First they called in the Tre. Then they called in the ‘Ville. Finally, they called in the governor and President Obama’s attorney general—to launch a new project to stop gang-fueled carnage on the streets of Connecticut’s cities.
The new effort has a name: “Project Longevity.” After a year of quiet planning, it was launched with two gang “call-ins” at New Haven’s Hall of Records late Monday involving 27 alleged members of the city’s two most violent gangs, based in the Dwight-Kensington and Newhallville neighborhoods; then with a high-profile press conference a block away Tuesday morning with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Gov. Dan Malloy.
Holder arrived at the press conference shortly before 11 a.m. Project Longevity will “send a powerful message” about the justice system’s determination to wipe out gang violence, he said.
Malloy has vowed to take what’s starting in New Haven and spread it to Bridgeport and Hartford to tackle the one major type of crime that has stubbornly refused to drop in Connecticut: the shooting of young black males on urban streets.
A version of the approach has helped stop young black men from killing each other in cities from Boston to Cincinnati. It involves federal and state prosecutors and agents working alongside city cops and community leaders to deliver an ironclad promise to the relatively small group of gang-bangers responsible for the majority of bloodshed: A promise to help them get out the life and go straight—or to lock them and all their gang associates up for a long time if they keep shooting.
This is the first time that the approach is being tried out in an entire city (New Haven) rather than just a neighborhood or two at a time. It would also be the first time the program expands beyond one city within a state.
It all starts with the “call-in.”
Which is not a “round-up” or a “sweep” (such as this).
“We’re doing something law enforcement has never done [here before]. No surprises. No ambush. No sweeps. No handcuffs.”
Rather, cops and law-enforcement agents spent close to a year zeroing in on the just under 550 people considered prime players in some 19 active gangs—or “groupings” or loose associations of troublemakers. They worked alongside prosecutors and alongside experts from the University of Cincinnati who have developed a system for charting social networks of gang associates. They poured over files of every shooting over the past years, mined databases, shared notes, connected dots from reports about who was in the car with whom during arrests.
They enlisted the help of local ministers and political figures and educators and social-service chiefs. They got a special federal prosecutor assigned to take on cases growing out of the project. A top aide to Gov. Malloy, Mike Lawlor, dived in, too, and arranged for gang-bangers to get assured job-training or drug counseling or continuing education slots.
Then, at 4 p.m. Monday, 11 members of the Tre-Kensington Bloods filed in to the Hall of Records basement meeting room. All of them are on parole or probation for violent offenses.
The alleged gang members sat in the front two rows. In the audience sat Timothy Miller, the father of the 16-month-old. He was called in as an alleged gang member. He denied that he was one. Cops set up organizational charts of the gang, complete with the alleged members’ photographs. Community leaders sat in the back.
Rev. William Mathis, whom the local cops hired to staff Project Longevity, laid out the message: We care about you. We want you to stop shooting each other. We have people right here who will give you help. We also have officers and prosecutors here who will make sure that you will do hard time if you leave here and start shooting again.
Mathis informed the group, which sat silently through the presentation, of the “new rules”: If any member of their group shoots someone, all the assembled law enforcement agencies in the room will swoop down on everyone. They will arrest everyone possible in the group, whether for violation of parole or probation, owing money to the IRS, violating a housing authority lease, or for more serious offenses.
Esserman reminded the group of the way law enforcement worked around the clock to track down the people allegedly responsible for shooting a 16-month-old boy on Kensington Street last month. That will happen, swiftly, to not just shooters, but the whole organization in the future if the shooting continues, the chief said.
Assistant Chief Archie Generoso, Assistant U.S. Attorney (and local pastor) Keith King, Assistant State’s Attorney David Strollo, Pastor Todd Foster of Church on The Rock, state Rep. Toni Walker all spoke too.
So did Alicia Caraballo. She spoke as principal of the city’s adult ed program on Ella Grasso Boulevard (where Toni Walker works, too). She spoke, as well, as the mother of a homicide victim in New Haven, Justin Davis. “I love every one of you,” Caraballo told the young men in the room, according to participants present in the room. She also underscored that she and the other adults in the room were committed to seeing that anyone who continues shooting will serve long sentences, like the man who killed her son. That killer, Brandon “Fresh” Bellamy, was feared in his day, she said. He committed a double murder. But when he went to trial, no one from his crew showed up to court. He was on his own. He earned a 100-year sentence. (Click on the play arrow to the video at the top of this story to watch her reprise the speech at Tuesday press conference.)
The visitors each left Monday’s call-in with the the name and phone number of an outreach worker to contact to follow with for help.
At 6 p.m. another group, 16 alleged gang members from the ‘Ville, came in for the same presentation.
William “Juneboy” Outlaw, a former gang member who became a street outreach worker, said the cops delivered a “loud and clear” message.
As a result, the young men he works with in Newhallville took notice, Outlaw reported after the event.
“My kids were very receptive. A lot told me they were going to spread the word,” Outlaw said. “The police were blunt. My kids understood.”
