Erie’s falling violent crime, signs of success

By ED PALATTELLA, MADELEINE

O’NEILL and TIM HAHN

Erie Times-News

ERIE — For Unified Erie, the anti-crime initiative built on data, numbers have always been important. At this point, the numbers are looking extremely good.

The number of homicides, shootings, robberies and other violent crimes have dropped significantly in the city of Erie over the past five years, or since all three elements, or prongs, of Unified Erie — enforcement, prevention, and re-entry — have been in place.

The multi-agency initiative, which focuses on youth violence, has developed new strategies for coordinated police enforcement action, introduced in 2010; for crime prevention, in 2012; and for re-entry programs, which started to take shape in 2013 for former inmates and others who have been in trouble with the law.

Much of Unified Erie’s emphasis has been on curbing gang-related violence, which organizers also refer to as “group-on-group” violence, a term they said can often better describe the neighborhood affiliations involved in crime in Erie. Those types of crimes have fallen.

In Unified Erie’s early years, gang-related killings were on the rise. In 2014, based on Erie police figures and statistics the Erie Times-News keeps, five of the city’s 11 homicides were related to gang violence, and all 11 homicides involved guns. The total number of people shot in 2014 was 72.

In 2017, the city recorded seven homicides, two of which were gang-related and five that involved guns. The number of people shot in 2017 dropped to 59, a decrease of 18 percent from 2014.

And through the first six months of 2018, or as of June 30, the city recorded three homicides, none of which were gang-related and two of which, a double murder that occurred with a suicide, involved firearms. The number of people shot so far this year is 15.

The decline in gang-related violence in particular has left Unified Erie “very encouraged,” said Amy Eisert, director of the Mercyhurst University Civic Institute, which provides research and data analysis for Unified Erie.

“Before you’d have shots fired on Thursday, shots fired on Friday, shots fired on Saturday,” Eisert said. “You knew that was retaliatory.”

The successful prosecution of a number of gang-affiliated defendants, as they were described in court, has contributed to the reduction in violent crime, Unified Erie officials said. But of special significance to Unified Erie is that no gang-related homicides have occurred in the city since April 26, 2017.

That is when Unified Erie organizers held the first of the initiative’s three “call-ins” — highly structured events that are held at churches and where representatives from law enforcement and social service agencies offer participants help in exchange for turning away from crime. The call-ins also serve as a warning: Law enforcement is aware of local gangs and will respond swiftly if violent crime among those groups continues.

“The power of the call-in is having them leave the church and go back to their groups,” Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri said. “You want them to deliver a message to their group and say, ‘They’re not messing around.’ What you hope for is that people just say ‘I’m out.'”

Daneri said he believes the message’s reach is reflected in the reduction in crime.

So does Michael Outlaw, a leader in Unified Erie and a community liaison in Mayor Joe Schember’s administration.

“We call in individuals that we believe can turn their lives around,” Outlaw said. “They go back to their respective circles and they say, ‘Listen, we’ve been put on notice.’ Some of them even go so far as to get on Facebook and talk about it.”

Of the overall drop in violent crime, Daneri said, “It’s hard to argue that what’s been happening with the enforcement prong of Unified Erie has not had an impact.”

A long view on crime

Daneri, who has been district attorney since 2009, was one of the original organizers of Unified Erie, which was initially known as the Unified Youth Violence Reduction Initiative.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Piccinini launched the project on April 10, 2010, when he sent letters to Daneri and other community officials asking them to work with him on an unprecedented initiative to curb youth violence in Erie.

The short-term goal would be to reduce violence and to get illegal guns off the street. The long-term goal would be to address the root causes that created the turmoil in the lives of the offenders to begin with.

Those goals — crime reduction and prevention — remain the foundation of Unified Erie’s mission, along with its commitment to back programs only if data can support their effectiveness. Rather than taking an anything-goes approach, Unified Erie has stuck to a philosophy based on fact-checked results rather than anecdotal evidence.

Using surveys and studies of which crime-reducing strategies have worked elsewhere, Unified Erie has been behind a number of different programs. They include a gun crime working group, in which police meet regularly to share information; the Neighborhood Resource Organization, which works to strengthen neighborhood groups; the Take Me to Worship campaign, which promotes church involvement to help youth; and parent-child interaction therapy, which local agencies offer to help parents to address disruptive behavior in their children.

