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The Springfield Police Department’s Mobile Command Center takes up a lot of space. It’s also loud: idling in the parking lot of the South End Community Center on May 21, the engine nearly drowned out Earl Harrington as he assembled the Shannon agency volunteers for instructions about the day’s outreach effort.

The Command Center is ten years old and is a product of the Pierce Firetruck company. That’s why it looks like a fire engine or, at least, like a blue and white hybrid between a fire engine and an RV. The Command Center is outfitted, inside and out, with communication devices. There’s a small meeting room in the back with a smart board on the wall. Through a satellite dish mounted at the rear of the unit, the police department can talk with aircraft, the DPW, ambulances, and the fire department.

“We can run an entire police department out of this place,” one officer told us. It cost $1 million to build, and was paid for through multiple grants. How often did they use it? “Not enough,” the officer said.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing; after all, the unit is designed, first and foremost, to serve as a base of operations during a large scale emergency or mass casualty event. Outside of disasters, it gives the department a chance to have a highly visible presence. Sometimes, you’ll find the Command Center parked in the city’s Club Quarter on busy summer nights. On May 21, the Command Center anchored the starting and ending points of one of the “deployments” that brought volunteers from the Shannon agencies together to hand out informational fliers explaining the Initiative.

The Rogue City, Part Three: Organizing the organizers and hugging your own tree

Chapter I: Reaching out and bringing them in

Audio slideshow: Shannon agencies deploy in the North and South Ends

Chapter III: Yesterday night crime and recursion in Springfield

The Rogue City: Introduction

During the first two years of the Shannon Initiative, Darryl Moss said, many residents had no idea that the services and opportunities funded by the grant existed. “What we’ve been pushing for is to get the agencies to get out on the streets to start disseminating information, to make sure the general public knows exactly what’s going on what types of services are being offered and to let them know that these services are open to the entire community,” Moss said. “For the young people who are on the streets who are potential gang members and gang involved youth, we want to make sure they know we’re here for them. So, we’re hitting the streets. And if they’re not coming to where we are, we’re taking it directly to them.”

Most of the outreach team members wore blue. Earl Harrington wore a three button polo shirt; the other staff and volunteers, including many teenagers, wore t shirts. On the left breast was the Shannon CSI logo; the shape of Massachusetts positioned over the “I” in a way that, intentionally or not, creates an image that looks like a revolver. The flier the volunteers would be handing out referenced the wardrobe: “The People in the light blue shirts,” its headline read.

Aaron Gerena and Donald Jernigan weren’t wearing the shirts, and they stood out. Both were exceedingly well dressed for a long walk on a hot day: Jernigan, a project manager at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, in a pressed, blue oxford, pleated white linen slacks, gleaming shoes; Gerena, the Youth Program Coordinator at at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, in dark taupe slacks and a cream colored, point collar dress shirt. Near the corner of Maple and Union Streets, Gerena’s platoon of a half dozen volunteers, including representatives from the YMCA and the Salvation Army, were reflections in his aviator shades as he explained a few basic principles to follow during the outreach effort. The most important: Don’t talk about gangs.

“When there’s an area that happens to be gang affiliated, you’re coming in and it’s a threat as far as being an anti gang program,” Gerena said when asked to elaborate on that strategy. “So you may get resistance, and they may not even go for the services that have nothing to do with being anti gang which could be medical, which could be housing, you know what I’m saying? So what you want to do is, you want to come in and say, ‘These are the services we have.’ And then when you get them to come to your facility, is when you can talk one on one. Because what happens is, the feeling is that we’re going to come in to infiltrate them and break them apart, and you’re going to get resistance.”

The architecture on the South End blocks is rarely consistent a lot of tall grass and ornate, boarded up brick apartment buildings and a patchwork of vacant lots. The teenage volunteers brought video cameras, distributing informational fliers to everyone they found not just kids in baggy clothing. On Adams Street, they handed pamphlets to a group of people sitting, just sitting, in red car in a triangle shaped driveway, to an older man sitting on a porch, teeth missing, with a thinning, gray mohawk. Spraypainted on the rear side of a wall between Central and Adams Streets is the phrase “Think God.” In a small wedge of driveway tucked between two buildings on Dwight Street Extension, the volunteers gave fliers to some kids in the middle of a basketball game. The lot across the street was gated off, the gravel bed looked still fresh, lighter gray. The building that used to be there, torn down a few years ago, was a bigger drug location in the City.

