A retired detective known for teaching West River kids to play chess and organizing his neighbors has returned to law enforcement—to take the reins of New Haven’s signature gang-violence effort.
Stacy Spell (pictured) began working as coordinator of the New Haven effort, called Project Longevity, on Thursday.
He succeeds Rev. William Mathis, who resigned from the post earlier this year.
“I’m excited. It’s a new adventure,” said Spell, who is 59 years old, six feet tall, and endowed with a deep baritone speaking voice.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office launched Project Longevity along with city and state cops in November 2012 amid much fanfare (including a visit from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder). It represented a new approach tested in other cities, based on the idea that a small number of connected young men are responsible for the majority of shootings in a community. Working with community groups, the project identifies those people, holds gang “call-ins,” then offers members a choice: Go straight and accept our help with schooling or housing or job-training; or prepare for a crackdown with swift, long-term punishment.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has since expanded the project to Hartford and Bridgeport.
Here in New Haven, it has had a mixed reception. On the one hand, shootings have dropped steadily since the project began. For instance, as of last weekend year-to-date non-fatal shootings have dropped from 76 in 2012 to 61 in 2013 to 51 this year. Over the same period, reported shots fired have dropped from 256 to 201 to 157, murders from 15 to 11.
On the other hand, pinpointing one reason for a decline in violence is tricky, especially, as alders learned at this Sept. 16 Project Longevity hearing, few if any hard benchmarks. When Mathis left the coordinator post, he complained openly about problems with getting paid. (Click here to read about Mathis’s concerns, in this interview with the Register’s Shahid Abdul-Karim.) Some community leaders, like state NAACP President Scott X. Esdaile, have from the beginning questioned whether the money for Project Longevity could be better spent directly on programs to help young people.
Esdaile said Thursday that he knows and likes Spell, but remains wary about the project Spell inherits: “I don’t think it started off right. I don’t think it was built right. I don’t think it was built to last. I think it was a bunch of people from the academic community who are using the black community as gerbils to write books. Until somebody proves different to me, I’d like to see it.”
U.S. Attorney Deidre Daly, meanwhile, Thursday called Spell “an ideal candidate” for the job given his “tireless” lifetime work in New Haven. Spell was the unanimous choice of the Project Longevity hiring committee amid a “varied and well-qualified array of candidates,” according to Daly.
Assistant Police Chief Archie Generoso said he looks forward to working with Spell, whom he has known for over 30 years. Chief Dean Esserman echoed the point: “Every citizen and police officer of New Haven who knows [Spell] —which is almost everyone—is excited.”
Generoso said Mathis “did a remarkable job” getting Project Longevity off the ground. “Stacy’s challenge right now is to reinvigorate the community to get behind Project Longevity,” he said.
Spell, too, said he sees “building relationships” as a central goal of his new post.
He’s been doing a lot of that since retiring from the New Haven police force in 2006 after 27 years on the job, during which time he worked as a detective on murder cases. He has since reinvigorated the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation and put special focus on working with at-risk young people. He has taken them canoeing on the West River. He set up a chess board right out on Derby Avenue where some shootings had taken place, reclaiming the street. (An Independent account of that effort caught the attention of a world-ranked grandmaster, who sent over a batch of donated new boards.) He organized neighbors to reclaim a trashed city lot as a community garden. Until last week he had been working as well as an outreach staffer for the owners of the Kensington Square housing development.
“I feel like I’m continuing what I’ve been doing,” Spell said of his new Project Longevity mission: “building community.”