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City Gunmen Need Individual Attention

COMMENTARY by Tom Condon
July 3, 2005

If history is still a reliable predictor, bringing the state police into Hartford and flooding the North End neighborhoods with cops will work, at least for a time.

The cops will find some of the shooters, and others will take it on the lam until the heat is off. The drug sales will move around, until dealers find a place where they can reopen for business.

Hartford is a few months into another cycle of violence, with homicides and shootings up substantially from last year. Every decade or so, the urban volcano erupts and young men start blowing each other away. A few bystanders - an honor student, a mother out to buy milk - get killed as well. Families grieve and the people trying to promote the city pull their hair out.

While law enforcers have been able to suppress these outbreaks before, they haven't stopped them from recurring.

Police often focus on places. They catalogue and attack crime by neighborhood and section of the city. That's helpful - criminals commit crimes where they live - but it's not the whole answer. To root out the problem, more attention must be paid to the individuals.

Here's a start. In April, Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano and state Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein convened a meeting of two dozen social service and community organizations to talk about violence prevention among young people. Mayor Eddie Perez urged them to talk about jobs.

They did. They agreed to support the city's regular summer jobs program, which will employ 1,000 youngsters but has another 600 on the waiting list.

In addition, Morano and Milstein are trying to raise $1.7 million - $420,000 for this year - to start a year-round program for 250 adolescents who are at risk of embracing a life of drugs and crime. These will be young people who are on parole or probation from the juvenile justice system, or who've otherwise been identified as in need of help.

What they'll get is a year-round job, education, internships and mentoring. Milstein cited research showing that mentoring of seventh- and eighth-grade students resulted in less drug use, teen pregnancy and other of the familiar urban pathologies. "These kids need caring and consistent adults," she said.

She and Morano have asked the business community to support them, and I hope they do. Jobs are good. They keep kids busy and provide them a legal source of income. One of the characteristics of a high-crime neighborhood is poverty. The more jobs the better.

Young single women getting pregnant is another issue worthy of more attention. One of the murder victims earlier this year was a 34-year-old man who had fathered 12 children by four women. Those kids come into the world with the same capacities as most other kids, but they just aren't going to have the same opportunities. They're not going to grow up and be president. Barring a miracle, they're going to grow up undereducated and angry. Unless something changes, they're down for the 2015 cycle of violence.

What's intriguing is that officials think they can identify 250 at-risk kids. How about the 25 worst of the bunch?

Studies in Boston, Buffalo and elsewhere have shown that a small number of people are doing most of the violent crime. Hartford police officers have told me that most of the gun violence in the city can be traced to 30 to 40 major miscreants.

Well, focus on them. Study them, as the FBI did with the Mafia. Learn how they operate. Then either arrest them or give them a final ultimatum - your next crime is your last, here's a job if you want to straighten out.

Once these leaders are off the streets, the good people in the North End neighborhoods should be less afraid to join together and demand civil behavior. Ultimately, the neighborhood has to assert itself.

Perez is doing some things right. His homeownership initiative helps stabilize neighborhoods. His personal offer of help to men about to get out of prison was an excellent idea. The new businesses and commercial life along Albany Avenue are positive signs. Organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club are worth their weight in gold. The new police chief, Patrick Harnett, is a competent professional.

Nonetheless, people are still coming into Hartford to sell guns and buy drugs. After the jobs program gets going, officials need to turn their attention to drug treatment, which must be available on demand. I'd like to see a greater sense of urgency. As I was writing this last week, state Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey called, angry and upset. The state was going to put $2 million into summer youth employment programs. They cut it to $1 million.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at tcondon@courant.com.

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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