MANCHESTER — Police Chief David Mara acknowledges police are dealing with at least two youth gangs in the city. So far, no one has been killed and Mara is working to keep it that way.
“We don’t want to have a history of gang violence. We want it to stop,” Mara said. “But we don’t want to just do enforcement. We want to get them to stop emulating this behavior.”
Gangs include OTL, named for Orange to Laurel streets, and 180 — the location on Second Street where members gathered to play basketball. There have been guns fired and fights with baseball bats. There have been many arrests, Mara said, some for felonies that can send teens to prison for a long time.
Mara has met with community organizations and, this past week, with representatives of a wide range of agencies that address crime and its consequences, including the Attorney General’s Office, the City Solicitor, the Hillsborough County Attorney, FBI, adult and juvenile probation, ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) and the Valley Street Jail.
“We’re trying to come up with ways we can control the violence now and prevent future violence,” said Mara, who added that it’s going to take the community working together, and not just the law enforcement community. The effort has been named the Urban Violence Working Group.
Officer Matthew Barter said: “We looked at national models, other departments.”
The consensus was if one group attacks members of another, talk to both and make it clear that retaliation will result in arrests.
“We prosecute. If you don’t want to be arrested, don’t break the law,” Mara said.
Young people live in the moment and it’s a battle to get them to think about five years down the line.
Barter said he was talking recently with a young man who really enjoys playing football and sought to encourage him to think about keeping his grades up and keeping out of trouble, so college could be a possibility. He was trying to persuade the youngster to “look past what’s going on tonight.”
Many of the young people who are potential gang members go to programs at the Salvation Army, where they get dinner at Kids Cafe, help with homework, sports activities and mentoring.
For too many youngsters, said Barter, social media offers unrealistic expectations of striking it big, getting a multimillion dollar recording contract. They are undeterred by the criminal records or other negative aspects of celebrity rap stars.
Mara and Barter said it may be too late for the gang members who already have felony criminal records, but police are looking to dissuade the younger brothers from following in their footsteps.
Mara said the root cause of gangs is “needing to belong.”
He said they youths don’t have enough to do, and don’t get enough guidance of the right kind.
“Let’s get them into organizations,” he said, like the Michael Briggs PAL programs, or programs at the Salvation Army.
Mara said he wants to work with the city and the business community to try to create jobs for young people so they have a reason to avoid gang membership.
Peer pressure can be brutal even when parents are doing their best, Mara said, but can’t always be there because of work schedules or other reasons. The chief said that’s why he’s trying to get the entire community to buy into providing the kind of support that can provide an alternative to gang membership.
“We want to send a message out: ‘You don’t have to do this,’” Mara said.
He said there has been an intensive effort to communicate with refugee and immigrant communities who have come from places where police are feared, corrupt, incompetent or all three. He said Manchester officers have undergone training to help them deal more effectively with youth from different cultures and to create positive relationships.
“We want a positive outcome,” said Mara, but nobody gets a pass. “If you break the law, we will prosecute.”