By Dave Baker
The body count piled up on the streets of Boston. Gangland rule became law during the early 1990s, each crew carved out the borders of their territories with pistols and tech-nines. Youth homicides, a statistic accounting for individuals ages 24 and under, reached epidemic proportions – 95 victims were reported between 1987-1990 – and Boston landed near the top of the national average with 44 youth homicides per year. City officials and the community had enough. In 1996, the Boston Police Department launched Operation Cease Fire, a project aimed at reducing gun violence by blending qualitative research, aggressive policing, and community support into a cohesive effort. Working in conjunction with the National Institute of Justice and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Governance, the Boston PD indentified and targeted individuals closely associated with gang violence – young, repeat offenders with lengthy rap sheets – and personally delivered to them the message that the city was adopting a zero-tolerance policy on gang activity. Word spread; the penalties, longer prison sentences and stricter probations, became highly publicized and the youth homicide rate dropped 63 percent in the months following the execution of Operation Ceases Fire.
As countless U.S. cities endure through waves of gun violence, hybrid models of Operation Cease Fire have been implemented to curb the body count. The latest city to join the movement is New Haven, Connecticut. Backed by unprecedented federal support, Project Longevity was introduced by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at press conference held on November 27, 2012. A collaborative effort between the New Haven Police Department, the federal court system, and various social service agencies, Holder remained adamant that Project Longevity’s innovative approach would produce results and make the city safer.
The first measures of Project Longevity were “call-ins.” Twenty-seven alleged gang members from New Haven’s Newhallville and Dwight-Kensington neighborhoods parleyed with law enforcement, city officials, social services, and members of the clergy in the basement of the Hall of Records on Orange Street to receive the new rules of engagement: if a body drops, the entire crew is going down. Law enforcement will target those responsible, the shooter and any of his associates, and prosecute them to the absolute highest extent of the law. Governor Malloy’s administration and the city of New Haven are hopeful this dogged approach will reduce shootings among young black males in Connecticut, a stubbornly high statistic. Plans to spread Project Longevity into other cities ravaged by gang-fueled carnage, like Hartford and Bridgeport, are in on- going discussions.
Project Longevity offers various alternative solution to mass arrests and incarceration, something it’s predecessors lacked. Previous attempts at ending gang wars have resulted in veritable witch hunts through the streets that demonize gang members and lock up anyone wearing colors or throwing up a gang sign. Social service providers plan to offer those wishing to defect from the criminal lifestyle a chance to better themselves through state-sponsored assistance in housing, education, drug addiction counseling, and job placement.
Gang members will be given preferential treatment and placed at the top of the list. Gangs remain firmly entrenched in New Haven – there are a reported 19 active gangs with over 600 members – and certain levels of patience, diligence, and cooperation will be needed to loosen their stranglehold on areas like the Tre and Ville, where over the years shell casings and yellow tape have become part of the landscape.
The roll out of Project Longevity and a recent drop in violent crimes – a 16 percent reduction between 2011 and 2012 – coincides directly with sweeping changes at the top of New Haven law enforcement, notably the return of Police Chief Dean Esserman in 2011.
His arrival came at a time of flux: the department cycled through four chiefs in a three and a half year span and the murder rate rose to a record-setting pace. Esserman’s reputation for committing fully to the concept of “community policing” made him ideal to restore stability and promote change. He assigned officers to regular walking beats, ran several guns-for-cash drives, allowing people a chance turn in illegal firearms without recrimination, and negotiated with gang leaders to reduce violence while also amassing intelligence from the public to help put several gangs out of business. In Stamford and Providence, Rhode Island, cities where Esserman previously held the office of chief, he cut crime literally in half, earning him a national reputation as an apostle of community policing.
The gang issue, whether acknowledged or not, is woven into the national fabric. Gang violence has rocked cities, torn families a part, and contributed to making the United States the leading nation in incarcerated citizens per capita. There are no quick fixes.
Introducing new legislation like Project Longevity is not always met with widespread acceptance or enthusiasm from the community. Many New Haven residents see the initiative as covert racism and a blatant attack on black citizens. Dixwell Avenue resident William Baker remains skeptical and actively opposes to the goals of Project Longevity. “These are laws that are passed by white folks, and if they really wanted guns out of the community they could, but they are making their money off the deaths of young black men in this capitalistic society,” Baker said. Statements such as these reflect suspicion, fear, and the hostility towards a perceived notion that campaigns such as Project Longevity unfairly target black youths. But it’s impossible to ignore a racial component involved in gun violence. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, between 1976-2005 blacks were over- represented in homicides involving gangs, drugs, or guns. The statistics showed that in 51 percent of all gun homicides, the victims were black, as were 56 percent of the offenders. All told, 39 percent of all gang-related homicides involved black-on-black crimes.
Baker’s stance, while extreme, does reflect a noted absence in legislation clearing the streets of guns and disarming gangs. Project Longevity is a stopgap, a method that may cut down violence, but weapons still flood the streets. As is often the case in the wake of tragedy, the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting and the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School being at the forefront, gun control laws are thrust into the national spotlight and carefully reevaluated by lawmakers at the state and federal levels. The solutions have followed typical patterns: stricter regulations for purchasing firearms, thorough background checks on prospective buyers, and adding further restrictions on the sale of assault weapons. In Connecticut, Governor Malloy recently signed into effect what politicians and advocacy groups are regarding as the nation’s most comprehensive and stringent gun control regulations. Assault rifles, semi-automatic pistols with magazines exceeding ten rounds, and assault-style shotguns are now banned. Manufacturers of assault weapons, like PTR Industries based in Bristol, are feeling the heat and closing up shop; a bold move either motivated by simple economics or a ploy to back pro-gun lobbyists and activist groups.
The law can deal a blow to the gun industry. It can tighten the parameters on gun ownership and set into motion the slow process of disarming future generations of Americans. Regulating the gun market, however, presents an easier task than shutting down the black market arms dealers providing nearly half of all firearms used by criminals. With complete backing from the federal government, the city of New Haven is gradually working towards eradicating their streets of gun violence and implementing long-term solutions. Both may prove more elusive than Project Longevity’s initial success would suggest. Since the initial “call-in” of 27 Newhallville and Dwight-Kensington gangbangers, New Haven police have found no evidence linking those present at the Hall of Records to any recent shootings. To the city’s disappointment, only two of them have reached out to the city to take advantage of any aid programs – one individual sought employment placement, the other applied for section 8 housing. For now, New Haven remains diligent, while the state and the nation look on, waiting to see what will come of Project Longevity.