Yale News

An unconventional crime prevention program, which acts as both a community aid and a law enforcement organization, has garnered attention in recent months as part of a citywide response to increasing gun violence

Project Longevity is an initiative that offers support to at-risk residents but also helps to put them behind bars if they fail to stay out of criminal behavior. It is funded by the state of Connecticut and other nonprofits and has programs in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford. The project got its start in 2012 in the Elm City, when it was implemented with the goals of reducing gang gun violence and reconciling communities with law enforcement, according to the New Haven project manager Stacy Spell. But some community activists objected to the program’s close association with law enforcement. 

“Project Longevity is a nontraditional, innovative law enforcement initiative,” Spell said. “This means speaking to [young people] with love, speaking to them as a father, as a grandfather, as an elder, as someone who cares. … We want to see them safe, we want to see them alive, we want to see them not incarcerated because our communities and their families are better off when they are a part of it.” 

The methodology of Project Longevity, Spell said, has been so effective in New Haven that people have traveled from across the United States and from other countries to observe the “collaborative approach” to crime prevention. The program is split into three progressive levels of action, all based on direct police engagement with those at risk of becoming involved in future violence. 

The first level is a “call-in” — a mandated one-hour presentation where Project Longevity workers speak directly to selected individuals under probation or parole. According to Spell, in addition to sending the core message that they want them “safe, alive and not incarcerated,” they also give participants the opportunity to ask for whatever would help them fulfill that goal. 

With its funds, Project Longevity provides career training, housing, food, addiction services and other essential needs to those that they reach out to through call-ins. 

The second step of the methodology, for those who continue to be associated with crime and gang activity after their call-ins, is known as “custom notification.” In this situation, Spell said, he will show up at the individual’s door along with law enforcement and community members, emphasizing again that there are “consequences” if the behavior is continued, and that Project Longevity is there to help them. 

If the individual still commits crimes after these interventions, then the third step of Project Longevity comes into play — the individual will be found and arrested.

Spell said if an individual from Project Longevity is reincarcerated, he believes that he and his team “failed” by not being able to connect with them. However, he said that some cases cannot be solved through the program’s approach of engagement. 

“There are some individuals who are going to have to be incarcerated because they are socially unfit for society,” said Spell. “If [an individual] was identified as being in a shooting … that’s when the push is put on and that a plan is derived to reach them so that hopefully we can make an impact again, and if [they] have to be arrested, [they’ll] be arrested.”

The New Haven Police Department works closely with Project Longevity. Spell attends intelligence meetings four days a week with police chiefs, where they jointly go over recent crimes and identify how to deal with those involved.

Spell himself has a background in law enforcement as a retired NHPD detective who investigated homicides, narcotics and guns. 

“Project Longevity is a law enforcement initiative, as much as people want to say that it’s this or that,” Spell said. 

Some community leaders in the city voiced criticisms about Project Longevity’s methodology and its close ties to the police department. 

Jeremy Cajigas, an organizer with activism group Citywide Youth Coalition, said that he had worked with the group when he first started out, but soon realized that he “didn’t necessarily align with their beliefs and ideologies.”

“I think that their work is predominantly focused around police reform and crime response, which to me is a very problematic approach when we’re talking about community safety,” Cajigas said. 

He said that he believed that the city should take a “more preventative approach” that prioritizes de-escalation programs such as the Community Crisis Response Team that do not have such a direct link to the police department and the carceral system.

On the morning of Oct. 13, prior to the police press conference that occurred the same day, Project Longevity held its annual award ceremony. One man who received an honor was Corinthian Hamilton, who had served prison time for robbery and larceny charges before getting in touch with Stacy Spell and Project Longevity upon his release in November 2020. 

Hamilton received bus passes, housing and grocery assistance from the organization, and Spell also helped him find jobs with the Yale New Haven Hospital and the state’s NAACP branch. He is now in recovery from drug addiction, and he said at the ceremony that Project Longevity has been “100 percent everything” to him. 

At the press conference later that day, NHPD Police Chief Renee Dominguez praised Hamilton as a “Project Longevity success story who had taken the services and had changed his life.” 

However, not every Project Longevity story mirrors Hamilton’s. Assistant Chief Karl Jacobson highlighted an individual who was reincarcerated after missing the required Project Longevity call-ins on charges of possessing illegal firearms and narcotics inside a stolen vehicle. He shared at the press conference that after the car was found, a GPS monitoring bracelet placed on the individual was used to trace them to the car and make the arrest. 

Spell explained that in cases such as these, “the GPS becomes a tool” that is used by the combined team of Project Longevity, law enforcement and probation officials. He said that the  measure is meant to “give the individual an out” from criminal activity, given that others are less likely to pressure them to join in on shootings for fears of the gang being caught.

When asked about how many people had been put under GPS tracking by Project Longevity in cooperation with law enforcement, Spell declined to comment. 

Jacobson said at the press conference that he did not believe that the rearrested man was willing to respond to the methodology of Project Longevity, and added that they “didn’t have much hope.”

“[The man] runs with a group that calls themselves the Murderside Brims, I mean, need I say more?” said Jacobson. “This was a Project Longevity situation where we would like to give them services, but the enforcement and the project level actually worked in this way. By monitoring him and keeping track of him we were able to get them in custody, get him with a gun and now he’s safely off the streets.”

Barbara Fair, social worker and activist who works with Stop Solitary CT, expressed concerns with the program. She had “opposed Project Longevity from the beginning,” believing that the approach was much too “law-enforcement heavy,” particularly after she had the chance to listen in on one of the call-ins. 

“We should be providing resources to put them on a different path as opposed to using law enforcement to handle their behavior,” Fair said. She once had the chance to listen in on one of Project Longevity’s call-ins, and said that she “didn’t find it effective at all in trying to reach kids, because it felt like threatening young people who already feel hopeless anyway … threatening them with law enforcement, FBI, police.”

Manuel Camacho, youth president of community crime prevention group Ice the Beef and junior at James Hillhouse High School, said that he had met representatives from Project Longevity at a Nov. 5 meeting on gun violence, attended by Connecticut senators and leaders of community organizations. He said that he admired their use of nontraditional methods and engagement with the community in their efforts to combat crime.

Camacho also said that until this October press conference, he had never heard of Project Longevity’s strategy of tracking participants with GPS as a deterrent. He said that there are “obvious pros to it, but there are definitely equally obvious cons.”

As of Nov. 7, there have been 23 homicides so far this year in New Haven. 

SYLVAN LEBRUN
Sylvan Lebrun reports on City Hall. She previously covered nonprofits and social services in the New Haven area. She is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College majoring in English.