HARTFORD — — Samuel Saylor and Mothers United Against Violence stood together outside city hall Friday to make a plea — let Saylor's son be the last homicide victim this year.
Saylor's son, Shane Oliver, was fatally shot in October, the 20th and most recent Hartford homicide victim this year.
"Let us stop at 20 for the next six weeks. If we can do it for the next six weeks, we can do it for the next six months. If we can do it for the six months, we can do it for the next six years," Saylor said.
Hartford is on track to have one of the lowest numbers of homicides this year out of the last 30, with the city seeing a 20 percent drop this year compared with the same period last year.
If nobody else is killed in the city before the end of the year, 2012 would have the fewest homicides since 2004.
"The statistic is better than other years," said Lt. Brian J. Foley, head of the Hartford Police Department Major Crimes Division. "I think a lot of it has to do with the way all the resources are working together" — specifically, he said, with the Hartford Shooting Task Force, a multi-jurisdictional effort that began in 2011 with the goal of reducing crime in Hartford.
Along with the drop in homicides, there has been a reduction in serious crimes, defined as murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny and auto theft. Since 2008, the total number of serious crimes has dropped by more than 13 percent, to 6,134 incidents as of Nov. 10, according to Hartford police statistics.
Mayor Pedro Segarra said the city is much safer than five years ago. It's a trend he intends to see continue and, hopefully, improve even more.
"I think one life is too many, and I think our future success as a city is also tied to how well we reduce crime," Segarra said.
Although the drop in crime is noticeable, Carl Hardrick, an ambassador with the Crisis Intervention Team at the YMCA, says there is room for improvement.
A large part of Hardrick's job is to mediate conflicts among kids and keep an ear out for potential violence. He also drives kids from areas where they are vulnerable to violence to the YMCA. He recently gave a ride to a teenager with gang ties because he lives in a rival gang's territory.
"We need to get other kids feeling more comfortable," Hardrick said. "It's changed a lot, but it hasn't changed as much as we'd like to see it."
Some Hartford residents have noticed a change on the streets, but say the streets still don't feel safe.
"There's still a whole lot of crime going on around here — are you kidding me?" said Loretta English, 40. She said she has noticed a drop in crime in the later part of the year but feels the streets are still "rough."
Kevin Jefferson, who has lived in Hartford for 53 years, said he doesn't see as many people hanging out on street corners or drinking in public. But he recently saw guys running after each other on Huntington Street with guns.
While Jefferson has noticed increased police presence on the streets during the day, he thinks more cops walking a beat at night would help bring crime down.
Jose Beltran, who moved to Hartford from Spain nine months ago, said there were multiple fatal shootings during the first five or six months since he arrived. The number of shootings has gone down, but he said he still doesn't feel safe.
"There is no sense of safety," he said. "There has been a change, but there is no safety."
But officials cite the work of the Hartford Shooting Task Force, a team that came together after a spate of violence in the summer of 2011. Its members come from the Hartford police, Chief State's Attorney's Office, the state Department of Correction, the state police, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the police departments in East Hartford, Manchester and West Hartford.
Before the task force, Foley said, these agencies worked independently. Now everyone is working together, keeping an eye on high-risk offenders and sharing intelligence.
"The shooting task force is out there working informants, they're on the street working intel. Everyone is working together and immediately," Foley said.
In the past, for example, detectives seeking information about an inmate or a convict from the DOC had to wait until their offices were open. Now, with a DOC officer assigned to the major crimes division and the task force, information about an offender is immediately available.
Before he was promoted to chief, James C. Rovella led the task force for nine months.
Having the task force set up in Hartford's North End has also meant more help from the community. Unlike in years past, Foley said, he can't think of one homicide this year where a member of the community didn't supply information.
Saylor said tips from the community helped police arrest a suspect in Oliver's killing. Along with his effort to stop homicides, Saylor also Friday announced a push to encourage people with information about other killings to step forward.
Changes in the police department are noticeable, said Iran Nazario, director of the Peacebuilders program at Compass Youth Collaborative, a group that offers youth development programs to Hartford schools. Nazario said he's noticed an increased police presence on the street, which can make a shooter think twice about using a gun.
But, he says, the law enforcement officers are reaching out more and are taking a more humble approach when dealing with the community.
"You're seeing more dialogue between the individual being arrested and the officers," he said. "There's a feeling that they want to connect with you and they don't want to see you out there again."
It is unclear how long the shooting task force will be around. Segarra said he will ask for support from the governor as often as he needs to, to keep the task force going.
"I understand that the state and city, that we face fiscal challenges. I think this is one area where we can't afford not to make this investment," Segarra said.
"Seeking Closure and Justice," a forum about unresolved homicides, is planned for Jan. 29, 2013, at the Phillips Metropolitan C.M.E. Church Community Room, 2550 Main St., Hartford, at 5 p.m.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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