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“We will stop you, if you make us. But we’d rather help you, if you let us.”

These words, spoken by Edquina Washington, York City’s director of community relations, were among a number of strong and compassionate words aimed at gang members Tuesday evening, Feb. 21, in a large church meeting room, surrounded by city officials, activists and community members.

The York City gang members, doing hard time, were called in to hear one distinct message as a condition of their parole.

It’s time to stop the violence.

York Dispatch senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo was embedded with city officials for months as they organized a strategic initiative they call Group Violence Intervention. Scolforo was in attendance under an agreement to watch and listen as officials made their plans. She would write when the first “call-in” had been completed.

In three stories, Scolforo captured a powerful scene.

Group Violence Intervention works like this:

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.

The eight targeted Yorkers are  on probation and were identified as being connected with various groups responsible for much of York City's gun violence. They weren't chosen — known as being "called in" — because they're considered the worst or most dangerous offenders, city officials said. Rather, they were identified as being well-connected in their groups and neighborhoods and therefore able to widely deliver the Group Violence Intervention message.

Speakers included York native Mayor Kim Bracey, Police Chief Wes Kahley, a reverend and a city official – both of whom could relate to the gang members from personal experience, and others who implored the gang members to reach out if they need assistance.

But there's a catch. If those eight continue to choose a life of violence, law enforcement will step in with increased commitment to deliver harsh punishment, unlike they might have experienced or expected. Take the message back to your gang counterparts, officials told the gang members; we mean business.

There is so much right about what was done at this first call-in intervention. We believe it has the potential to change lives in York City.

And not only to change the lives of those in the community who are weary of being frightened to go out in their own neighborhoods because of flying bullets, but of those who are repeat and violent criminals.

The message was also loud and clear about support. Not only did officials put in place a plan for a safety net for those seeking to escape their  criminal lifestyles, but the community in attendance spoke volumes softly when, at the end of the hour-long program, they stood and made an impromptu line to shake the hands of the gang members.

These programs can be difficult to pull off. But city officials and residents last week presented a united and kind front. And did so with honesty.

We believe that because of the sincere outpouring of compassion from officials and residents alike, this tough-love program has a fighting chance.

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