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Crime Series: Shootings Spur Community Response In Pittsfield

Jim Levulis
Pittsfield Police investigate a shooting scene in July 2015.

Our weeklong series on violence in the region continues now. In part two of Crime in our Communities, WAMC’s Berkshire Bureau Chief Jim Levulis reports on Pittsfield, where a few incidents in recent years have raised the awareness of violence in Berkshire County’s largest city.Over the past two years the city of Pittsfield has seen a handful of incidents to which community members have initially responded with calls for change. In August 2014, a 15-year-old boy shot a 17-year-old near the busy intersection of Tyler and First St. in broad daylight. Police said the shooting was gang-related. Having been involved in the city as a community organizer and a police officer for the past 20 years, Chief Michael Wynn says a public meeting later that month that drew 250 people was the largest response he had seen.

“We’re not interested in responding after the call anymore, we’re interested in developing a strategy of intervention,” Wynn said. “That means we need your help. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m concerned. Honestly, I’m more than concerned. I’m at the point of being scared because our investigations are showing that we’re reaching a point where people think it’s OK to not to cooperate. People think it’s OK not to provide information. People think it’s OK to know that something bad is about to happen and not tell somebody.”

That August meeting was put together by the city and the Pittsfield Community Connection. The program was created out of Pittsfield’s Shannon Grant, a state initiative meant to curb youth and gang violence. Pittsfield first received the award in 2013 and the following year hired former United Nations conflict resolution specialist Adam Hinds to coordinate the grant. After the 2014 shooting he spoke about the importance of Community Connection outreach workers, some former gang members, speaking with the city’s youth.

“The good news and the bad news is that teens are talking about this more,” Hinds said. “We’ve been approached by teens who have been concerned about the prevalence or awareness of potential youth violence. The bad news is that it’s a conversation that’s taking place regularly because of the potential for violence. It again presents an opportunity to engage with the youth of the city to see what really can be done.”

Over the past year the program has trained 40 mentors who’ve been paired with an at-risk youth while also creating a single mother’s support system. When applying for the grant, city leadership cited a sharp increase in violent gang activity among members of the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings and other groups resulting in murders, home invasions and weapon-related crimes. Each year Pittsfield’s Shannon Grant award has increased. Before the August shooting Pittsfield Mayor Dan Bianchi spoke with WAMC’s Alan Chartock. Saying headlines in The Berkshire Eagle detail a crime in Pittsfield seemingly every day Chartock asked Bianchi what was creating a crime problem in the city of 45,000. Bianchi says there is a perception that Pittsfield has a crime problem.

“We always have an issue with crime,” Bianchi said. “We’re never going to get away from it; however, it is getting better.”

“Are there gangs, Dan?” Chartock asked.

“Oh sure there are,” Bianchi answered. “But we’re taking steps. Over the last five years our major and most violent crimes…rape, robbery and assaults…are down significantly. Fortunately, we’ve not had a murder in several years. Property crimes are up. Breaking and entering. We have a rash of break-ins to automobiles.”

“So this is drug-related?” Chartock asked.

“Absolutely,” Bianchi said. “That’s something we’ve got to do more about.”

Other incidents like a student who created a disturbance at Taconic High School found to be carrying a gun have reignited talk of youth violence. This past July 4th a multiple gun shooting killed one person and injured four others. The victims’ ages ranged from 20 to 26, but law enforcement have not said whether the shooting was gang related. Once again, more than 100 community members gathered to call for action, this time a block from the shooting site. Mike Summers, an outreach worker with PCC, was among a number of people who spoke.

“As a community we have to step up,” Summers said. “Parents, leaders and officials…we all have a social responsibility to help these children. It’s our duty to. We can’t sit there and let it go by. We have to help them continuously…give them information, guidance and structure.”

In the wake of the July 4th shooting, Mayor Bianchi says the city’s crime fighting efforts are working.

“Things like this from time to time will happen, but as a community the way you attempt to prevent or minimize these things from happening are by changing your community,” Bianchi said. “When I first got elected, I started an expansion of the neighborhood watch programs because while we have tremendous professionals, men and women in the Pittsfield Police Department, they can’t do everything. The community has to take ownership of certain things.”

Like the city of Springfield utilizing Shotspotter, a network of acoustic sensors that pinpoint the location of gunfire and transmit the information within seconds to police dispatchers, the Pittsfield Police Department uses RAIDS Online to allow people to see where crimes happen. Last year the department began posting monthly crime statistics using information from a crime analyst hired in 2013. The information is vetted by state police. According to the July 2014 CityStat, total violent crime was down 24 percent from July’s five-year average. In 2014 Pittsfield did not see a homicide according to the December 2014 report. There were 191 aggravated assaults in 2014, compared to 102 in 2013. The latest report, from April 2015, shows violent crime was 29 percent above April’s five-year average. There were 48 aggravated assaults in Pittsfield in 2015 as of April, compared to seven at that point last year.

In response to the August 2014 shooting, Adam Hinds heard from some people who felt powerless to any uptick in violence. He expressed the opposite.

“One thing that we’ve really been focusing on is this connection between areas that experience a concentration of poverty and those same areas are the ones that have an elevated criminal activity,” Hinds explained. “Traditionally people have said there’s a clear link between the two. More recently research is moving away from that connection of poverty and crime and saying well it’s actually the corollary events such as transient populations. People may not know or trust their neighbors. They may not organize to confront problems they see in the neighborhood. This is an area where we are trying to increase our work this year by deliberately creating social ties amongst neighbors and particularly with youth.”

Mayor Bianchi’s office did not make Chief Wynn available for this story. At a September 2014 public meeting, Wynn, who said he was speaking as a resident, added that the city needs to stop looking elsewhere for answers and pay attention to the work already being done in Pittsfield.

“We’ve got a lot of people doing a lot of work and a lot of duplication and redundant things,” Wynn said. “We don’t know what’s happening elsewhere in the city. We’ve got to start talking between neighborhoods and across neighborhood lines. The police department is in everywhere neighborhood. We meet with Morningside Initiative and Westside Initiative. We meet with 15 different neighborhood watch groups. We see what everybody is doing in the community schools. But you’re not leaving your neighborhoods, you’re not your comfort zone and you don’t know what else is happening here in the city. We can go get more programs from Worcester just like we did with the Shannon Grant, but we’re still going to have to deliver it here.”

Click here for the part one of WAMC’s series on violence in the region, which focuses on Springfield, Mass.  

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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