State, U.S. Agency Pitch In On Multi-Pronged Program
April 8, 2005
By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff Writer
Five years after he was
released from prison after a conviction for drug possession and
robbery, 36-year-old Omar Williams sat in the audience Thursday
night as an array of top law enforcement and political officials
spoke out on the need to crack down on gun violence and drug
dealing in Hartford.
When it came his turn to speak, Williams didn't hold back.
"I made mistakes in my life, but when I got out, I chose
to change," said Williams, the father of four children. "But
once you're a felon, you signed your fate. ... I can't get an
apartment. ... No one will hire me, ... I have mouths to feed."
Then Williams directed a question that, to many in the crowd,
went to the heart of one of the city's most pressing problems.
"What's a brother supposed to do?" he asked the panel,
which included Mayor Eddie A. Perez, Chief State's Attorney Christopher
Morano and Kevin O'Connor, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut. "Y'all
don't want me back on the street, selling drugs. What's a brother
supposed to do?"
Perez, who earlier in the day announced that special teams of
police detectives are now scouring Hartford's neighborhoods to
seize illegal guns, stood up and threw the challenge back at
"I have nine brothers, six of them who have been to prison," the
mayor told him. "You don't think I know what it's like?
I can tell you that we will take your name, get your information
and do everything we can to help you. But if there are people
out there willing to spend 24 hours on the street selling drugs,
they should be willing to spend 24 hours looking for a job. It's
up to you."
The exchange between Williams and the mayor set the tone for
a forum that was arranged by the African American Alliance, a
community action group, as a way to dissect the ongoing problem
of gun violence in the city, especially violence among young
people. The forum was scheduled as a follow-up to a meeting held
two months earlier in response to a wave of shootings among young
people in the city's North End.
The forum, which also featured state Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein
and top Hartford police officials, took place a few hours after
Perez held a press conference to highlight his multi-pronged
plan to get guns off the street.
Perez said the plan includes a crackdown on gun trafficking
in the city, most notably by new teams of detectives who last
week began trying to determine where and how guns are coming
Those teams are also being helped by an increased presence of
agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and
Explosives in Hartford. Two additional ATF agents were recently
assigned by O'Connor's office to help Hartford police track all
guns that are seized during the course of patrols and investigations.
They join three ATF agents already helping Hartford police, O'Connor
Besides increased enforcement and prosecution efforts, the mayor
said he plans to do more to help young people who struggle to
go straight after being released from prison.
Besides providing counseling and other services for newly released
convicts, Perez said he also will continue to work to identify
young people across the city who are most vulnerable to making
bad choices. He said he and other community activists have identified
more than 130 young people, some as young as 7 or 8, who are
in danger of becoming criminals, all of whom are being targeted
for counseling or other assistance.
Perez, who was a member of the Ghetto Brothers gang while growing
up in Hartford, and activists Carl Hardrick, Andrew Woods and
Eric Crawford from the city school system, have been going door
to door talking to the at-risk youths and their parents.
At the forum at the Rajun Cajun restaurant in the North End
Thursday night, several residents said the efforts by Perez and
other top state and city leaders may be well-intentioned, but
they are likely doomed to failure because of deeper, more serious
problems that have to be overcome.
"You could arrest 1,000 people every day, it's not going
to make a difference," said Johnny Vasquez, a Hartford Housing
Authority worker who said he grew up in New Haven with two parents
who neglected him and his siblings before they eventually died
of AIDS. "My parents failed me. You have parents who are
failing their children, and it's setting off a chain reaction.
Kids need to eat. ... You think brothers want to be picking up
guns? They don't want to be doing this. But they need jobs. They
Leonard Gaston, who has a record of drug-related convictions,
said he struggles to live an exemplary life for his children
in an effort to break the cycle of hopelessness that was passed
on to him.
"I don't want them doing what I did, making the mistakes
I made," he said through tears. "I want them to see
there's another way, but it's hard."
Kevin Brookman, a resident and community activist, said the
mayor's programs and stepped-up police enforcement aren't the
"By the time people like you are involved, it's too late," he
told the public officials. "The problem is parents who aren't
taking responsibility for their kids. You have 116,000 people
in this city, and only 50 show up for a meeting like this. That's
Jennilee Carrasco, a 19-year-old Bulkeley High School junior
who recently was chosen to receive an award from Gov. M. Jodi
Rell for her volunteer work, said she believes efforts by city
officials and activists can make a difference for young people.
She said she's a classic example.
"I used to skip school all the time and I was on the wrong
path, but one of my teachers saw something in me and became my
mentor," she said. "That made all the difference."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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