Shelia Pittman lost her son nearly two years ago and it still doesn’t seem real.
Seventeen-year-old Alphonzo Pittman was one of two people killed in a hail of gunfire in March 2010, in a shooting that authorities said erupted over a relatively minor argument. Alphonzo was defending his sister.
“It seems like a nightmare,” she said Friday. “Every time I think about it, I think I could have lost my daughter, too.”
Her son and the others on his side of the argument were not armed.
“Somebody was going out on the street purposefully to hurt someone,” Shelia Pittman said. “You don’t walk in the street with a gun without intending to hurt someone.”
Alphonzo became one name on a list of victims of gun violence in Schenectady. It’s a list that police, prosecutors and community members are trying to stop from getting longer. They are trying to do it through two new programs, one focusing on youth and diversion and the other focusing on offenders who have already been in the system.
The one focusing on youth, called Limits to Loyalty, has been operating since December, with a series of forums held at schools. The forums include survivors of gun violence and other speakers talking about their lives and what happens when people stay silent instead of reporting weapons, violence or the threat of violence.
The other program, yet to begin, will focus on violent offenders as they are released from prison. The program uses roundtable discussions with parolees and community members, who will try to relay the impact of gun crime on everyone in the community.
The parolee program was part of a pilot program in Chicago, which found that parolees attending the forums were 30 percent less likely to return to prison, according to a summary of the research headed by a Yale Law School professor.
The parolee program is to be the focus of a $150,000 grant announced last month by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. The grant is to be administered by the state Department of Criminal Justice Services. It is to run for one year, with hopes that it could be extended. It is to begin as soon as details are finalized, Schenectady Police Chief Mark Chaires said.
One other project the funds could help support is the local Limits to Loyalty program, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said. Carney and Chaires have been working together on the project. The two, along with mayor Gary McCarthy, recently attended a presentation in Albany on the program.
In both the youth and the parolee programs, the target audiences aren’t simply told guns are wrong, Carney said. Students and past offenders are given reasons why and shown what the real effects of gun violence are on the community, Carney said.
“The thought is that engaging people on a moral level is more effective than merely the threat of punishment,” Carney said.
Gun violence in Schenectady is a persistent problem, with the number of police calls for shots fired hitting as high as 97 in a year. That came in 2009.
The number of victims, those injured by gunfire, was 28 in both 2009 and 2010. Last year, the number of shots-fired calls dipped to 75 but the number of victims held steady at 27, according to police department numbers.
The number of those arrested on weapons charges has remained fairly steady, with a high of 39 in Schenectady County in 2008 and 32 last year.
Deaths from gunfire happen every year. In 2011, two people were killed by gunshots. In one of those cases, in November, the victim’s brother was later accused of trying to retaliate and kill a man he believed was responsible. In 2010, Pittman’s death was one of two just from that incident.
In each incident a life is interrupted or ended, a mother or father having to go on without their child. The programs try to show that each person carrying a gun has the potential to end lives.
In the Limits to Loyalty program, panelists try to get across to the students the need to participate in the community to prevent gun violence.
In the first meeting, held in December, the panel included relatives of those killed by violence, those who were forced to choose between family members and stopping violence, and those who stayed silent, allowing more people to get hurt.
Carney recalled one speaker in particular, who was paralyzed from a gunshot. The speaker chose not to cooperate with police and the same gunman went on to shoot someone else.
The program grew out of a similar one held earlier, Carney said. The main goal is to show students when it is appropriate to “snitch.” The Limits to Loyalty program is through the Community Empowerment Partnership.
Carney said he hopes the Limits to Loyalty program can get some extra funding from the state grant, mainly to cover travel costs of speakers from outside the area.
The main program to be run through the new grant is the parolee intervention program.
That program is based on a Chicago program that used direct contact with parolees as they came out of prison and was designed by professors, including Tracey Meares of Yale University.
The program, called Project Safe Neighborhoods, focuses on offenders who have had a history of gun violence and gang participation. Carney said he understands participation in Project Safe Neighborhoods will be a condition of parole.
Each forum is an hour-long meeting, held in public places such as parks, libraries or schools. Meeting with the offenders are members of local law enforcement, community representatives and service providers. Everyone sits at the same table or group.
“The idea is one of moral engagement with people,” Carney said. “If you spell out clearly what the goal of the community is, and they see that it is more than just authority figures threatening them … they may be more likely to opt out of that behavior.”
The forum has three distinct parts. First, offenders are told of enforcement efforts from police with examples of local cases. Researchers found offenders often knew who police were talking about.
Then, an ex-offender speaks about how he has been able to stay away from crime.
“The speaker’s message stresses the seriousness of the current levels of violence in the community, the problems of intra-racial violence, the truth about gang life … the troubles offenders face when looking for work, and the seriousness of the [Project Safe Neighborhoods] enforcement efforts,” according to a research synopsis of the Chicago program.
Steven Mollette has been dealing with the consequences of gun violence for almost a decade.
His daughter Unishun Mollette, a student at Schenectady County Community College, was killed in September 2003, as she sat in the rear seat of a car on Stanley Street. She wasn’t the shooter’s target.
Mollette’s story has been a natural for the Limits to Loyalty series. The father participated in the first forum in December and has continued. Mollette said he sees the parolee program also as a positive force.
“No matter what form it can have an impact on our young adults, and more so on the community,” Mollette said.
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