HARTFORD —— More than a year ago, law enforcement officers from Hartford, the surrounding suburbs and state and federal agencies began quietly collecting information about the city's most violent criminals.
The Hartford Shooting Task Force identified the 75 to 125 people responsible for most of the city's serious crime, tracked the offenders and forged relationships with them, their families and the community in an effort to deter violence.
If that sounds familiar, it's because New Haven garnered a lot of press in November when it announced Project Longevity, a program that aims to quell violence by pinpointing those most often responsible, holding them accountable and encouraging them to turn their lives around.
The project, devised by criminologist David M. Kennedy, is expected to formally begin in Hartford within five months. Researchers working on Longevity in New Haven will move on to Hartford once their work is finished, and then to Bridgeport as the program expands across the state.
But the capital city is one step ahead.
"We've been doing some of the stuff already — telling people 'Leave your gun at home. If you take it out we're all coming after you,' " Hartford Police Chief James Rovella said. "We've started our faith-based initiative. We are really very connected and prepared to do this stuff. We're hoping [Longevity] enhances, or ties in, with all these different approaches we're taking."
John DeCarlo, a criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven who has been conducting research for Longevity there, said state and federal officials would build on the data already developed in Hartford.
"Because that excellent work is already in place, we would hope to be able to leverage the efforts of the shooting task force and incorporate that data into the bigger overall program in the Hartford area," he said.
Under the Longevity program, researchers study gangs, their makeup and relationships, focusing on the relatively small number of people who commit the most violent crimes. Later, gang members are called into a room with family members, community leaders, social service workers, police and prosecutors and told that if any of them shoots another person, law enforcement will come down on the entire group.
Because many gang members are on parole or probation, this warning is designed to let them know they will be targeted — and could go to prison — even if someone else does the shooting.
As an alternative, they are offered programs and services — drug treatment, employment preparation and readiness, housing, education and life skills — designed to help them change their behavior.
In New Haven, researchers from Yale University, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the University of New Haven and the University of Cincinnati pored over police data to pinpoint about 19 groups composed of fewer than 600 people who are responsible for almost all of the city's violent crimes. Late last month, the meetings with gang members, began.
'Nexus To Violence'
In Hartford, similar efforts are underway. Last spring, Rovella created the PROSPER program, which pairs probationers with two sponsors — a police officer and probation officer — to help keep them on track.
The police department has also partnered with the city's faith-based community, and meetings of that initiative are ongoing.
In addition, the city's shooting task force is developing a "future shooters list" by reviewing field interview reports and criminal arrests made over the past 10 years. Task force members give each arrest a point value based on its "nexus to violence," according to city documents. Deceased or incarcerated people are filtered out. The remaining names are given priority "in criminal investigations based on the potential for violence," documents say.
The task force has worked to "interrupt" violence by attempting to predict retaliatory shootings and putting potential victims or likely shooters under surveillance.
Rovella said Longevity's state and federal resources would bolster the efforts already in place. The department and shooting task force have drawn from Kennedy's methods to help develop those efforts, he added.
"We've been practicing this for a while now, and we'll begin to refine it with the help of the feds," he said. "Sustainability is the absolute key as we walk down this road. The longer we sustain it, the more lasting effects we'll achieve."
The General Assembly approved $500,000 for "focused deterrence" last spring, which helped fund Longevity's initial research, and $130,000 in federal grants and $50,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice have been used to support the program.
Mayor Pedro Segarra said it is not clear how much of that funding will be used in Hartford. Ultimately, the project will be covered by federal, state and local money.
A crucial piece of the program in Hartford will be the social services offered, Segarra said, noting that the city has a large prison re-entry population.
"With a carrot-and-stick approach there needs to be, on the carrot end, something that's palpable," he said.
Segarra said he hopes to connect his own Opportunities Hartford initiative with Longevity. Opportunities Hartford, started more than a year ago, is a program that identifies short- and long-term opportunities in employment, income and education, and helps expand upon them.
"We want to marry [Longevity] with other efforts for long-term sustainability," he said. "Meaningful change can last a lifetime."
A New Approach
Connecticut is first to launch Project Longevity on a statewide basis, DeCarlo said, and the approach is new for many city police departments.
Officials said the program will also be implemented in Bridgeport, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has stressed that it should reach other municipalities, like Stamford, Norwalk, Danbury, New Britain and New London.
"It's a new set of expectations," DeCarlo said. "Very often, no one has told these people 'No.' It behooves them to keep an eye on one another and realize that violence is definitely what not to do."
Those connected to the project in New Haven said it was too early to offer specific results, but they pointed out that gang members so far had responded positively.
On Jan. 9, Mayor John DeStefano and police officials announced that city homicides in 2012 had decreased by 50 percent over a year earlier. Non-fatal shootings dropped by 30 percent. Officials said the drop is linked, at least in part, to Longevity.
"Based upon our first two 'call-ins' and the invitees' presence, I think they understood the seriousness of what we're talking about and the moral voice saying this is the right thing to do," said Bill Mathis, a pastor and project manager for Longevity in New Haven. "I trust that this would be more effective than prior programs because we're looking for sustainability. We want to change the narrative permanently."
Dean Esserman, New Haven's police chief, called Longevity an innovative effort.
"Many cities, including New Haven, have worked to address gang violence before, but what's new with this approach is bringing in the gang members, not with a search warrant or an arrest warrant or handcuffs, but with respect," he said. "The community and law enforcement speak together with one voice giving them a second chance and making it clear we won't tolerate violence.
"In my book, if it works, it becomes part of what we do forever."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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