Dec 17, 2010 Ami Olson Uncategorized
Last week, The Eagle reported on an effort to establish a comprehensive assessment of gangs in Syracuse. This week we bring you a conversation with Syracuse Police Sgt. Thomas Connellan.
It’s tough to hear Syracuse police Sgt. Thomas Connellan say that Syracuse doesn’t experience a lot of innocent victim crime, just weeks after 20-month-old Rashaad Walker Jr. and 19-year-old Kihary Blue were shot to death in separate, but connected, incidents.
A cycle of retaliatory gang violence in the last few months has shaken the Syracuse community and once again raised concerns about youth violence, the safety of residents and the future of the city, with Rashaad and Blue’s deaths raising red flags about whether violence once contained to gang members has spilled over into the rest of the community.
But Connellan, who leads the Syracuse police Gang Violence Task Force, says Syracuse remains a secure place.
Even in these two cases, the connections to gangs became clear, and have been blamed for both deaths — baby Rashaad’s father, Rashaad Walker Sr. is a member of the 110 gang; Blue was riding in a vehicle with several members of the Bricktown gang when he was shot.
“We’re not looking for people to panic,” Connellan said. “Syracuse is a safe city, we don’t have a lot of random violent crime. A lot of people involved are people that are involved in gang activity.”
Does that mean gang activity is on the rise?
Not necessarily. In a study released in 2005, the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department reported 28 known gangs in the city of Syracuse.
Connellan said despite the seeming increase in gang activity in the last few weeks that number is probably still accurate five years later, though he would not give an exact figure for existing gangs in 2010.
Because of the ongoing nature of gang investigations, Connellan said simply, “we have information on a lot of different gangs.”
Parts of the South and West sides have remained the most active areas, though gangs have shown a presence on the North Side, too. But there are still many neighborhoods in Syracuse that are relatively untouched by gang activity, according to Connellan.
And Syracuse is certainly not above average for gang activity, Connellan said.
“This is a problem that is throughout the country,” he said. “This isn’t just Syracuse.”
Rochester, for example, has struggled with an explosive gang environment for years, implementing “Operation Ceasefire” in 2004 to address the skyrocketing homicide rate in the city linked to drug dealers and gangs.
And like Rochester’s initiative, Syracuse launched a new effort to promote community policing through an anonymous gun tip hotline.
The city and police department unveiled the hotline and corresponding advertising campaign Monday Dec. 13, to encourage cooperation from the community.
But crime is not at an “all time high,” Mayor Stephanie Miner said.
“Unfortunately, we have seen crime that has taken our breath away be at an all-time high,” she said.
Something like a family
Connellan said the appeal of gangs to urban youth goes hand in hand with the breakdown of the family structure.
“A lot of kids getting involved in gangs don’t have any real family and this takes that place,” Connellan said. “And along with that comes a lot of bad stuff.”
A lack of supervision at home opens the door to gang affiliation.
The Gang Violence Task Force, which includes county, state and federal law enforcement in addition to the city police, works toward securing federal indictments for gang members using RICO laws, and it’s been successful in sending more than 100 gang members to federal prison since 2003.
But the federal government can’t really prosecute juveniles, said Connellan.
“We take out adults but these kids are ready to step up and fill their shoes,” he said. “They don’t think about the consequences, the fact that they might actually kill somebody, that it’s really two lives lost, if not more.”
It has been more than a year and a half since a dozen Syracuse gang members were federally indicted in June 2009, but Connellan said the focus of the Gang Violence Task Force has stayed the same:
“Our message is, if you’re involved in gangs you can be sure we’re coming after you,” Connellan said.