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Stopping the violence: Why changing the gun culture in Harrisburg won’t come from a quick fix
Patriot-News - 12/23/2020
Harrisburg police logged 67 shots fired calls in the city between mid-October and mid-November.
Twenty-four people were hit by bullets. Four of them died.
And the majority of the people involved have been teens and others in their early 20s.
Police Commissioner Thomas Carter says he wants to get guns off the street and prevent youths from joining neighborhood gangs. Mayor Eric Papenfuse introduced a city budget that creates a community policing division entirely devoted to developing the partnership between Harrisburg residents and the officers that patrol their neighborhoods.
But the community is trying to find ways to stand up for itself and find their own solutions working with and without the city government because that strained relationship needs repairing as well.
A group of activists shared their ideas with PennLive, which include mentorship programs, furthering education for adults, and finding ways to heal families that have suffered generations of trauma.
Community activist and owner of Way With Words Consulting LLC., Ana White, said she sees multiple factors playing into this “uptick” in violence and it’s more than young people turning to gangs or similar lifestyles.
One of the biggest problems affecting Harrisburg is the “large disconnect” between law enforcement and the communities that are suffering from gun violence and other extreme behaviors that stem from poverty.
White points to recent clashes between police and local leaders who feel police don’t fulfill their promises to residents.
“We cannot work alongside law enforcement with this level of distrust,” White said.
Carter has called on the community to talk more, provide information and tell his officers where guns are.
But White said that must be a two-way relationship.
“It’s often painted as a community unwilling to answer the plea. It’s not that there is a community that doesn’t want crime to end,” White said. Instead, she said, it’s difficult for many to trust and find answers in the existing system.
“The city is the victim. The cops are not,” she said. “We are still trying to get our communities under control, but we don’t have the authority or an authoritative agency that can help, that we trust.”
White said she knows it’s not always possible, for the sake of investigations, to have full transparency. Part of the distrust comes from residents believing police don’t always protect the identities of the people who work with them.
Despite believing their tips are anonymous, White said, their identities might end up in court records, revealed at trial, or worse, being shared by an officer trying to explain evidence that brought them to a suspect’s doorstep.
Harrisburg Sgt. Kyle Gautsch said he believes police do a good job of protecting the identities of informants, but the judicial system requires testimony in court.
“As a citizen that could be charged with something myself, I find it appropriate that I would have the ability to face and question [through an attorney] someone that ‘witnessed’ me commit a criminal act,” Gautsch said.
Police also need to have witnesses to build a case, Gautsch said. Tips that point investigators in a certain direction may help locate a potential criminal, but often don’t give them what they need to make an arrest.
“There are obviously other investigate means for us to put [a suspect] at the scene, but credible witnesses are a blessing and extremely valuable in prosecuting certain cases,” Gautsch said.
Coming forward, potentially putting your life at risk, might be considered heroic to the police. But many of these suspects know where tipsters live, work or go to school, White said.
“If I provide a name for someone in a community where the cops are not responsive, I am left raw and vulnerable in these spaces,” White said.
Gautsch said police approach these concerns in a couple of ways, and he knows they’re not always widely known.
When people come forward, Gautsch said they notify patrol officers and expedite any calls for service to the blocks these people live.
“If there is a person that is cooperating, we do need to ensure their safety,” Gautsch said. There are still limits to what police can do, but if community members are concerned about intimidation or harassment, he said there are options.
Police sometimes direct people to get help through area victim and witness services, which can assist in getting people out of the area within reason, Gautsch said.
When harassment and intimidation happens, Gautsch said in his experience, everyone from the police, the district attorney’s office to the magisterial district justices take the cases extremely seriously and work to file additional charges.
All of this is because, Gautsch said, witnesses are “paramount” to the success of cases.
“In the criminal justice system, we have to have credible witnesses,” Gautsch said. “To make an arrest or even take the step to get search warrants, we have to have people willing to come forward.”
