Halting gangs with rhyme and reason - Catholic Courier

Halting gangs with rhyme and reason

ROCHESTER — As one poignant reminder of why peace matters, more than 30 names of Rochester’s 2007 homicide victims were read aloud one by one during the sixth-annual Peace Fest Aug. 19.

The event to promote love, peace and hip-hop is one strategy out of many the city is using to help at-risk youths connect to community services and alternatives to violence.

It’s also one way the city is fighting back against youth gangs, which officials say may be behind a rise in violence in the city and the region as a whole during the past decade.

Though festival security was tight –bags were searched and people were patted down for weapons — the event is not intended to exclude suspected gang members.

“This is specifically to address issues of violence,” said Victor Saunders, director of Pathways to Peace, a city agency focused on youth outreach and support. “We don’t keep our gang members out.”

The Peace Fest, which was followed by a highly publicized fight as the crowd dispersed, is intended to give outreach workers a chance to talk to gang members in a neutral environment, Saunders said. It also is a chance to show hip-hop’s roots and promote its basic tenets, including graffiti, spoken word and dance.

“Hip-hop came from a peaceful place,” Saunders said. “It was primarily a way of expressing yourself.”

The city’s strategy to bring about peace and fight gang violence through youth communication is about a decade old.

In 1998, on the city’s southwest side, a group of teenagers engaged police in gunfire, said Stephen Huston, a senior youth-intervention specialist with Pathways to Peace. Former Mayor William Johnson wanted to know why these teenagers would commit such a violent crime, so he hired a street-outreach team, according to Huston.

“In the beginning, it was just talking to people to find out why they were out there on the streets and what it would take to get them off,” he recalled.

From there, the outreach team evolved into Pathways to Peace, which matches teenagers with such community resources as education, employment, counseling and mental-health services. The teens sought the assistance on their own or were referred by family, friends, police or court officials.

“We’re the middle man,” Huston said of serving these at-risk youths, some of whom are involved in criminal activity or are homeless.

About five years ago, Huston said violence connected to purported gang activity increased to a level he had never before seen. A former gang member in his native Brooklyn, Huston has lived in Rochester for 23 years.

“It’s a sign of the times,” he said. “If you leave things unchecked, they only get worse. … These kids fear nobody.”

Outreach workers say many gang members make money from illegal drug sales, and Huston said that an increase in drug sales also correlates to the increasing level of violence. More money made from drug sales leads to the purchase of more weapons, and more weapons leads to more fear and intimidation in the community, he noted.

Rochester police officials familiar with these groups agreed.

“Our local gangs are interwoven with drugs and violence,” said Nick Petitti, a crime-research specialist with the Rochester Police Department. He added that the violence stems from the gang members’ need to protect their turfs, fight off rival groups and to offer protection to allies.

And while major violent crime is down about 20 percent from last year, there are no statistics on gang-related or gang-motivated crimes, Petitti said. The police track groups whose members range in age from 15 to 24, he noted.

Huston said about 80 gangs — formalized like the Latin Kings, the G Boys, SRTs and hybrids of such groups ‚Äì currently exist in the city. Petitti said his division monitors about 65 groups. Across the country, police estimate gang members total about 180,000, said Moses Robinson, a school resource officer for the Rochester Police Department’s east division.

The discrepancy between Pathways and police group totals likely is due to differences in the way they define the groups, Petitti said.

Rochester police follow a specific set of criteria from federal law enforcement to track suspected groups, he said, noting that the definition of a gang according to police is three or more individuals involved in criminal activity.

Although police had been formally tracking the groups for about five years, it didn’t become socially acceptable in the police community to use the term “gang” until about three years ago, Petitti said.

Police previously did not want to use the term “gang” because the word tends to glorify gang-related behaviors in the world of popular culture, he added.

Police previously used such terms as youth groups, crews or cliques, Robinson noted.

“You can empower or give life to certain groups ‚Ķ if you continue to use the term gang,” Robinson added.

Gang life has infiltrated generations of teenagers, Huston and police officials agreed. Plus, gang activity crosses all races and cultures and involves an increasing numbers of girls, Huston noted.

“They (girls) can be more violent,” he said, citing a recent suspected gang case where a girl ran over another girl with a vehicle, backed up and ran her over a second time. “They have better poker faces. ‚Ķ And then they strike and strike fierce.”

The saving grace for these girls is that the agency has not yet heard of them using firearms, Huston added.

