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Anti-Violence Effort Launched By U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder
The Connecticut Law Tribune
Underscoring the seriousness of the message, representatives of Connecticut's entire law enforcement community called in U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to announce the launch of a multi-jurisdictional program designed to dramatically reduce shooting deaths in New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport.
Last week, Holder was flanked by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Gov. Dannel Malloy and a roomful of lawmakers, clergy and family members of shooting victims at a New Haven press conference.
The attorney general and others discussed a three-pronged program that will initially focus on gang members. Authorities will identify potential violent offenders, offer them concrete help about changing their lives, and target them for aggressive prosecution if they or fellow gang members commit violent crimes.
To underscore how the initiative differs from normal policing, just hours before the news conference, New Haven authorities had a "call-in" of 27 alleged members of the city's two most violent gangs, all of whom had records or were on probation or parole. In a message that was came from a mixture of love and fear, the gang members were told they had to stop resorting to gun violence or face the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in prison, many states away.
One of the architects of the program, which builds on earlier efforts in Chicago, Cincinnati and other major cities, is Connecticut's U.S. Attorney David Fein. He came up with the name "Longevity" for two reasons, he said in an interview after the Nov. 27 press conference.
"We want this initiative to be sustainable and sustained, and have built a coalition of partners, with many people and offices and agencies engaged," he said. These combine "all of the relevant state and local agencies, each of the cities, their mayors, police chiefs, the state, the governor and the legislature, all of whom play a role in combating violent crime, including ATF, FBI and the U.S. Marshals' Service...
"Longevity is also meant to symbolically represent the lives of the people in these affected communities the youth at the center of the violent crime that we're seeking to eliminate," Fein added. "Both the age of the shooters and their victims is alarmingly low."
Holder said that by identifying and targeting the groups that are responsible for violence throughout New Haven and the state's other urban areas, "Project Longevity will send a powerful message to those who would harm their fellow citizens: that such acts will not be tolerated; that they will be swiftly met with clear, predictable consequences."
He also held out an alternative: "Help is available for all those who wish to break the cycle of violence and gang activity."
Although violent crime in general has been decreasing in Connecticut, there has been no letup of urban gun killings, said Michael Lawlor, the top crime policy official in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration. Last year, there were 129 Connecticut homicides, of which 94 occurred in New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport.
The statistics are stark, Lawlor said in an interview. For example, in New Haven, he said, "98 percent of the victims of those shootings have been African-American men."
Last week's "call-ins," to warn those deemed most likely to shoot or be shot, is the culmination of six months of police and community study. Law enforcement scholars worked with police to carefully identify a population of about 550 of New Haven's citizens deemed most likely to kill or be killed with guns. The approach is based in large part on the academic writings of David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Kennedy, author of Don't Shoot, designed a Boston project credited with reducing gun violence there by 60 percent.
The proposed scope of Project Longevity statewide instead of city-based would make it a national first, said Fein. More preparation is underway to extend the program to Hartford and Bridgeport, with no set timetable, he said.
Lawlor said the targeted population of about 550 of New Haven's most dangerous and endangered has selected itself, through a history of violent acts. "We've been working on this for six months in New Haven, and a lot of intelligence gathering and coordination has been involved." The program combines equal parts law enforcement and community-based services. "So these guys have been given an escape hatch if they want to crawl through it. It's their option, and we hope they do it," he said.
The young men were given a single contact to go to for help in finding job training, education, health care and other services to change their lives for the better. This could even include leaving town to start afresh elsewhere, if they desire.
"But if they don't, and if somebody in their crew shoots somebody, they're all going to pay the price," Lawlor said. "They were told in no uncertain terms. Two groups have been feuding with each other and creating the most carnage in New Haven, so we started with them. We made it very clear you'll spend the rest of your life in prison. If your group is responsible for one more shooting, all of you will be locked up for as long as possible. Probably in a federal prison, probably in Montana somewhere. So you're on notice."
The state legislature approved $500,000 to help fund Project Longevity's initial research. About $130,000 in discretionary federal grants as well as $50,000 provided through the U.S. Department of Justice's Project Safe Neighborhoods is also being used.
New Haven criminal defense lawyer William Dow III said there have historically been "very effective" federal-state enforcement initiatives in Connecticut, such as one focused on Jamaican druglords during the 1990s. But that program, like many past enforcement efforts, was short-lived.
"When I was a young lawyer in the [Federal Public Defender's] office, they prosecuted the Jungle Boys in New Haven," said criminal defense attorney Richard Reeve, of Sheehan & Reeve. "The government said we're going to do all this urban renewal, we're not just here to prosecute and take them off the street. But for every kid the government takes off corners, there are ten more waiting to fill that spot. Good luck to 'em."
Reeve said the war on drugs has done more harm than good to communities. To the extent that it has shifted to a war on gun violence, that's a move in the right direction, he said. But, Reeve added, "there are still neighborhoods in New Haven, where if a young person doesn't want to join a gang, he can be beaten up every day. What program is addressing that?" he asked.
While optimistic about the federal initiative, Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane said the state has launched its own efforts.
A recently-formed task force in Hartford has focused on non-fatal shootings. In many such cases, after victims and witnesses refused to cooperate, the investigations were dropped. However, through careful sifting of physical evidence, such as shell casings left at crime scenes, police and prosecutors have been able to detect patterns of shootings by specific groups, he said.
Even with robust federal aid, state prosecution will be important, Kane said. "Most murders, attempted murders, and assaults are state crimes," Kane said. Federal "organized crime" statutes, such as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), are not easily applied to cases where gang members shoot each other with the motive being little more than feeling disrespected.
Kane said he didn't anticipate court dockets being dramatically affected by Project Longevity. "The system will function," he said. "There will be more arrests, I'm sure, but if they've been well-investigated, many of them won't end up being tried."
As for New Haven specifically, he noted that in the past year and a half, New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman has focused on anti-violence measures. What's new, Kane said, is creating a larger and longer-lasting alliance of groups to address the problem.
"It's great getting the community groups involved, and the ministers and the other support agencies," Kane said. "Parole and probation is hoping to get involved. There are ways to arrest and prosecute the serious perpetrators, and to divert the others into more productive things. That's the only way we're going to get a grip on the cities."