"We went straight to the guys on the corner and asked 'how can we make this work'," says Richard Garland, recently tapped by the county to head its new Violence Prevention Initiative in four Pittsburgh neighborhoods. "We're going to the guys who are part of the problem and making them part of the solution."
Garland, a reformed gang member and ex-convict from Philadelphia, is on loan from his post heading Allegheny County's YouthWorks, a mentoring, tutoring and job-placement program for at-risk youth. One man Garland has recruited from the streets so far is Taili, of the North Side, who says he "guarantees that we'll make a difference in the community" because, after all, "we've already been making differences in the community -- just not all good ones."
Taili and fellow "community coordinator" Marty (neither of whom wished to provide last names) say that of the record-tying 118 homicides last year they know those involved in at least half of them -- and claim they could probably have stopped about a third of them. But they had no backup.
Now with Garland and the assistance of county and law enforcement officials up to the federal level, Taili says that in five years Pittsburgh can start a "Come Back Home" campaign for those who've fled these neighborhoods to other cities due to the violence.
In the mid-'90s Garland was instrumental in brokering the truce between the Crips and Bloods street gangs, not just here but nationally. In the past decade he's become one of the go-to guys when city violence gets out of hand. Now Garland wants government officials to go to those best qualified to deal with the criminal element: ex-criminals.
As a first move, the new program's community coordinators will be sent out to the initiative's four focus neighborhoods -- the Hill District, Beltzhoover, the North Side and St. Clair Village -- where they will work with community organizations already in place.
Erin Dalton, who has conducted research for both the former and current county executives, surmises that there are thousands of illegal firearms floating through the hood. Seizures and buyback programs can pick up only a small fraction of these. More effective is to stop a retaliation or a disagreement before it happens, which is where the community coordinators will come in -- talking with the hustler upset over invasions of territory, or the one who's just been robbed, or the woman upset after seeing her boyfriend with another woman -- and quelling disputes before they escalate. Such disputes contributed to last year's near-record county homicide rate.
"This is my last shot to go legitimate and my opportunity to do something good in my community," concludes Taili. "Otherwise, I could end up one of those statistics."