A yearly state grant is helping local police departments partner with community organizations to keep teenagers and young adults away from drugs and gangs.
Three local communities – Lawrence, Haverhill and Methuen – have again received funding under the state's Sen. Charles E. Shannon, Jr. Community Safety Initiative, which provides money for programs targeting and attempting to prevent youth gang violence.
But Shannon grants go beyond simply helping police officers with enforcement on the streets. The funding has allowed police departments to partner with community groups such as the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs to bring programming to at-risk youth that puts them on a more positive path, from homework help to open gyms to a junior police academy.
“We're going to be here for law enforcement no matter what,” Haverhill police Deputy Chief Anthony Haugh said. “With the different programs we have, these allow us to interact with these at-risk youth in an environment other than just on the street. It allows us to actually try to make a difference in their lives.”
On Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker and Secretary of Public Safety and Security Dan Bennett announced this year's Shannon grants. In total, $5.7 million was awarded to 15 communities and 11 research partners to aid their efforts in combating community gang violence.
Lawrence received $221,216 in funding, while Haverhill and Methuen, which share their funding, received a total of $82,667.
Shannon grants are awarded to communities based on factors including crime rate, a demonstrated high level of youth violence and gang problems, whether a community has a comprehensive plan to work with multi-disciplinary partners, and a commitment to coordinated prevention and intervention strategies. They are administered through the state Executive Office of Public Safety with funding made available in the fiscal year 2017 budget.
In Lawrence, the police department works with several partners including the YMCA, YWCA, Boys & Girls Club, the Lawrence-Methuen Community Coalition – which in turn works with Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, ACT Lawrence, Lawrence Family Development and Education Fund and Change the Play. Lawrence police then run their own programs under the grant, including a junior police academy in the summer, directed patrols and “Operation Nightlight,” where officers and juvenile probation officers conduct checks on individuals serving probations, said Amanda Wall, who coordinates the Shannon grants for the Lawrence Police Department.
Shannon grants are targeted at those ages 10 to 24, and Lawrence's programs are tailored accordingly. For instance, patrols target “hotspots for individuals of that age group where the office has found there are crimes being committed,” Wall said. The YMCA has a teen achievers program, while the YWCA has specific programs in schools on domestic and teen violence, educational programs and provides individual counseling as needed, she said.
“The aim specifically of the Shannon grant is to reduce gang violence,” Wall said. “The programs that are funded under the Shannon grants are both aimed at prevention and intervention to address individuals who may be at risk before they act on those types of at-risk behaviors.”
By placing youths in more positive programs during times when they're most likely to engage in youth violence, typically after school and in the early evening, Wall said, “this will prevent youth that may fall into those categories – if they don't have some type of positive programming to go to – from turning toward either violence or criminal behavior.”
The Shannon Community Safety Initiative also provides funding to research partners that aid police and local organizations in combating community youth and gang violence. UMass Lowell received $24,993 as the research partner for Lawrence, and another $24,993 as the research partner for the combined Haverhill and Methuen effort.
That funding went toward developing a risk assessment tool that's being used this year to help police and community organizations identify at-risk kids that should be in Shannon-funded programs, Wall said.
“This is a new tool that's being used to basically help direct the Shannon funds so they're reaching the youth that are most deserving and most in need of this type of funding,” Wall said.
Haverhill and Methuen
Shannon grant funding is implemented similarly in Haverhill and Methuen. The police departments work jointly on enforcement and then separately partner with organizations within their communities on programming.
Methuen police Chief Joseph Solomon said the police departments work together on undercover drug enforcement and interdiction. They have also focused efforts on anti-gang activity, particularly around The Loop in Methuen, where police “were having issues with groups of gangs from other cities being able to come in and try to infiltrate our youth,” Solomon said.
“It actually impedes gang members' ability to recruit when we have officers working anti-gang, talking to kids about getting jobs, don't do drugs and gangs,” he said.
Haugh, of the Haverhill Police Department, said police don't just work to steer kids clear of drugs and gangs, they also seek to help those who have already become involved with gang activity.
“We work with some that are in gangs to try to give them an alternate path, some that are on the fringe, to keep them clear of drugs and gangs – in a way to try and draw them back out of it,” Haugh said.
Within Haverhill, the police department partners with organizations including the Haverhill Boys & Girls Club, the YWCA, Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School and the Power of Self Education (POSE) Inc.
POSE, a group in the Mount Washington area, has sessions on life skills, while the Boys & Girls Club offers everything from summer programs to career-launch programs, Haugh said. The Whittier school also has an “above the influence” program, he said.
Methuen police partner with Methuen Arlington Neighborhood (MAN) Inc. -- a nonprofit that works to improve the economic, educational and social levels of low- to moderate-income city residents -- to run a homework center and other activities including a summer basketball program and a summer outing.
“We talk about working with the community and this is what helps us keep the homework center open and staffed, helps us run the police athletic league,” Solomon said.
The Methuen police chief said the homework center was important in helping to “break the cycle of gangs and gang membership” by getting kids off the streets in the afternoon and into the homework center “where they're supervised and doing positive things.”
“I think that side of the Shannon grant is way more important than investigation on the street side,” Solomon said. “We'll always find money to get out on the street, but we don't always find money to police recreational leagues and homework centers.”
Both Solomon and Haugh expressed how the Shannon grant programs also help humanize police officers to youth.
“We don't want just the stigma of law enforcement,” Haugh said. “Right now they just see us as police officers. We want them to see the compassion we have, the humanistic side of what we do.”