Chief: We Have The Right Targets

Thomas MacMillan PhotoWhen cops call in gang members under a new anti-violence program, and lean on them to put down their guns, how will they know they’re leaning on the right guys?

Will cops mistakenly target people who just happen to hang out with a bad crowd, but aren’t actually involved in crime themselves?

No, answered Chief Dean Esserman.

He gave that answer to questions put to him by members of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee, which convened Tuesday night in City Hall to hear an update on an ambitious anti-gun initiative called Project Longevity. One concern that arose had to do with the implications of group responsibility—of punishing an entire alleged gang when one member fires a deadly round.

That’s a central thrust of the initiative, which launched in November with “call-ins” of 27 alleged members of the city’s most violent gangs. (Click on the play arrow to watch an excerpt from the kick-off press conference.) The call-in is the central feature of Project Longevity, which is based on an approach to violent crime that has been successful in Boston and Cincinnati. Another two call-ins are planned for late January. Cops expect over 40 alleged gang members to attend.

The theory behind Project Longevity: a relatively small group of people commit most of New Haven’s bloodshed and can be largely stopped through intensive research, prosecution, and the group-responsibility approach. Cops researched those people, identified their gang affiliations. Now they call them in to offer them a choice: Continue the shooting and face the full force of the criminal justice system. Or accept a helping hand and turn their lives around.

At the call-ins, cops promise that if any gang member decides to shoot someone, the whole gang will suffer the consequences—cops will go after the shooter’s associates for whatever offenses they can find.

That aspect of the program led to a question Tuesday night from West River Alderwoman Tyisha Walker: What if the cops ID guys who are just seen hanging out on the street with the real bad guys?

“That’s not enough” to implicate them, Esserman said. “We go back years and years.”

Identifying the main players involved in New Haven gun violence has taken a year of research, including digging through old files, Esserman said.

Several aldermen sought to clarify just what the consequences for a gang would be if a member perpetrates a homicide.

Only the alleged killer would be arrested for the homicide, said Esserman (pictured). But the alleged killer’s associates would be investigated and arrested for other crimes, for the “vulnerabilities they have,” Esserman said. The police will pursue whatever they have on them.

“They all get pursued,” he said. “If you’ve decided to be a member of a gang, you’ve made a decision that has consequences.”

The message is, “You better keep an eye on your brothers and sisters,” Esserman said. “What we want to do is use peer pressure,” which has been proven to work.

Hill Alderwoman Dolores Colon suggested the police go after the girlfriends of gang members, women they might be staying with in public-housing apartments where they’re not on the lease. Such women should lose their housing, Colon said.

If a hypothetical gang-member’s girlfriend is part of any illegal activity, she will be prosecuted, Esserman said.

After the call-ins, those people who want help changing their lives will get it, Esserman said. The housing authority has set aside 20 Section 8 vouchers for Project Longevity participants, and job counseling is available as well. Some people need help with very basic tasks like getting a driver’s license or a birth certificate, he said.

You have to offer “both the tough hand, but also the helping hand,” Esserman said.

However, “disappointingly few” people ask for help after call-ins, he said. Only two participants telephoned after the first call-in, said Rev. William Mathis (pictured), Project Longevity’s program manager. One was looking for Section 8 help, the other for some employment support.

After Tuesday night’s hearing, Public Safety Committee chair Alderman Brian Wingate said he is hopeful about Project Longevity but still waiting to see what comes of it: “It’s new to me, so I’m being cautious about all things going on with Project Longevity.”

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posted by: Wildwest on January 16, 2013  10:32am

None of this will work if we keep letting these guys back on the street which is whats happening. Why wont Esserman address this issue or even bring it up? The guys they plan on “bringing in” all have HUGE rap sheets, does CT have a ten strike policy or is it twenty strikes?

posted by: TheMadcap on January 16, 2013  1:35pm

Truly the Three Strikes policy has worked wonders in California. So much so they’re actually beginning to dismantle it.

posted by: streever on January 16, 2013  3:57pm

The basic strategy the Chief is using sounds valid to me: creating a culture that works with the police through a peer pressure system by rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, and making it clear and publically known what is good and what is bad.

However. I think Colon is making a terrible suggestion, and I hope the NHPD does not adopt a policy of targeting women who are romantically involved with gang members.

If you date a man who happens to commit a violent crime, should you be punished? Why is that woman in public housing? Obviously she must have some financial need. What if she has children? We just put them out on the street?

People turn to crime because they have no other options. Punishing a woman who is romantically involved with a man for his crimes is not a way to improve safety.

Jail times and strict sentencing (including 3 strikes rules) have been proven over and over to not work as crime deterrents.

People do not perform complicated risk assessment calculations before committing crimes, they just don’t. It does not happen. It has never been demonstrated in any evidential examination of crime and punishment.

I think the basic strategy of using peer pressure on an entire gang IS effective, and a good idea by the Chief. Taking away the only shelter a woman has because of the crimes of her (in this scenario) violent criminal boyfriend is unconscionable.

posted by: Powers on January 16, 2013  5:43pm

I agree w/ Streever regarding the validity of this approach, which has worked very well in other cities and, unlike Three Strikes, does not overburden the penal system but gives people an out before they commit serious crime.

But I’d also like to say that, while other members of the city are not often victims of gun violence from gang members, there has been a rash of violence against completely innocent and unsuspecting citizens—some of them physicians, for example—in which several teens surround and physically assault a victim.  These are not likely attempted robberies, as nothing is usually taken from the victim, and have been rumored to be perpetrated as some kind of gang initiation.  These beatings are obviously not as serious as homicides, but they have landed several people in the hospital and permanently disfigured at least one victim.  The homicide rate hurts the city’s reputation, which is finally on the mend.  These beatings do almost as much to beat that reputation back into the ground, and should be addressed with the gangs as well. Does anyone know if this has been brought up?

posted by: Edward_H on January 16, 2013  10:10pm

” the whole gang will suffer the consequences—cops will go after the shooter’s associates for whatever offenses they can find.”

So if the targeted gang member does not shoot anyone his associate’s offenses will not be investigated?


“People turn to crime because they have no other options. “

Some people turn to crime because they enjoy hurting others. Unless you think these gentlemen raped this woman in front of her friends because they had no other option.

posted by: ELMCITYDOC on January 17, 2013  1:29am

Nice concept in theory. But are we economically and institutionally prepared to handle the collateral consequences of this approach? Can we shoulder the costs of the increased DCF and DSS case loads that will come from having more investigations? Both agencies are facing very deep financial cuts bc of the state’s deficit. Is it appropriate to expect them to do more (and better) with less? Where will children and families go if they are kicked out of public housing? Can our schools address the tremendous emotional impact that this type of uncertainty can have on children? Will these behavioral changes lead to increased contact with law enforcement? Can our law enforcement officials adequately protect individuals who cooperate with them whether through force of through choice? From where will the jobs come that Project Longevity suggests it will be preparing former gang affiliates to hold? In a time of economic uncertainty in our state (and nation), is it a legitimate expectation that people with a felony record will be more attractive to employers than those without a record? I’d like to see the leaders of Longevity address these concerns. These collateral consequences have been quite apparent in places like Providence and Chicago.

posted by: streever on January 17, 2013  9:43am

I was referring to the type of crime portrayed in the context of this article, and not to sadistic group abuse of people who are socially disempowered.

Why do people—particularly white men—abuse people (particularly women)? That is a far more complex subject then the typical reasons why someone sells marijuana, and I absolutely believe that it should be punished more harshly. I don’t see what that has to do with the context of this article, however.