Get-tough initiative to target city killings

City, county vow crackdown on mini-gangs

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Pittsburgh's hardest young troublemakers will be identified, rounded up, and brought together.

They'll be told that enough is enough -- by grieving moms, neighborhood elders, ex-cons. Some will cry. Others will shrug. They'll be offered alternatives to the street life. Few will bite.

Later, someone will commit a murder, and the full force of law enforcement will crash down on the perpetrator and their friends. "The first group that kills somebody, pack your toothbrush, because we're rolling you all up," said Professor David Kennedy, of the City University of New York, introduced yesterday as the antidote to a stubborn murder rate.

"You punish the entire group," he said. "They start policing themselves."

That's the plan Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and City Councilman Ricky Burgess endorsed in a daylong blitz aimed at building momentum for Mr. Kennedy's approach -- one made famous in Boston and replicated in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Cincinnati and elsewhere.

They pitched what they dubbed the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime to the media in the morning, to police brass and social service groups in the afternoon, and to community leaders in the evening, in a rapid-fire start to a yearlong effort to transform local law enforcement.

Some neighborhoods withheld judgment on the approach until they see results.

"This guy's going to have to come in with something that can be tailored to fit Pittsburgh," said Tony Ceoffe, executive director of Lawrenceville United, "on-the-ground kinds of things that, practically speaking, police can use on the street."

"New plans without resources won't get it done," said Carl Redwood, chairman of the Hill District Consensus Group. Nor will resources without willpower -- the kind he said has been lacking in places such as the Hill's Centre Avenue, long an open-air drug market. "The will is not there to really move it."

Mr. Kennedy's approach focuses willpower on groups that kill. The city has seen 54 homicides this year, up from 52 all of last year and on pace to top the 56 killings in 2006 and 64 in 2005.

In Boston in the mid-1990s, the approach is credited with slashing homicides by 70 percent.

"I know the Boston track record was impressive," said Alfred Blumstein, a professor of urban systems and crime expert at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz School. Pittsburgh's situation may be different, because its violence is dominated by grievances among "mini-gangs" rather than large, organized enterprises, he said. Gathering intelligence on mini-gangs is challenging.

In Cincinnati, where there were seven or eight homicides by violent groups each month in 2007, the number dipped to two or three a month after Mr. Kennedy's program kicked in.

"If it is done with reasonable goodwill and if it is kept in place, you will get these too-good-to-be-true results," Mr. Kennedy said. "Too-good-to-be-true is 30 to 50 percent reductions in homicides citywide, and it means 50, 60, 70 percent reductions in homicides among the high-risk groups and in the high-risk neighborhoods."

The trick is to identify the groups that are responsible for most of the violent crime -- a job the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work will help with -- and lay down the law.

Probation and parole officers, police, ex-offenders and community elders will meet the members of "gangs, drug crews, sets, posses," said Mr. Kennedy.

"It's not hug-a-thug," he said. "We're not asking. It's going to stop."

The carrot: An "honorable exit" that may include education, job hunting help, treatment and mentoring.

The stick: Massive response to violence. One group member shoots, they all go down -- for murder, conspiracy, probation violations, weapons charges, unpaid child support, whatever.

"If they know for sure that there will be legal consequences when they shoot somebody, they won't do it," Mr. Kennedy said. "They will put their guns down."

He said the tools for every part of the effort are already here. The trick is coordinating them. At some point, there will be a publicly available plan outlining every entity's role, he said.

"If there's one agency that is not committed, then it won't work," said Mr. Ravenstahl.

Joni Schwager, executive director of the Staunton Farm Foundation, which works on mental health and crime issues, predicted it will be tough to get everyone focused on the narrow problem of murderous groups.

"We're going to have to give up some of our turf, and some of our power, and some of our comfortable positions," she said.

"This is serious," said Lamar "Tuffy Tuff" Smith Phenizy, of Homewood, who works with the nonprofit group Strength Inc., and attended the afternoon meeting. "I want to be a part of any process you guys get going to stop murders."

Mr. Burgess campaigned on a pledge to bring the Boston approach to Pittsburgh, and dedicated $40,000 from his council discretionary budget to pay Pitt, which would subcontract Mr. Kennedy. Mr. Ravenstahl will pay the other $160,000 from city funds.

"Like too many of the city's residents, I've heard gunfire at night, listened to the sirens, and wondered who was shot this time," said Mr. Burgess, of North Point Breeze. "People shouldn't be afraid to leave their homes. They shouldn't worry about being an innocent victim of a shootout or drive-by. And our children shouldn't have to play around chalk outlines and crime-scene tape."

Mr. Ravenstahl said he wanted the impact to be felt on the streets within six months. Mr. Onorato said he would take the effort countywide.

"We are united in this effort," Mr. Onorato said. "We all have one goal: Lower the crime and help kids in this community."

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.


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