- Unified Erie, launched in 2011 to reduce gun violence, gets boost with $1.6 million state grant
- Initiative, which includes DA’s Office, Erie police, will use money to address crime among younger juveniles, including those in middle school
- Increase in gang violence also concerns Unified Erie officials
Since its inception more than a decade ago, Unified Erie, the broad anti-violence initiative, has focused on curbing gun violence primarily among teenagers and young adults.
Unified Erie’s focus is looking to address those of an even younger age.
It is preparing to hold interventions with middle school students.
Unified Erie is making the change as younger juveniles have become increasingly involved in shootings during the pandemic, officials said.
“We need to go even younger,” said Erie County District Attorney Elizabeth Hirz, who helps coordinate Unified Erie. “High school is not enough. We need to address kids at a younger age.”
“Right now,” said Erie Police Chief Dan Spizarny, and another key official in Unified Erie, “we are looking at some very young kids.”
Aiding the efforts is a two-year, $1.6 million grant the District Attorney’s Office is receiving to fund programs aligned with Unified Erie.
Administration of the grant, from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, moved forward on Thursday.
Erie County Council’s Finance Committee approved an ordinance to create the budget structure for the county to manage the money on behalf of the District Attorney’s Office, where Chief Erie County Detective Mark Schau and County Detective Anne Styn handled the grant application. Council is expected to give final approval to the ordinance at its meeting on Tuesday.
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State officials announced the awarding of the grant on Dec. 1. The grant will fund three main areas under Unified Erie, Hirz and other officials said:
- The Erie County Re-entry Services and Support Alliance, which provides services to help ex-offenders get jobs and become reintegrated with the community after spending time in prison. Re-entry will get the largest share of the grant.
- The Blue Coats peacekeeping initiative and safety team, whose members help counsel Erie School District students and are present in the schools, including Erie High School and elementary and middle schools.
- Overtime and other costs related to Unified Erie’s enforcement and prevention efforts.
Money on way:Erie DA awarded $1.6 million to address gun violence, other Unified Erie crime initiatives
A call-in for younger juveniles?
Unified Erie will also use some of the money to continue to fund its signature events — “call-in” intervention sessions, where law enforcement officials and members of social service agencies meet with offenders to try to steer them away from crime.
Unified Erie has held five call-ins since April 2017. It most recently held a call-in on Nov. 9. Before then, it last held a call-in in December 2019, months before the pandemic took hold.
At the next call-ins, to occur in the spring and fall, Unified Erie plans to address the rise in violence among children of middle school age, the officials said. That could mean holding a call-in where only children of middle-school age participate.
“Nothing is off the table,” said Amy Eisert, director of the Mercyhurst University Civic Institute, which provides data analysis and other supports for Unified Erie.
Unified Erie’s call-ins have included large numbers of juveniles, but not at the level contemplated for a call-in for younger children, Spizarny said. He said the Erie police’s new Juvenile Detective Unit will get involved as the police and other agencies gather data to determine who should get invited to a call-in.
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The names of younger children “will be vetted through the data process to see if their names continue to come up” in relation to problems on the street, Spizarny said. “If so, it’s something that the coalition of groups will address to see what the best plan is.”
“It will be critical to contact the guardians of these children and have them participate,” Spizarny said.
He said Unified Erie would modify the format for a call-in that involves younger children.
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“Right now the call-ins are providing reentry services to people coming out of jail,” Spizarny said. “Those services might not be what those very young kids need, so we have to adjust our offered services.”
Gangs have ‘restructured’
Unified Erie’s organizers also include the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other police and social service agencies. It is designed to use a data-driven approach to identify and address crime through a three-pronged approach: prevention, enforcement and reentry.
Unified Erie has targeted gun violence related to gangs, or what the organizers have referred to as “networks” and “neighborhood groups.” Unified Erie saw some of its greatest success in fighting gangs in 2018 and 2019, when Erie saw no gang-related homicides, a trend that started following the first call-in, held in April 2017, according to police.
Gang-related violence has since increased, along with violence in general, during the pandemic. The rise was particularly sharp during the summer of 2020.
Report from 2018:Unified Erie: Gangs weakening as violent crime drops in city
At least 19 people were wounded and two killed by gunfire in a series of shootings between late May and the beginning of September. The shootings continued through the fall, with three other people killed and at least 10 wounded by gunfire through December.
In terms of gang activity, the pandemic “gave some of the groups an opportunity to restructure,” Mercyhurst’s Eisert said. “I think some of them have restructured differently. We see different names popping up.”
Before and during the pandemic, Eisert said, the programs associated with Unified Erie continued to function with different funding sources. She said the new grant ensures Unified Erie keeps going, “especially at such a critical time.”
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Eisert, Spizarny, Hirz and other officials associated with Unified Erie said they could only speculate on the reasons behind the increase in juvenile crime, especially among younger children, during the pandemic. They said the lack of in-school instruction for extended periods of time could have contributed to a lack of structure that fueled the violence.
Whatever the reasons, “COVID obviously threw us for a loop,” Spizarny said. He added that the gun violence “returned with kind of a vengeance. It got to the younger crowd, something we will work on and adjust to.”
Along with making adjustments with Unified Erie, the Erie Bureau of Police is using federal American Rescue Plan funds to address juvenile crime. The bureau is reinstating its Crisis Unit, to work with social service and mental health agencies to respond to calls for mental health and domestic issues and calls related to Erie’s homeless population.
The bureau is also reinstating its Juvenile Detective Unit. The squad will work with Erie County Juvenile Probation and the Erie School District police to address juvenile crime and prevent juveniles from advancing into more serious crimes, like the ongoing gun violence, Spizarny said.
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The Erie School District is working with Unified Erie, Erie schools Superintendent Brian Polito said. He said he and other district officials are meeting on Monday with Hirz, members of the Blue Coats peacekeeping team, Erie County judges and other officials to discuss “how we can take a comprehensive and coordinated approach to addressing youth gun violence.”
Sticking with a plan
The school district helps fund the Blue Coats. The district has also restructured its police force to shift the officers’ roles away from solely enforcement to building relationships with students and connecting them with social services.
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The Blue Coats coordinator, Daryl Craig, said his group is increasing its attention on preventing violence among children of middle school age — and younger.
“One of the things we know is that by the time they get to middle school, it almost feels like it’s too late,” Craig told the Erie School Board as he briefed the school directors on the Blue Coats’ efforts at a board meeting on Feb. 2. “I know that is a sad statement to make, but according to the statistics and what we’re seeing, it’s kind of true in some cases.”
Hirz, whose office secured the $1.6 million grant, took over coordination of Unified Erie from her predecessor, Jack Daneri, who retired as district attorney at the end of December with two years left in his four-year term. Hirz was Daneri’s top assistant prosecutor.
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The foundation for Unified Erie started in April 2010, when Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Piccinini, now an Erie County judge, invited Daneri and other officials to work with him on a first-of-its-kind local project — a “Unified Youth Violence Reduction Initiative,” based on models used in other American cities. The Erie project’s key element would be a data-driven process for evaluating crime and crime prevention with collaboration from law enforcement agencies and other organizations.
A year later, in 2011, the initiative that turned into Unified Erie started. And nearly a dozen years later, the initiative remains in place.
“I absolutely share in how important this program is,” Hirz said.
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Spizarny, the Erie police chief since 2018, is another advocate for Unified Erie and its data-driven approach. With the rise in violence among younger children, he said he is ready to make changes, especially for having children of middle school age at the call-ins.
“It sure is going to look different that what we’ve done in the past,” Spizarny said.
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