New Haven — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy gave a high-profile roll out Tuesday to an anti-gun violence strategy that targets hundreds of young minority men deemed most likely to kill or be killed in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven.
In an era of tight resources and a political unwillingness to squeeze the supply of guns, “Project Longevity” is an ambitious, if politically easy new take on an old strategy: Focus existing social-services and law-enforcement resources on those most at risk.
The basics are simple: identify a pool of young men involved in gangs and street violence, then confront them with the threat of sustained police attention and the promise of help to find a trade and a job. It requires no new spending or laws.
“Project Longevity will send a powerful message to those who would harm their fellow citizens: that such acts will not be tolerated, that they will be swiftly met with clear, predictable consequences, and that help is available for all those who wish to break the cycle of violence and gang activity,” Holder said.
The program began Monday with “call-ins,” two meetings in New Haven where gang members already under court supervision were summoned to hear cops, community activists and others explain their new reality.
They were told any violence on their turf or within their circle would subject all of them to the intense scrutiny that often means a return to prison for young men on parole or probation.
“It’s not magic,” said David M. Kennedy, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor on whose research the program is based. “Essentially, the message is we will help you if you let us.”
Scot X. Esdaile, the state president of the NAACP, said he appreciated the effort, but he had doubts about the ability of the program to deliver on a viable path away from crime and violence.
“I have some reservation. I have some huge reservations,” Esdaile said. “But at the same time, I think it’s a move in the right direction.”
Esdaile said the nature of the threat being leveled at the targeted audience of young minorities is clear, but the promise of services and jobs is not. Esdaile, who lives in New Haven, recalls successful federal efforts in the ’90s to dismantle gangs.
“They got rid of all those guys, and the young guys picked up the behavior. We haven’t dealt with the issue of jobs and the poverty issue and the economic issue,” Esdaile said. “That’s the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.”
Holder, Malloy, U.S. Attorney David Fein, New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman and others endorsed Kennedy’s program during a news conference, while the long-haired, bearded academic stood to the side, listening to the accolades.
The presence of Holder and Malloy, state and federal prosecutors, community activists and the mayors and police chiefs of Bridgeport, Hartford and Bridgeport gives Kennedy’s work a high-profile second chance in Connecticut.
It was tried in New Haven in the 1990s, and officials say it produced results — as it did in Boston, where he first put his theories into practice with the Boston Gun Project. It was credited with a 60 percent reduction in homicides.
“It worked then, but the partners let it fall apart. That’s why this is being called ‘Longevity.’ Nobody wants that to happen again,” said Kennedy, who now directs the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College in New York.
Alicia Caraballo, the principal of adult education in New Haven, told the audience of media, law enforcement and community leaders that it was time to try to again.
Her 24-year-old son, Justin, a school social worker and administrator, was shot to death in 2008 as he left a nightclub with friends. She said the killer had been involved in a seemingly minor confrontation with one of her son’s friends in the club.
The shooter was convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison.
“Understand, we love you,” Caraballo said, addressing herself to the program’s targets. “You are part of our community. We want you to be productive members of our society. But if you choose not, there are consequences.”
The initiative gives the Obama and Malloy administrations an opportunity to make inroads against gun violence without running afoul of the gun lobby or by spending more money.
Facing a current-year budget shortfall of $365 million, Malloy is working on budget cuts he can make unilaterally, as well as a deficit mitigation plan to be presented to the General Assembly in coming weeks.
Malloy said the approach is one his administration is trying to follow in other areas: assign agencies to work together, such as a veterans’ employment program run jointly by veterans, social services and jobs agencies.
“That’s what the first two years of my administration have been about, finding ways to get more, if not with less, with less growth, and getting rid of programs that don’t work and getting rid of approaches that don’t work in favor or approaches that are proven winners,” Malloy said. “This program is a proven winner.”
Malloy said the initiative represents a public-sector management mind-set — a willingness to bring all relevant services and resources to bear on a problem — as much as a program.
“It will be a success when it’s no longer spoken about as a program, when it’s how we do business every single day,” he said.
Kennedy said Malloy’s attitude will make the new initiative a success if it represents the broader view of law enforcement and social services.
“The governor said it better than I possibly could, and he is exactly right,” Kennedy said. “If this is a project and a program, if it’s a pilot, if it’s somebody’s pet initiative, it will go away.”
For Holder and the Obama administration, the program comes after a campaign in which the president was criticized for rarely mentioning gun violence or gun control, even as his hometown of Chicago suffered from a spate of gun violence.
In fact, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly of New York said Sunday after a 5-year-old girl was accidentally shot in the Bronx, “Maybe the city most affected is Chicago, the president’s hometown. But barely a peep out of him.”
Holder was asked if the administration had written off new gun-control measures, such as limits on the unrestricted sales at gun shows, in a concession to political realities in Washington.
“We’re in the process of looking at what can be effective,” Holder said. “We’re not focusing necessarily on what is politically saleable.”