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City Stepping Up Anti-Gun Effort

State, U.S. Agency Pitch In On Multi-Pronged Program

April 8, 2005
By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff Writer

Five years after he was released from prison after a conviction for drug possession and robbery, 36-year-old Omar Williams sat in the audience Thursday night as an array of top law enforcement and political officials spoke out on the need to crack down on gun violence and drug dealing in Hartford.

When it came his turn to speak, Williams didn't hold back.

"I made mistakes in my life, but when I got out, I chose to change," said Williams, the father of four children. "But once you're a felon, you signed your fate. ... I can't get an apartment. ... No one will hire me, ... I have mouths to feed."

Then Williams directed a question that, to many in the crowd, went to the heart of one of the city's most pressing problems.

"What's a brother supposed to do?" he asked the panel, which included Mayor Eddie A. Perez, Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano and Kevin O'Connor, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut. "Y'all don't want me back on the street, selling drugs. What's a brother supposed to do?"

Perez, who earlier in the day announced that special teams of police detectives are now scouring Hartford's neighborhoods to seize illegal guns, stood up and threw the challenge back at Williams.

"I have nine brothers, six of them who have been to prison," the mayor told him. "You don't think I know what it's like? I can tell you that we will take your name, get your information and do everything we can to help you. But if there are people out there willing to spend 24 hours on the street selling drugs, they should be willing to spend 24 hours looking for a job. It's up to you."

The exchange between Williams and the mayor set the tone for a forum that was arranged by the African American Alliance, a community action group, as a way to dissect the ongoing problem of gun violence in the city, especially violence among young people. The forum was scheduled as a follow-up to a meeting held two months earlier in response to a wave of shootings among young people in the city's North End.

The forum, which also featured state Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein and top Hartford police officials, took place a few hours after Perez held a press conference to highlight his multi-pronged plan to get guns off the street.

Perez said the plan includes a crackdown on gun trafficking in the city, most notably by new teams of detectives who last week began trying to determine where and how guns are coming into Hartford.

Those teams are also being helped by an increased presence of agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Hartford. Two additional ATF agents were recently assigned by O'Connor's office to help Hartford police track all guns that are seized during the course of patrols and investigations. They join three ATF agents already helping Hartford police, O'Connor said.

Besides increased enforcement and prosecution efforts, the mayor said he plans to do more to help young people who struggle to go straight after being released from prison.

Besides providing counseling and other services for newly released convicts, Perez said he also will continue to work to identify young people across the city who are most vulnerable to making bad choices. He said he and other community activists have identified more than 130 young people, some as young as 7 or 8, who are in danger of becoming criminals, all of whom are being targeted for counseling or other assistance.

Perez, who was a member of the Ghetto Brothers gang while growing up in Hartford, and activists Carl Hardrick, Andrew Woods and Eric Crawford from the city school system, have been going door to door talking to the at-risk youths and their parents.

At the forum at the Rajun Cajun restaurant in the North End Thursday night, several residents said the efforts by Perez and other top state and city leaders may be well-intentioned, but they are likely doomed to failure because of deeper, more serious problems that have to be overcome.

"You could arrest 1,000 people every day, it's not going to make a difference," said Johnny Vasquez, a Hartford Housing Authority worker who said he grew up in New Haven with two parents who neglected him and his siblings before they eventually died of AIDS. "My parents failed me. You have parents who are failing their children, and it's setting off a chain reaction. Kids need to eat. ... You think brothers want to be picking up guns? They don't want to be doing this. But they need jobs. They need hope."

Leonard Gaston, who has a record of drug-related convictions, said he struggles to live an exemplary life for his children in an effort to break the cycle of hopelessness that was passed on to him.

"I don't want them doing what I did, making the mistakes I made," he said through tears. "I want them to see there's another way, but it's hard."

Kevin Brookman, a resident and community activist, said the mayor's programs and stepped-up police enforcement aren't the answer.

"By the time people like you are involved, it's too late," he told the public officials. "The problem is parents who aren't taking responsibility for their kids. You have 116,000 people in this city, and only 50 show up for a meeting like this. That's the problem."

Jennilee Carrasco, a 19-year-old Bulkeley High School junior who recently was chosen to receive an award from Gov. M. Jodi Rell for her volunteer work, said she believes efforts by city officials and activists can make a difference for young people. She said she's a classic example.

"I used to skip school all the time and I was on the wrong path, but one of my teachers saw something in me and became my mentor," she said. "That made all the difference."

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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