Wilmington offering help instead of handcuffs to cut violence

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posters on a barbershop window in downtown Wilmington

These posters on a barbershop window in downtown Wilmington illustrate the challenges facing politicians, law enforcement officials and social service leaders in continuing to reduce gun violence in Wilmington. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Gun violence has fallen in Wilmington under its new police chief, but drugs and street crime still rule too many neighborhoods. Now, city and state officials are collaborating on another effort to help make streets safer.

It’s a program known as Group Violence Intervention. Used in many cities across the country, it offers job training and other social services to certain drug dealers and gang members, instead of arrest.

Former Mayor Dennis Williams had rejected the initiative because he didn’t want to “hug thugs.”

But current Mayor Mike Purzycki is embracing Group Violence Intervention.

“You are identifying that very small group of people who are predisposed to violence who are responsible for most of the violence, and calling them in,’’ Purzycki said Tuesday in unveiling the plan.

Wilmington police chief Robert Tracy, flanked by city and state officials,
Wilmington police chief Robert Tracy, flanked by city and state officials, is implementing a program with state officials that involves offering help instead of prosecution to those deemed at a high risk of inflicting gun violence or being a victim. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

New police chief Robert Tracy helped develop the intervention strategy with leaders of the National Network for Safe Communities and employed it in New York and Chicago.

“The message we’re giving is to all the groups together, really, we’re telling them, from this day on, we’re asking you to put the guns down,’’ Tracy said. “We care about you. If you don’t heed the warning, we’re letting you know what will happen, what the consequences are going to be. It’s forward-moving, not backward-moving.”

Kara Odom Walker, head of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services
Kara Odom Walker, head of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, said dealers and gang members will be offered food assistance, job training and other services to help steer them off the path of destruction. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Kara Odom Walker, who heads Delaware’s Department of Health and Social Services, said those targeted will be offered much more than job training.

“We can connect them with services such as food benefits, Medicaid, subsidized housing, child care, cash assistance,’’ she said.

Seeking ‘rapid transformative impact on violence’

David Kennedy of the National Network of Safe Communities created the approach with Tracy and said it’s working in many cities, including Oakland.

Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said officials will target less than one-half of 1% of Wilmington’s population.

“We know that if we engage with them in the right way and with the groups that they are with, we can have this kind of rapid transformative impact on violence, while not treating everyone else in the  neighborhood as if they are potential felons, because they are not,’’ Kennedy said.

David Kennedy of the National Network of Safe Communities
David Kennedy of the National Network of Safe Communities stressed that less than one half of one percent of a city’s residents are at high risk for violence. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Gun violence fell almost 60 percent last year in Delaware’s largest city after record levels of carnage in 2017, Purzycki’s first year in office.

Through Tuesday, 58 people had been shot this year. That’s slightly above last year’s pace but still far below 2017 levels.

The new strategy is intended to help these high-risk individuals avoid prosecution, keep them safe, stabilize their lives, and create accountability for violence, officials said.

“For any city to be successful, it needs to be safe,’’ Gov. John Carney said. “We’ve seen a significant reduction in gun violence in our city. But — as there are in all cities — there are still communities that are disproportionately impacted by gun violence in their neighborhoods.

“Those shootings traumatize children and families, and tear apart entire communities. We know that this gun violence is concentrated among a small group of people who are at very high risk for offending — but also at a very high risk for being victims of gun violence.”

Purzycki noted that Tracy’s statistically driven policing strategy, known as CompStat, and keeping officers in the same sector every shift has helped with recent reduction in violence.

“And today we add another layer that can continue to improve lives and further reduce crime,’ he said.

Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings stressed that the initiative will not be a substitute for prosecution, and that those who choose not to change their ways will pay for their crimes.

The strategy being employed in Wilmington was tried in Philadelphia for two years, in a select area.  It was found to have cut gun violence in targeted areas, but was discontinued about four years ago. Philadelphia officials reportedly are considering bringing it back amid rising violence.

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