Fran Reale, a south Hartford community leader, has lived with fear for weeks because of a recent citywide surge in gun violence, and she says she's glad the city has a plan to address it.
"Are we freaking out? Yeah we are," said Reale, a businesswoman and former interim director of the South Hartford Community Alliance. The Alliance includes the Barry Square neighborhood, which has reported about 20 gun-related incidents over the past two months.
"After a certain hour, we don't stop for red lights," Reale said Friday. "What are we going to do, wait at the light for them to blow our brains out?"
Reale's frustration about the city's springtime spike in gun crime was echoed by other community leaders. Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts and other city officials must develop long-term solutions that will put a stop to such incidents, they say. Nearly 200 gun-related incidents were reported in less than a two-month period in March, April and May, police say. Shootings have claimed dozens of victims and resulted in five homicides.
Reale and other neighborhood leaders, including Keith Darby of the Blue Hills Revitalization group, Hyacinth Yennie of the Maple Avenue Revitalization Group and the Rev. Henry Brown, an anti-violence activist, all said that the unending violence, unchecked quality-of-life issues and the city's response are at the heart of their concerns.
At a press conference at police headquarters Friday morning, Mayor Eddie A. Perez and Roberts announced a "safe-city initiative" that calls for 30 new police recruits, additional foot and bicycle patrols, a horse unit, a citywide violence crime team and a continuation of its truancy program.
Reale said an increased police presence is a good move.
From March 16 to May 10, police reported 188-gun related incidents, including robberies, assaults and 110 confirmed and unconfirmed reports of shots being fired. There have been 50 shooting victims during the period, bringing the total number of shootings for the year-to-date to 69, a 64 percent rise over the same period last year.
Roberts said his officers have seized 139 firearms and made 73 firearms-related arrests this year. "The police are doing their job and will continue to do so," he said.
"We've had pockets of violence in regards to shootings and shooting victims in the city. Some people still insist on settling arguments with a gun and we cannot and will not tolerate this," Perez said.
While there will be additional help from the state and federal government to curb the problem, Perez and Roberts both said they are not asking for state troopers to patrol in the city right away. "We have had conversations," Roberts said. "I didn't say they were coming."
Officials sought to brighten the gloomy news by pointing out that, overall, serious crime in the city fell 16 percent during the first quarter of 2008 from a year ago. That decline was largely due to a drop in larcenies.
Fifteen of the city's 17 neighborhoods reported hearing gunfire at least once in the past eight weeks. The majority of the shooting incidents were investigated in the Northeast, Upper Albany, Clay Arsenal, Blue Hills, Frog Hollow, Parkville, Barry Square, West End and Blue Hills neighborhoods. Residents in the Behind the Rocks neighborhoods — where Trinity College is located — the South West, South End, Sheldon Oaks, South Meadows and North Meadows neighborhoods reported the fewest number of shooting incidents.
During the eight-week period, police say that there also were 36 incidents of aggravated assaults from Franklin Avenue to North Main Street that resulted in five arrests; and 31 gun-related street robberies were reported, police say.
Council President Calixto Torres blamed people involved in the illegal drug trade for "generating a lot of crime."
Torres said that a disproportionate number of parolees and men and women on probation who are sent to Hartford once they are released from prison are also involved. The city needs to develop a "better relationship" with state and federal officials so that those ex-convicts are monitored.
Last weekend, a convicted felon currently on probation, Frankie Vega, 24, of Benton Street, opened fire on two police officers on Madison Street. No one was hurt and he was arrested.
"It's insane," said Darby, president of the group in Blue Hills, where residents reported a dozen gun-related incidents and one killing over the past two months.
"As soon as it got warm, it starts jumping off," Darby said. "It's so noticeable. It's a circus," she said, adding that she plans to discuss the issues with her local police commander. "It's so obvious that these boys are out of control."
Darby said that her neighborhood has experienced a lot of restless nights and mornings, not just from shots being fired, but from motorists who are circling the streets for hours blasting music from their stereos. "It's so loud that it's shaking the houses."
Brown, who often takes his bullhorn to rally against violence after a homicide, said he is concerned that the city is not addressing its gang problem.
"What are we going to do about the gangs this summer?" said Brown, who doesn't think the city has a concrete plan.
"I'm very frustrated. I keep hearing about a better plan is coming. But it still hasn't been enough. ... The money that they put into those new buildings downtown [was] a waste of money if the violence hasn't stopped. It takes a public outcry to change things," Brown said.
Marilyn Rossetti, executive director of Hartford Areas Rally Together, said Friday that she believes police are working hard to address issues that the city's neighborhoods and residents are facing. Rossetti said she has noticed more police presence and an improving relationship between officers and community organizers.
But, Rossetti said, the solution may not be as simple as it seems.
"They're trying, but this thing has been years in the making," she said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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