Brent Peterkin came to work at the intersection of communities and law enforcement because of a debt he said he needs to repay.
The debt is to his Bronx homeboys who weren’t necessarily doing the right thing and staying out of trouble but always made sure he did.
Peterkin is the statewide coordinator for Project Longevity, a U.S. Attorney’s Office-run initiative that seeks to reduce violence in New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford. He shared how he came be doing such work on the latest episode of WNHH’s “Criminal Justice Insider with Babz Rawls-Ivy and Jeff Grant.”
The Bronx native grew up in New York City when the homicide rate was driven to its height because of gun violence.
“I lost a good number of friends,” he recalled on the show. Peterkin said his neighborhood wasn’t extremely violent. I was simply a time in which even “if you were doing the right thing, trouble could find you.” He said people in his neighborhood lost their lives to gun violence and incarceration so often that “it wasn’t shocking.”
The community held a certain level of disdain for law enforcement and didn’t particularly see the cops as a help to a community in crisis. Peterkin said he saw the disconnect in that as he matured and thought that the best solution brings the best of community and law enforcement together to tame gun violence.
Peterkin said that New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford aren’t inherently violent cities, but there are a handful of violent people in each city responsible for gun crimes. He said when he learned about the group intervention model, which is what Project Longevity uses, it was a way to pay back those older guys in the neighborhood who looked out for him but also lost their lives to gun violence. (Read about Project Longevity in New Haven here.)
“Project Longevity at its core is a partnership between the U.S. Attorneys Office ... the governor’s office, and police chiefs,” he said. “It is a focused approach to reducing gun violence.”
He said historically when there are a lot of shootings, the entire community comes “under a siege of law enforcement,” with unintended results.
“When you look at narcotics sales, the level of drug sales in black communities, the level of drug sales in brown communities, versus the level of drug sales in white communities, are same,” he said. “What leads to more arrests is the increased presence of law enforcement. What causes most problems — it’s not drug sales, it’s gun violence.
“You have people using drugs in suburban communities,” Peterkin pointed out. “You have people selling drugs in suburban communities; I think the opioid epidemic speaks a lot to that. What they don’t have is increased police presence essentially saying, ‘We’re going to have a zero-tolerance approach to all crime.’ When you do that you obviously are going to get more arrests, more incarceration. That’s part of what the War on Drugs has produced.”
He said with Project Longevity’s group violence intervention approach, the focus is only on individuals who have a violent offense or a firearm-related offense, and the people who associate with them. Project Longevity identifies the small group of people responsible for most violence, then gives them a chance to go straight with the program’s help or else face long federal sentences.
“It gives us the opportunity to say if we do some proactive outreach to these individuals and convey to them the realities of the operating practices of law enforcement, in multiple jurisdictions, we speak to their dignity and humanity,” he said.
Influenced by the work of Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Peterkin said he is motivated in part by knowing that their mothers will never have grandchildren from their sons because there was no such intervention for them.
He said he hopes the work that he does is more than a one-way street, that it reduces not only gun violence but state violence. And that when police use deadly force, the fabric woven by the relationships built through Project Longevity allows for people to continue to have conversations that lead to better, more acceptable outcomes.
“It’s all based upon relationship,” Peterkin said. “Nothing we do is forced or coherced. They stay in my mind at all times. I wake up thinking about them, and a better world…a better balance.”
Previous “Criminal Justice Insider” articles:
“Criminal Justice Insider” airs every first and third Friday of the month on WNHH FM at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Listen to the full interview with by clicking on the audio player or Facebook Live video below.