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Officials Seek Solutions For Youth Violence

Range Of Strategies Being Considered

March 17, 2005
By TINA A. BROWN, Courant Staff Writer

In the aftermath of the recent shootings and stabbings of Hartford teenagers, federal, state and local authorities say they are discussing ways to curb the violence in the city and elsewhere in the state.

The various quarters dealing with youth violence are not developing a single plan. However, they are all uneasy that recent incidents involve children - as victims and sometimes perpetrators. They are discussing options ranging from tougher gun laws and more enforcement, to finding members of the community to work with youths and their families.

"I'm concerned about the organized criminal activity among youth, not just in Hartford but in Manchester and surrounding towns," said Kevin O'Connor, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut.

In Manchester, a 12-year-old has been charged with being one of three people who severely injured a man in an apparently random beating. Other recent incidents connected to youth violence have been reported in East Hartford and West Hartford.

"I'm afraid about the resurgence of gang activity," O'Connor said Wednesday. "Everyone in the law enforcement community has concerns about the recent spate of violence in Hartford. You hope that it is an aberration and is short-lived.

"Hartford will get this under control. But you hope in the meantime that we don't see any more loss of life," O'Connor said.

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez said Wednesday he expects the city to announce a new approach to targeting gun violence within the next 30 days.

Meanwhile, O'Connor said the federal government is assigning two more Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents to Hartford this spring and is sending more funding for city police overtime. O'Connor requested the additional help months ago.

In the past month, five city youths have been seriously injured or killed in acts of violence. That alone has the mayor and Police Chief Patrick J. Harnett discussing new strategies to address the problem.

In the latest incident, 16-year-old Joselyn Cruz was shot in the head and leg Monday while she shopped after 11 p.m. for candy inside the U-Stop Convenience Store on Barbour Street. Police released a videotape Wednesday that partially showed the incident, and asked for the public's help in identifying one of the shooters seen firing a gun on the tape.

Harnett, a proponent of stricter gun laws, said he hopes that federal agents will target those who legally buy large numbers of guns and later sell them illegally on the streets of Hartford.

The shootings of particular concern, which date to last December, when two high school students were shot while waiting for school buses, "reflect a violent trend among youth in this country, not just Hartford," Harnett said.

Police are investigating all the incidents, he said. "We aren't sitting back on our laurels. Any one of these cases is too many," Harnett said.

Like O'Connor, Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano and Hartford's State's Attorney James Thomas, Harnett said just prosecuting youths isn't enough when there are many underlying social problems. They said they are attempting to find committed people in the city's schools, parents and advocates interested in working with city youths to change the way they resolve conflict.

Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein, chairwoman of the state's child fatality review board, said Wednesday that something must be done when four youngsters under the age of 16 have been killed statewide in the past two months.

"We are keenly concerned about the homicide victims because they are getting younger and younger," she said. "This is new to us."

Milstein suggested that authorities consider offering more parenting classes and trauma treatment and find more ways to connect fathers with their children.

O'Connor said he has offered support if needed to Hartford police through the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other federal agencies. The second-prong of the federal attack, O'Connor said, is working with the state's attorney in Hartford, who is already referring certain cases of convicted adult felons caught with guns to federal prosecution under a program that allows longer sentences.

O'Connor said federal authorities do not have the capability to prosecute youths under the age of 18, even if they are accused of committing serious crimes.

Thomas, however, said his office is not afraid to prosecute defendants as young as 14 as adults. "If you are old enough to carry a gun, you should be treated as an adult," he said.

Morano said police in many Connecticut cities only had to look inside the schools to see that the problem of youth violence is on the rise.

"There's more fights resulting in violence over little things and more violence involving girls. That speaks volumes," Morano said.

Equally as alarming, he said, is that younger children are resorting to "adult style violence in the Hartford area and some of our larger cities."

"I don't think it is organized gang activities, but if it goes unchecked, it will result in that. It needs to be addressed now," he said.

"It's more like anarchy than an organized society," Morano said. "I'm concerned that without a structure of a gang, we'll see more small pockets of individuals using violence with less provocation. Both are unacceptable."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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