Anti-crime initiative under NAACP scrutiny

New Haven officials have rallied around an anti-crime initiative after the Connecticut National Association for the Advancement of Colored People criticized the program for endangering the civil rights of minority communities.

Project Longevity, an ongoing anti-crime initiative launched in November 2012, seeks to combine federal, state and local resources to offer community support to members of violent groups if they renounce violence, while threatening such groups with increased scrutiny if any member engages in gun violence. But the Connecticut NAACP expressed worry last month that the program could unfairly target and disrupt minority communities.

“The massive scope of Project Longevity raises significant concerns regarding the potential impact on those who are not directly associated with these gangs, but because of familial or neighborhood association may also become targets,” the Connecticut NAACP said in a statement last month.

The Connecticut NAACP’s description of Project Longevity has met opposition from several people affiliated with the initiative. The “overwhelming majority” of individuals targeted by Project Longevity have a criminal record, said New Haven Rev. William Mathis, the program manager. Those who are subject to “call-ins,” a meeting in which an offer of community support and the threat of increased scrutiny are put forward, Mathis said, “have been identified by intelligence” as individuals involved in violent groups.

“Project Longevity targets people and only people who have been charged with serious violent crimes,” said City Hall spokeswoman Anna Mariotti in response to the NAACP’s criticism.

Alderman Brian Wingate, the chairman of the Public Safety Committee of the Board of Aldermen, said that despite the NAACP’s criticism, he remains tentatively supportive of Project Longevity.

Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, who is running for mayor, maintains that Project Longevity is an effective “tool” to reduce violence.

“I understand that the project is not perfect, but I think we need to use all alternatives available,” Elicker said.

Emphasizing the history of discriminatory legal treatment faced by African-Americans, the NAACP statement also said that Project Longevity “has the potential to create new opportunities for racial, ethnic and class-based profiling.”

But several affiliates of Project Longevity said they do not understand the NAACP’s critique, including Yale Law School professor Tracey Meares, who is assisting with the rollout of Project Longevity. She stressed that the initiative does not violate civil rights.

“[Project Longevity] is targeting minority communities in the sense that it’s targeting the communities in which violence is most significant,” Meares said.

According to Mathis, people presently on probation or on parole could be forced to attend a call-in under Project Longevity. Other members of violent groups, Mathis said, were invited to call-ins but would not be penalized for not showing up.

“We encourage them to share the message so they can avail themselves of services,” Mathis said.

The NAACP also critiqued Project Longevity for promising economic and social support that it could not deliver, as Connecticut faces steep budget deficits.

Gary Holder-Winfield, who represents New Haven in the Connecticut House of Representatives and is running for mayor, is co-sponsoring a bill to allocate state funds to cover the police work and community support programs included under Project Longevity. Elicker, meanwhile, said he supported Project Longevity when it was first announced last year.

Neither Connecticut NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile nor the Connecticut ACLU returned request for comment Monday afternoon. A representative for the U.S. District Attorney’s Office for Connecticut stated that while the office was aware of the NAACP’s concerns, it had not yet issued a response.

The initiative is modeled after similar programs that have reduced gun violence in Boston, Chicago and other cities across the country. While group-related homicides dropped by about half in neighborhoods in Providence, Chicago and Cincinnati, Project Longevity is the first time that the strategy will be implemented on a statewide basis, although the program was first launched in New Haven.

New Haven saw 34 homicides in 2011, the highest crime rate in two decades.

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