At the end of the afternoon, the volunteers met in Emerson Wight Park, through which officer Brian Elliot said he routinely chased teenagers. The park’s grass was bright and squint inducing, wide open, with the kind of quiet that seems to absorb nearby sound. The volunteers ate pizza and drank vitamin water under a picnic pavillion whose concrete panel foundation was tagged with miscellaneous graffiti. The Command Center made its way, glacier like, parade float like, up Marble Street,
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and turned into the park. The volunteers looked. A woman with a tattoo on her thigh who had been pushing a baby on a swing looked. Propped against one of the pavillion’s uprights was a white cardboard sign that read, “Thank You Shannon Partners For The Deployments In The South End.”

“A lot of times, I don’t know why, but they’re not informed,” Margie Rivera, a Case Manager for the Spanish American Union, told us during the second outreach walk we attended, in Springfield’s North End. “So I feel that our responsibility as outreach agencies is to reach the community to inform them. A lot of times when we inform them, they’re shocked, because they didn’t know that we had the information, but at the same time, they’re excited that we have something that their youth can go to.”

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the kids to commit to a program. Sometimes, the people on the apartment stoops aren’t interested in what you have to offer; a few people during the outreach effort simply shook their heads when approached by volunteers. Sometimes, Rivera said, that informational flier gets crumpled up and thrown away. Even when help is available, it seems, not everyone wants it. The second year Shannon Grant report notes that “[r]eluctance of at risk or gang involved youth to accept assistance” was reported as a concern by 53% of the law enforcement agencies involved in the Initiative, and by 50% of service providers. “It’s a numbers game,” said Michael Branch, who works as Supervisor of Youth and Young Adult Activities at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center in Mason Square. “And furthermore, it’s about who’s really interested. Because you can pass these out as much as you want, but if the people don’t come through they don’t come through unless they need you.”

Beyond the numbers, there’s also the matter of language. Volunteers had been working on getting the fliers translated into Spanish. But, during the deployment in the North End where the Latino population stands at 75%, and where the Puerto Rican flag is painted side by side with the American flag on the orange wall of a store that sells washing machines only English versions were available. To some, the lack of bilingual materials was an oversight. “Dude, let me tell you something that’s right in front of you,” Branch said. “Why are we in a hispanic neighborhood, and we don’t have Spanish?”

“Amen!” said another volunteer.

He continued: “We can sit, talk, make referrals, whatever you want but if you’re not meeting the community with what their needs are, then obviously we ain’t doing our job!”

$454,105 from the Shannon Grant, or about a third of the money Springfield received from the state, went to the Springfield Police Department this year. That money primarily funds overtime hours for additional investigative duties and patrols of high crime locations, as well as deeper interaction with other Shannon partners. The overtime pay to accompany volunteers is also Shannon funded. During the outreach deployments we attended, Police accompanied the volunteers stopping traffic to let volunteers cross the street; police cars, always just in your blind spot, swerving up to a sidewalk curb, CBs crackling. According to the second year report on the Shannon Grant, over 25,000 overtime hours were logged across 12 Shannon cities (including Springfield), over two thirds of which partook in more community meetings and expanded community policing in high crime areas.

That afternoon in the North End, gunshots split the hot air; there was a shooting at Christopher’s Package Store at Main and Hooker Street. Nobody was hit, and police never found out what caused the gunfight. The officer accompanying the group nonchalantly detoured the volunteers.

Near the corner of Saratoga and Main Streets, during the South End deployment, a group of people sat on the steps of an apartment building. One man made small talk with the volunteers. As the group left, he shouted after them: “The economy’s crazy, man!”

The economy or, more specifically, worry about jobs was a common theme throughout the walk. On High Street, a woman sitting on a stoop a block down from Merrell’s Superette examined one of the fliers, listened to Moss’s pitch, and said she’d give it to her roommate her boyfriend was looking for a job.

“That’s all we’re trying to do, Moss told her. “Keep ’em employed, keep ’em busy, keep ’em safe.”

In a nearby parking lot, a kid sat in the mulched treeline, a BMX bike propped up on a kickstand in a parking space. The kid’s father stood nearby while the kid looked at the flier and Moss explained some of the services the agencies offer. Moss told him that the Puerto Rican Cultural Center was right around the corner, that they could help with employment preparation, job placement, and GED completion. The boy’s father interjected: “Pero ellos lo ensanan o le dan trabajo a uno?” “Do they train you or do they give you a job?”

In June, stood at 8.6%. Springfield’s rate of 11.7% was among the highest of the state’s larger cities, in the company of New Bedford (13.6%), Lowell (11.7%), Lawrence (17.3%), Holyoke (12%), Fall River (13.7%), and Fitchburg (11.9%) all of which are Shannon sites. In the second year of the Shannon Initiative,
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956 kids at 11 sites took part in job placement programs. A total of 506 of those kids 53% secured part time or full time employment.