When it comes to parents, White said there are many levels to the role parents play. Some don’t know what their kids are involved in, some enable them by looking the other way while others may have been the ones to expose them to criminal activity.
For those who know their child might be involved in something bad, there are few non-punitive systems outside of mentoring to ask for help.
Parents don’t necessarily want to see their kids getting involved with government agencies like children and youth services or juvenile probation that may provide structure and rules, but also come with damaging criminal records and outsiders deciding when the family is OK, White said.
Leaders of mentorship programs see the great need for healing from damage caused by economic disparities and violent environments, for both parents and children.
Kevin Dolphin, founder of the non-profit organization Breaking the Chainz, said his work involves cognitive programs to help the city’s youth turn away from crime.
“If we can’t change their mindset, we’re not going to be able to change their actions,” Dolphin said.
Dolphin spent 15 years in federal prison, where he said he had a lot of time to re-think the choices that brought him to where he was. He lost many friends from his childhood to what he said were “poor decisions.”
And while he reached that low point and found his own way to change his life, he said he knows it isn’t that simple to get kids to listen.
“If you can’t meet these youth where you are, and they can’t relate to you, you’re not going to be able to get across to them,” Dolphin said.
Not everyone will understand right away, Dolphin said. People’s willingness to listen fluctuates from learning at different stages and environments of their lives.
“If [someone] is being an enabler at home, many of us didn’t understand it back then,” Dolphin said. “If I go along with what’s wrong and not saying something that’s around me, I make them think that it’s OK. So that’s compounding our problem. We can’t compound the problem. We have to tell these individuals when they’re right and when they’re wrong.”
Tamika Wesley, Chairman and President of UNITE Central Pa. and Founder and CEO of Central Pa.Successful Dreams Inc. said sometimes one of the biggest mistakes she sees is parents who don’t try to understand their child’s world.
“They won’t even go in there and sit down and play a video game with their kids. I will if that will build a connection,” Wesley said. “A child has to build a line of trust.”
In her programs, parents are required to be involved because “often the parent needs a mentor too,” Wesley said.
Finding a connection
Dolphin and Wesley agree that many times kids are seeking a bond with someone or something that grounds them.
“Many of them don’t have family, they don’t have someone that really cares about them. They turn to other places for love. But they don’t understand that that is the wrong route to go,” Dolphin said. “Many of the things they glamorize, it’s a golden apple. It’s poisonous,”
They don’t see the other side of the story, Dolphin said... “[the] only thing they can see is what’s right in front of them in that moment.”
Part of the disillusionment comes from what they are seeing in their own homes, White said. Living by the rules didn’t pay off for their parents, neighbors and other relatives.
“I think it’s very hard and unrealistic to tell a youth that in order to get by, you just need to get a job and not sell drugs,” she said. “They have not seen that happen. This goes back to the structure of the city.
“There are women who are working two to three jobs and cannot get by,” White said. “You cannot convince their child that them getting a job is the answer. They’re not seeing enough success stories because of it, because of the economic disparities. They don’t see pulling themselves out of poverty.”
Investing in resources and education
The disconnect between youths and their ambitions comes down to what resources are made available to these kids, and in 2020, these activists say there are not enough.
Wesley said without strong vocational programs, many students are not receiving what could be strong paths to a solid career.
“It was a big avenue for children becoming adults,” Wesley said. “Maybe they didn’t go to college, but they had a skill or a trade. We’ve kind of taken that from them.”
Not only that, but many kids don’t even know what careers are available to them.
“When you ask a kid [what they want to be], a majority of them don’t know,” Wesley said. “They just say they want to be successful, get away from the hood. Why? What’s in the hood that’s making you suffer?”
Growing up, Wesley said there were many possibilities for the future for her and her peers.
“There were kids that wanted to be cops or firefighters,” Wesley said. “We don’t even teach our kids about political offices. That’s stuff that’s not even brought to our attention.”
