May 22, 2019
Authorities say the anti-violence initiative has been a success since its inception in 2017.
Law enforcement officials and other authorities said they are seeing positive results from Unified Erie’s anti-violence initiative “call-in” program, which debuted in April 2017 and is modeled after a similar initiative in Kansas City, Missouri.
Entering its third year, the program brings together people, classified as invitees, who have been identified by law enforcement as being involved in gun violence and other incidents of violence, or associated with others involved in crime.
Call-in events take place in churches or community centers, where invitees listen to numerous speakers from law enforcement, social services, elected officials and people impacted by crime and violence. Speakers urge participants to re-evaluate questionable choices they have made, end their violent behavior and adopt a law-abiding life.
Unified Erie held its fifth “call-in” program on Wednesday at the New Life Spirit and Revival Center, 315 E. Ninth St., in Erie.
“Because of the success we have seen in reducing to zero the number of gang-related or group-related homicides since this program’s inception, we know we can maybe change what we’re doing a little bit, and we’ve done that by directing the focus to gun-related violent crimes,” Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri said. “We’re glad there aren’t homicides, but people in the city and the county still don’t like the fact that they might hear gunshots in their community, or see someone shot and bleeding on their sidewalk. The call-in now has focused not so much on group-related activities, but specifically violent crimes.”
Twenty people between the ages of 14 and 29 were invited to Wednesday’s event. Six males showed up, sitting in the front row near an assemblage of posters depicting photos of Erie homicide victims.
Each of the 11 speakers addressed the youths for several minutes, emphasizing a message to “remain safe, alive and out of prison,” and they encouraged the participants to take advantage of assistance the program offers.
“Our message is they have a chance to get help,” Erie Bureau of Police Chief Dan Spizarny said. “If whatever is causing you to lead a life of crime or go down the wrong path, there is help here. There are agencies partnering with us. We’re telling you, ‘Hey, you’re on our radar. We know you’re involved in stuff.’ Take this help. Do you need housing, transportation, do you need a job? What is it we can help you with to make you successful so you don’t go down the life of crime. If they choose not to accept our help, then, unfortunately, we become the hammer and they’re going to meet law enforcement.”
Spizarny believes the program has significantly helped reduce city gang violence since spring 2017.
“We hope Unified Erie and these call-ins are part of that whole strategy of addressing the violence and gun crime, and right now, things are on a good path,” Spizarny said. “We think it is a well-thought-out program that is seeing success.”
Once the targeted invitees attend a call-in program, they have the option of pursuing assistance from the Erie County Re-Entry Services and Support Alliance, which helps those who have been released from prison acclimate to society.
“As far as individuals, there have been a few from this call-in program we’ve been able to work with who have found jobs and have put their life in an independent and stable track,” said Sheila Silman, ECRSSA program manager.
Her organization helps program participants find work, obtain their GED, assist with job training, or help obtain mental health, drug and alcohol treatment services.
“We’ll help the individual access and obtain whatever it is they need,” Silman said. “No one is told they must take the help and enter our program, but they are told they need to come to the call-in event and hear the message. That’s usually what the incentive is.”
Thirteen participants attended the first call-in event in April 2017. The second call-in event in November 2017 attracted four participants. That number increased to 15 attendees for the third call-in event in May 2018. Three invitees attended the fourth program in January.
Those who participated in Wednesday’s session were not identified and were not made available to the media for interviews.
Michael Outlaw, the city of Erie’s community liaison, said the program participants “understand this isn’t the same old system in play.”
“We want the best for these kids,” Outlaw said. “It’s one thing to attend the call-in, but it’s another thing to receive the help being offered. Whatever these individuals need, the help is there. The call-in is step one. Step two is the the follow-through, which lends to longevity and long-term success. The follow-through with the case managers is critical to the success of this program.”