Hannah Qu, Contributing Photographer

New Haven has launched a new gun violence prevention program aimed at helping formerly incarcerated adults who are at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of gun violence.

On April 14, Mayor Justin Elicker, joined by Community Services Administrator Mehul Dalal and Department of Community Resilience Acting Director Carlos Sosa-Lombardo, along with a coalition of community, city, state and federal partners, announced the first phase of a new gun violence prevention initiative by the New Haven Office of Violence Prevention. The initiative, titled “PRESS: Program for Reintegration, Engagement, Safety, and Support,” aims to provide supportive case management for individuals returning from incarceration with a current or prior conviction of a firearm-related offense, as well as for gang or group members who are identified to be at higher risk of involvement with firearms. But several local activists argued that the initiative was merely a bandage to a problem that stemmed from a lack of social support.

“The theme of the day is collaborating together to solve the challenges that our community faces.” Elicker said at the press conference. “This program is very connected with what we see, oftentimes every week and today, the challenges that we see are a smaller group of people are involved in significant problematic behaviors.”

In recent years, the city has seen a rise in gun violence cases.

Twenty-five homicides took place in 2021 — the highest record in 10 years. 347 confirmed shots were fired that year, almost one a day on average and a 27 percent increase from the 2020 tally. The 274 confirmed shots fired in 2020 was 81 percent higher than the 151 in 2019. Seventy shots have been fired this year, with 20 non-fatal shootings and two homicides, according to Connecticut Against Gun Violence Executive Director Jeremy Stein.

“This is a public health crisis.” Stein said. “Despite these numbers, we applaud the city of New Haven for recognizing that something else must be done in addition to traditional policing.”

The PRESS initiative is headed by the Department of Community Resilience and partners with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Connecticut (Project Safe Neighborhoods), Connecticut State Department of Correction (DOC), Connecticut Court Support Services Division (Adult Probation Services), New Haven Police Department, New Haven Health Department, Yale New Haven Hospital, Project M.O.R.E, Connecticut Violence Intervention Program (CT VIP) and Project Longevity.

The city has held nine public listening sessions, with the most recent one having taken place last Thursday night, to hear from the communities that have been most affected by gun violence.

The initiative’s goals are twofold: to reduce shooting incidents by fostering collaboration between violence prevention partners and initiatives, and to ​“coordinate service delivery for those at high risk of being perpetrators or victims of shootings,” according to Elicker.

According to Sosa-Lombardo, the first phase of the program commenced three weeks ago.

In the first phase, staff from probation, parole, the New Haven Police Department and the Department of Corrections work together to create a list of recently incarcerated people who have the potential to be involved in gun violence. The list will then be distributed to Project M.O.R.E., Project Longevity or CT VIP. Those groups will collaborate with other service agencies across the city to offer mental health treatment, substance disorder treatment, housing support, job opportunities and other resources.

Meanwhile, a database will be used to track operations and better understand their effectiveness. The New Haven Health Department will take the lead on tracking and analyzing data to create reports for the program.

“PRESS closes the gap in the post-incarceration safety net,” Sosa-Lombardo said.

According to a Thursday press release by Director of Communications Len Speiller, in phase II of the initiative, the state Department of Correction will conduct case management with individuals sentenced in relation to crimes involving guns prior to their release from prison. 

In phase III, he said, a coordinator of the Office of Violence Prevention will be hired by the city and law enforcement training on social network analysis will take place. Speiller wrote in the release that this training aims to “improve data-driven services and operations.”

The PRESS program will also serve gun offenders on probation and parolees by improving their social services support and increasing access to pro-social activities.

“Through this whole system approach, we are putting people at the center, we’re stepping up in social services, while law enforcement can focus on targeted deterrence and enforcing the law.” Sosa-Lombardo said.

NHPD Assistant Chief Karl Jacobson noted that years ago they tried to pair people who were recently released at the police station with officers, which is not the right approach as “when you get out of jail, the last thing you want to do is go to the police station and meet police.” Jacobson said that having non-police involvement in this program is the “right approach.”

New Haven currently has a series of programs that aim to help people at risk of gun violence. Youth Connect focuses on youth that are at high risk of getting involved in violence, Project Longevity works with curbing gang violence by supporting members and Project M.O.R.E. provides reentry services such as housing, mental health services, substance use disorder services, employment, clothing and other basic needs.

When asked about the difference between PRESS and existing programs like Project Longevity and Project Safe Neighborhoods, Sosa-Lombardo said that while Project Longevity helps gang members in the form of call-ins and conferences, PRESS enables state law enforcement to “tap into ​the existing networks” at Project M.O.R.E. and CT VIP with case managers, street outreach and peer support specialists.

A number of local activists characterized the new initiative as disappointing in its reliance on law enforcement and its failure to engage with community-run gun violence prevention efforts in the city.

Manuel Camacho, youth president of anti-violence group Ice the Beef and a junior at James Hillhouse High School, noted that his organization had not been contacted for input even once during the initiative’s planning process, despite being a strong activist presence in the city for over a decade on this issue.

Although Camacho applauded the initiative’s intentions to support the reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals into the community, he questioned whether the priority of “collaboration” would truly be fulfilled. He warned of a scenario in which the program would simply become a monopoly between City Hall and statewide organizations like [CT Against Gun Violence] and CT VIP, urging the city to engage a wide variety of groups with experience doing ground-level work in the community. 

Like Camacho, Barbara Fair, a social worker and activist with Stop Solitary CT, had not been consulted in the initiative’s planning process and did not know of anyone else who had. She emphasized that the program was the “same old suspects, same old programs” — working with the Department of Corrections, Project Longevity, and the police department instead of community groups.

“I was disappointed, as I usually am when these so-called programs come together, because [PRESS] didn’t focus on addressing the root causes of crime and violence, which primarily is poverty or lack of opportunity, mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness,” Fair said. “It’s just always disheartening that we continue to do the same old thing and expect a different result.” 

Fair told the News that instead of focusing solely on post-incarceration reentry, the city should also invest in preventing youth from going through the prison system in the first place, as well as address injustices and racial bias in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, Fair said, existing probation and parole programs do not help residents feel supported, but “instead, they feel policed.”

At the press conference, Jacobson provided a brief update on the shooting incident that took place outside of Reggie Mayo preschool on Goffe Street on Tuesday afternoon.

According to Jacobson, 23 shots were fired in total. The three individuals that are suspects and were apprehended are all known to the NHPD, and two of them are juveniles. 

“This is exactly the type of individual that can be supported and held by this type of program,” Jacobson said. “Someone that’s known to us as someone that has a history of engagement in problematic behavior, that we want to work to help support to prevent future incidents of violence.”

Referencing the same incident, Camacho argued for the importance of initiatives, like those similar to Ice the Beef, that focus on preventative programming and support for youth.

Like Fair, Camacho said that PRESS does not seem to address the root causes of the issue at hand. He argued instead for an approach that cuts off the cycle of violence before incarceration. 

“Imagine if it could have been different, if those three teenagers were not on the streets but instead were in a program that helped foster their passions, their dreams, and their aspirations in life,” said Camacho. “If we have these things, we can truly get work done. A lot of times, these entities just overlook that, that simple factor.”

The City of New Haven is using federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) dollars to fund the initiative.

Sylvan Lebrun is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor, and covered City Hall and nonprofits and social services in the New Haven area. She is a junior in Pauli Murray College majoring in Comparative Literature.