A “Permanent” New Strategy
Then, at 11 a.m. Tuesday, a press conference took place at the 25th-floor U.S. Attorney’s Office on Church Street featuring Holder and Malloy announcing that the project had just begun. Members of the other 17 gangs will be brought in for New Haven call-ins. And Bridgeport and Hartford officials have already signed on to launch the program in their cities, part of the Malloy administration’s promise earlier this year to create a “focused” policing strategy.
“We’re trying to make this a permanent feature of law enforcement,” said Mike Lawlor, the undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning for the state Office of Policy and Management.
Connecticut is enjoying its lowest levels of major crimes in decades, Lawlor (pictured after Tuesday’s press conference) said, with one major exception: shootings in cities. Out of 129 Connecticut homicides last year, 94 took place in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford.
In New Haven, 98 percent of the victims of those shootings have been African-American men.
“We’ve all been to too many hospitals, too many wakes, too many funerals,” Esserman said at the press conference.
Attorney General Holder praised the Project Longevity for representing “smart,” not just “tough” policing. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal spoke of how such “smart ” policing that relies on agencies working together and targeting criminal activity more precisely will become ever more important amid tough fiscal times for government.
After the press conference, state NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile called the project “a step in the right direction” while sounding a few notes of skepticism. He criticized the lack of benchmarks to measure the project’s success. And he called for a more focused effort at jobcreation and job-training; otherwise, he said, younger kids will simply keep replacing the gangbangers sent to prison.
“I’ve been watching this over the years. When we got rid of the Jungle Boys and KSI and the Island Brothers and the Newhallville Dogs, the little ones picked it up,” Esdaile said, ticking off gangs dismantled by joint city-federal operations in the 1990s.
Officials have credited Project Longevity-style efforts with reducing the homicide rate by 30 percent or more in parts of Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Providence, and other cities across the country.
In Chicago, though, a new wave of killings has paralyzed the city despite the introduction of the program. At the press conference Tuesday, Connecticut U.S. Attorney David Fein was asked about that, and whether Connecticut can learn any lessons from that fact in bringing the program here. He didn’t offer an answer. Afterwards, the guru of the national strategy, John Jay College sociologist David Kennedy, said that in fact while murders have risen 37 percent in Chicago this year, they have dropped 40 percent in the two neighborhoods where his program took hold.
The same team of experts who have refined the program elsewhere worked on the New Haven effort. They included guru Kennedy and New Haven’s Chief Esserman, who brought the program to his previous job in Providence and has served with Kennedy on the national U.S. Department of Justice-backed group refining the experiments, Project Safe Neighborhoods.
A Chance Airport Encounter
Esserman recalled that he saw New Haven Mayor John DeStefano carrying David Kennedy’s book on the project (Don’t Shoot) when he ran into him at Ronald Reagan National Airport in the summer of 2011.
DeStefano was flying home that day to New Haven, Esserman to Providence. They ended up talking for an hour and a half while they waited for their planes. They talked about Kennedy’s ideas. And they talked about Esserman coming to New Haven to take over as chief as revive community policing.
Esserman came later in the year, after DeStefano allies got battered in aldermanic elections based in part on public outcry to bring back community policing.
Esserman has since done that, reviving walking beats, creating a shootings task force, among other projects. And from the start he brought in David Kennedy to plan what would become “Project Longevity” in New Haven.
Within a month of his arrival in town, Esserman and Kennedy joined cops, former gangbangers, and others at a community forum at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, sponsored by the Independent, to begin discussing the concept with the public. (Read about that here.) Initial reaction was skeptical from some of the reaction from activists in the black community, signalling that the department would have to work hard to gain trust, not just for Project Longevity, but for community policing in general.
Meanwhile, US. Attorney David Fein had been talking with Kennedy about doing a version of his project in Connecticut. Soon Fein, Mike Lawlor, and their offices were working hand in hand with Esserman’s cops, including Generoso and top detective Sgt. Al Vazquez. They held countless meetings to share and chart information and plan strategy over the course of a year.
Over the past year, University of New Haven has been working with the University of Cincinnati researchers with an eye to taking an increasing role as the program expands here; former Branford Police Chief John DeCarlo, who teaches at UNH, has been part of that team. State’s Attorney Mike Dearington has bought in, as have New Haven’s “two Tonis”—state legislators Walker and Toni Harp —who helped secure $500,000 to keep the effort going statewide. Locally, Aldermen Jorge Perez and Claudette Robinson-Thorpe, among others, have participated actively in the planning, as has Barbara Tinney of the New Haven Family Alliance.
As the first call-in approached, Esserman doubled back to fortify community support—considered a crucial marker of success in other cities. He held 36 separate one-on-one and small-group sessions with aldermen, street outreach workers, clergy, and state legislators. As in other cities that have queued up David Kennedy’s strategy, organizers feel that they can ultimately succeed only if they can convince the broader community to believe in the strategy, and sign on.