like that, then we might see things creep back up,” Aviles said.

The program is based on Kennedy's work in Boston in the 1990s. GVI draws heavily on a community's moral voice against violence, Aviles said.

By connecting the public to services and resources, the program gives choices and better opportunities, Tyson said. 

"So we're not just going around arresting people all the time ... (it's) more like an intervention strategy, in many ways," he said.

Adjustments: In addition to GVI's initial focus on connecting at-risk members with resources, the initiative has evolved to further limit violence in the city, Helfrich said. Two main adjustments have been an offshoot initiative for juveniles and a community police response to the victims of violence. 

"We’re actually there for people, and people are recognizing the difference," he said. 

The juvenile initiative gives the city a chance to "get to young people who have made a mistake" and try to "steer them in a better direction before they do something worse," Helfrich said.

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The emphasis on responding to victims of violence allows officials to help break the cycle of violence, he said. 

"To let them know that we recognize what just happened to you, we recognize your pain and we as a community are here to help you," he said. 

The program helps with funeral expenses, flying in relatives and repairing gunshot damage. Since the program launched, there has been greater cooperation from the community, he said. 

"The only thing that I ever ask in return from the families, the only thing GVI asks in return, is please use any influence that you have to not let another shooting happen, because another shooting means the end of two more lives," Helfrich said. "One person in the ground, and one person in prison for who knows how long." 

— Rebecca Klar can be reached at rklar@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter @RebeccaKlar_.

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