Wesley remembered after she got her first job, her grandmother taught her how to open a bank account. Her grandma only had a fourth-grade education.
“She knew how to do basic life skills. We don’t have this anymore,” Wesley said. “These teenagers, some of them don’t even know how to prepare an honest meal. It’s pretty sad that we’ve gotten to that point.”
The few social service resources that were available at school buildings are even more limited now due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“I think what’s going on now, 2020 has been a very difficult year for everyone,” Wesley said. “With the pandemic, parents losing jobs, resources, education, everyone switching over to virtual... There are a lot of kids who are mentally ill that are not getting those services.”
Harrisburg School District spokeswoman Kirsten Keys said school counselors and social workers “have been diligent in contacting and providing support services to students/families,” before and during the pandemic.
The district also has contracts to provide services for students from Pa. Counseling Associates, Dauphin County’s Case Management Unit, Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, Keystone Human Services, and Dauphin County Crisis Intervention, Keys said. But it is unclear how many in the school community are aware and using these services during remotely-delivered education.
Programs also need to be honest about what older residents were involved in and how they took their lives back from the streets, White said.
“It’s not as easy as ‘I just got a job and it’s over,’” White said. “That’s not true. So what we’re lacking as a community is that transparency, because we don’t want to glorify it. But we’re having a hard time having kids maneuver out of it.”
Finding a way forward
Mentoring alone, however, will only go so far. Teens also need resources and in many cases jobs. Wesley and White said many of the jobs previously occupied by enterprising teens have now gone to their parents as second and third jobs.
That’s why the biggest components of these efforts need to be sustainability, commitment and patience, White said.
“The hardest thing is needing a quick solution to a problem that has taken decades in creation,” White said. “Poverty has existed for decades and centuries.”
What does sustainability look like? To White and Wesley, it could mean new programs, funding existing programs, and perhaps a shift in leadership.
“If you feel like your city officials are not doing their job, you can vote who sits in your office,” Wesley said. Voting is yet another thing she said youth are not being taught the importance of.
“If you feel like your city officials are not doing their job, you can vote who sits in your office,” Wesley said. But the importance of voting is yet another thing she says has not been stressed enough to youth.
Informed citizens who are “making deposits” into sustainability plans are what White said will make the biggest difference.
“But we have to make sure the plans that we’re investing in will reap some kind of benefit,” White said. For many, they have spent “a lifetime of pouring into programs, a lifetime of pouring into leadership that have come back void.”
Papenfuse’s plan to pour resources into a community policing division immediately was met with questions and criticism by some members of the community who want data to justify the rising police costs. But Papenfuse said the new unit was based on ideas from conversations with the community.
“These ideas didn’t emerge out of a vacuum,” Papenfuse said. “They came out of a community discussion. How they wanted to see the Harrisburg police department transformed.”
They’re not all new ideas either. He said much of what he’s proposing has already started in other places. He’s just hoping to bring these roles to Harrisburg.
“My job is trying to give back the ideas that they want to see in policy. The budget is a statement of community values,” Papenfuse said. “I get the frustration that’s out there. We’ve been through a tremendously difficult time.”
The new budget is hinging on the fact that Papenfuse was able to put away money in a rainy-day fund, which is now key to his new proposals.
“That, I think, is giving back to the community in what they see and what they need,” Papenfuse said. “This is my take on the defunding the police. Not that they wanted to see less money, but re-prioritization of how that money is spent. That’s what we’re doing.”
On Dec. 14, the Harrisburg City Council approved his budget, with some adjustments.
Regardless of what comes from the new unit, these activists are going to continue to push for investment in the community by the community itself.
“I’ve seen adults reshape their lives,” she said. “Some older than me. I would say for myself, I reshaped myself.”
It took her until her mid-20s to do that, but now that she’s in her 30s she’s giving back.
“If you keep exposing children to positive outlets, at some point they may give in to it,” Wesley said.
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