The blueprint for the prevention programs is a community action plan, which the Erie County Policy and Planning Council helped develop for Unified Erie. The plan focuses on crime prevention among youth and is meant to respond to local needs as detailed in the state-run Pennsylvania Youth Survey.

Unified Erie organizers consider adhering to the plan as the source of the project’s long-term success. Keeping the crime numbers low, they said, will require following through on projects throughout the city to prevent violence and change behavior.

“We have all segments of the community engaged to make Erie a safer place,” Eisert said.

One of the most critical segments is the Erie Bureau of Police, where the new chief, Dan Spizarny, a 28-year veteran of the force, is a strong supporter of Unified Erie. Mayor Schember, who took office in January, appointed Spizarny and has also advocated for Unified Erie.

“You’ve got three different disciplines working pretty closely together with a single focus, a combined effort from all three angles, and it’s pretty impressive. You don’t see that,” Spizarny said. “In 28 years, I have not seen that much coordination between these different agencies that have a focus that’s dealing with an issue that was out of control, it really was, and they recognized that years ago when our numbers were as bad as they were.

“Has everything worked perfectly? No. But everyone’s working together and it’s still working.”

Re-entry and recidivism

A number of leaders in Erie’s African-American community have also supported Unified Erie, which Daneri said has furthered the success of the overall initiative, including the call-ins.

“I think that was crucial for the community, the entire community, to understand that this was real, that it has substance to it,” Daneri said.

One of those leaders is Outlaw, who said input from people who the call-in participants can identify with has helped build a stronger connection.

“It’s easy for the DA to speak and say, ‘Listen, we’re coming after you,'” said Outlaw, who served jail time as a teenager.

“Once you put a face in front of these individuals who they can relate to, who they understand has a similar past, it brings a little bit more credibility to the program,” he said.

Outlaw also credited the re-entry portion of the Unified Erie strategy with helping to reduce crime rates. He previously served as a case manager with the Erie County Re-Entry Services and Support Alliance.

The program targets individuals who have been recently released from prison and connects them with local resources, such as housing, employment and education, to help smooth their transition and reduce recidivism.

ECRSSA has offered intensive, long-term case management to 130 clients between October 2016, when the program began, and December 2017, said Sheila Silman, ECRSSA’s program manager.

Another 51 clients have received resource coordination, a shorter-term version of case management for clients who are not eligible for intensive case management.

Silman said the recidivism rate among program participants is about 6.5 percent — substantially lower than the 58 percent recidivism rate among ex-inmates that was identified when Unified Erie first targeted the problem as part of its strategy, she said.

Silman said she views the recidivism numbers with “cautious optimism.”

“We really understand that it’s really early in the game,” she said.

The program also does not continue to track re-entry clients after they conclude their intensive case management services, which can last one year to 18 months.

The case management clients include participants in the call-ins, who are automatically eligible for intensive services, Silman said. Unified Erie does not separate the re-entry clients and call-in participants in their case management statistics, Silman said.

She said that is done partly part to protect the privacy of the call-in participants, who make up a smaller group.

Call-in participants have also proven less likely to engage in case management services, Silman said, because unlike ex-inmates re-entering the community from prison, most call-in participants already have access to key resources like housing.

ECRSSA case managers have mostly helped connect call-in participants with employment resources, Silman said.

“Help from our program (is) offered for any of those re-entrants as well as call-in participants alike,” Silman said. “Whether or not they take us up on it, especially around the call-in, the reality is that the strategy is working because they are disengaging in the violence.”

For Eisert, of the Mercyhurst Civic Institute, the drop in crime numbers shows that more people are disengaging in violence across the city. She said Unified Erie knows it must continue to adapt to keep the numbers down.

“We are not doing a celebratory dance,” Eisert said. “It is, ‘OK, this is where we are at.'”

Daneri agreed with the low-key emphasis on Unified Erie’s long-term goals.

“We’re always careful not to thump our chests and pat ourselves on the back because it’s not as if the work is done,” he said. “It will continue indefinitely.”