NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Fed up with gun violence, authorities in New Haven decided to try a radically different approach to the traditional crackdown.
Reputed gang members were called in to a room in the basement of City Hall, where they met not only police but also clergy, social service providers and a mother of a murder victim. Authorities who conducted months of research showed them organization charts documenting their gang affiliation.
And then they received a warning and an offer of help to get them to change their ways.
"You're told that you're going to be given a lot of love and respect in this room, and this community cherishes you, but with one voice we say no more violence," said New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman. "The first who go to a gun, who shoot somebody or kill somebody is going to have the full attention of city, state and federal law enforcement on the entire gang."
During the meetings participants are offered help to get a high school diploma, food, clothing, counseling, job training and other assistance. They were given pizza after the first meeting in November.
Participants are on probation or parole and are directed to attend, police said. Those who do not attend could face additional sanctions, including more meetings and a GPS ankle bracelet.
Shirley West, who supervises an outreach program aimed at stopping youth violence, said the tone surprised her. "The message was humble and sensitive," she said.
The program, called Project Longevity, has been hailed as successful in reducing violence in other cities such as Chicago and Cincinnati. Officials are also implementing the program in Bridgeport and Hartford.
Connecticut's overall crime rate is at its lowest since 1968. But gun violence remains high in the largest cities, including New Haven.
While Project Longevity is in its early stages in New Haven, Esserman said he believes it has contributed to a reduction in violence along with other initiatives such as a return to police walking beats.
"We still have a long way to go," Esserman said.
New Haven had 17 homicides last year, half the 34 the year before, while seven people have been killed this year as of last week. There were 92 nonfatal shootings last year, down from 133 the year before. There have been 23 nonfatal shootings this year as of last week.
New Haven police say the city has close to 500 gang members and about 100 have participated in the meetings.
Sundiata Keitazulu, a mayoral candidate, was among those who had concerns that Project Longevity would disproportionately target minorities but said after learning more about the program that he supports it. He said gunfire is common in the area of the city where he lives.
"I hear it, my kids hear it," he said. "I got my kids ducking down in the house because of gunfire. They're scared to go outside because of gunfire. Something has to change. This is not the Wild Wild West."
Police say that Project Longevity targets violence, not race, and that it would be racist to not try to stop the violence that disproportionately affects minority communities. They also say community involvement is a key part of the effort.