Huston said both male and female gang members are influenced by several factors. These include media exposure to violence and glorification of “thug” life; no male figures in households; immature attitudes; and no positive role models, he said.

Beverly Jackson, one of the Pathway to Peace’s first youth-intervention specialists, said today’s kids across the board have too many distractions, including cellular phones, computers and MP3 players.

“There’s too much stimuli, they really can’t focus,” she said. “It’s overwhelming for them. There’s too much going on.”

Pathways’ strategies for fighting the problem include on-the-spot mediation, gang tracking, gang mapping, counseling and presentations from former gang members, are helping make a difference in the lives of many teenagers on the street, police officials said.

“If anybody can speak to these things, we’re the people who can do it,” Huston added. “We won’t sit still.”

Each of Pathways’ six senior specialists handles about 150 cases. One of the agency’s newest staff members is a former 17-year gang member who was the rival of another youth-intervention specialist. That level of personal experience helps the agency’s staff members relate to teens on the streets and gives teens an avenue to seek help, Huston said.

“What our kids are doing is not something they are born with,” Huston added. “Violence is learned. No child comes out of the womb wanting to fight.”

Children are one of the audiences outreach workers say they are trying to reach. Pathways officials say kids as young as 8 and 9 are being recruited by gangs.

Leia Malone, a manager in Rochester’s Center for Youth Services education department, attended the Peace Fest to promote the center’s Safe Haven program, which connects youths in crisis with services they need around the clock. She noted that even if children are not directly involved in violence they are surrounded by it.

“We’re addressing it with kids as young as 7 or 8 years old,” said Malone, who also works with an anti-violence program through the center. “They have witnessed violence in their homes and their neighborhoods. Our whole objective is to start to show kids that there is another way.”

Deirdre Carter of Rochester is a member of the city’s Teen Court, which is an alternative court for youths charged with nonviolent misdemeanors. She said that one focus of the court is on solving disputes without violence.

“We help them to not make impulsive decisions,” said Carter, a Pittsford-Sutherland high-school student who also is taking classes through Eastern Monroe Career Center’s criminal-justice program.

Besides preventing violence through programs such as Safe Haven and Teen Court, law-enforcement officials also are trying to solve the problem of gang violence through several methods.

In April, former U.S. Attorney Alberto Gonzales announced he would provide Rochester with a $2.5 million grant to prevent gang violence, enforce anti-gang laws and prepare offenders to re-enter society. City police said the money has not yet been received and that a committee is exploring how best to use the funds.

Although they have not yet received the federal money, the city police department has added 27 officers, which they say will help them end staff shortages. Even so, police say they cannot do their work to fight gangs alone.

Police and Pathways officials agree that one step in fighting gangs is to offer teenagers such positive outlets as jobs and recreational activities.

“We dub these kids the lost generation,” Huston said. “Well, guess who lost them?”

Many of the teenagers involved in gang activity will age out of the groups or simply walk away, Petitti said.

When Huston left his gang as a youth, he simply walked away. Different dynamics at that time, including no drug activity, made that option easier, he added.

“It was not like today,” Huston explained. “It (a gang) was more a neighborhood thing.”

Teenagers wanting out of a gang also may be able to turn to school resource officers for help, Robinson said. In that vein, the department hopes to create Police Athletic Leagues, known as PALs, to reach at-risk youths, he added.

“The only way to curb violence is a communitywide commitment,” he said, including providing such offerings as education and social services. “It can’t (just) be the police department’s responsibility to eliminate gangs.”

Faith-based groups in the city also play an important role by offering teenagers guidance on ethical and moral issues and spiritual development and by offering a socially conscious connection to community, he said.

Parishes have been invited to host presentations by Pathways to Peace, mentor young people, host a gun drop-off program and support recruitment of new police officers, among other ideas.

One booth at the Peace Fest urged young people to write on poster paper their ideas on how to end violence.

“To end violence, you need to work and help the families of these children,” one person wrote. “You also need to end racism, help people be open to working together as a community, not as individuals. There needs to be honesty in what people say and do.”

The booth was sponsored by WXXI, which is in the midst of a yearlong campaign highlighting how the power of forgiveness can heal people touched by violence. Details on the campaign, which encourages people to write letters of forgiveness, are at www.wxxi.org.

“Everybody is really up for this,” said Shelley Figueroa, the coordinator of education and outreach for WXXI. “It’s about time.”

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