PIRC joins fight to reduce gang violence

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On July 13 more than 50 members of Pittsburgh’s most violent gangs were given the word they knew was coming—the shooting must stop. It was the first “call-in” for the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime—and according to organizers, it was a big step for the city, its citizens and potentially for gang members seeking a way out.

Program architect David Kennedy called it “electrifying.”

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UNBEARABLE LOSS—Betty Cooper, right, mother of shooting victim Shawn Houser, is consoled by his cousin, Bernessa Davis, left, and Adrienne Young of Tree of Hope.

“It was really good. The guys could see a very visible new partnership between law enforcement, the community and service pro­viders all saying ‘we care about you,’” he said. “The biggest thing is that the call-in happened at all, that the city got to this point.”

But that initial elation was nearly shattered just days later by a rash of shootings, and subsequent criticism of the program. PIRC partners say the criticism is unjustified because the killings and shootings were not “group-related.”

“These were robberies, domestics, personal,” said One Vision One Life Executive Director Richard Garland. “They’re tragic, but it’s not about what we’re trying to do. It’s not group related.”

Two of the victims, Diontre Dean and Daniel Hawkins, both 17, were killed July 19 when they attempted to rob someone in a car in East Liberty. They died at the scene after an exchange of gunfire with the occupant.

One day earlier 30-year-old LaJuane Pendelton was gunned down in Garfield. Police said he had been the intended target in a January shooting that claimed the life of a jitney driver in Fineview.

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WORKING TO STOP THE VIOLENCE—Jay Gilmer, coordinator for the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Violence, reviews reports in his office.

Jay Gilmer, who coordinates the PIRC program, said even when a group-related shooting does occur, there won’t be an instant response from police.

“Like any other crime, they have to gather evidence—and that takes time,” he said. “Law enforcement will make the determination as to whether a shooting is group-related.”

The first meeting with gang members was a huge step, Gilmer said. It let gang members hear from their neighbors, church leaders, police and human service providers that there is a way out if they want to stop. There is also a way out if they don’t stop.

When a shooting is group- related, the police will respond massively, throwing not just the shooters, but every member of the group in jail, for any crime; parole violations, unpaid fines, anything.

Then there will be a second meeting to show members of other gangs what happened and again to offer support and assistance.

“Even if nothing happens, we’ll have additional call-in meetings. We need to keep the message out there, and to keep the team’s focus,” said Gilmer. “Pittsburgh Community Service will do assessment, intake, and case management. We want these kids to succeed, we don’t want them behind bars. Some of them already have skills. I mean, some have to be good at sales, customer service, procurement and logistics. We want people to reach their potential, and to give them every option to do the right thing.”

Gilmer said he is fortunate to have One Vision One Life as a partner because they have experience dealing with these kids on the street from years of interaction.

“We’re pleased with their work for us, the group outreach, getting the message out, encouraging people to call if they need help to make a move,” said Gilmer. “This is a group of relatively expert people and we’re blessed to have them already in place. They’re doing a lot of positive things that aren’t part of what we’re asking them to do.”

One thing they are not doing anymore is holding vigils for shooting victims.

“It’s a feel-good thing. And it’s been counter-productive because people haven’t followed through,” said Garland. “The idea was to get the community involved. But after the vigils, everybody goes back to business as usual. I’m not into feel-good, I want results.”

Garland said the response from gang members to the first meeting is positive, but cautious.

“Some guys are calling in but most people are waiting,” he said. “They’re feeling it out to see if it’s for real. But there is interest.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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