Jean-Pierre Brice has spent most of his 40 years in Chester. As a kid, he made mistakes, some that landed him in a state prison cell. As an adult, he’s tried to reach out to the next generation of kids making those mistakes. The success, he said, has been mixed.
“A lot of them really feel like it’s hopeless,” Brice said in a recent interview. “Like they have nothing that they really want more than to hurt people. Because it’s what their friends do. It’s what his uncle did, or what his cousin did. It’s passed down through lineage.”
Programs offering alternatives to kids raised in neighborhoods beset by poverty, drugs, and violence are nothing new to Delaware County’s lone city. Many have been met with cynicism and sometimes distrust by the community they’re intended to serve.
But Brice is hoping that a new initiative from the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office will break this streak. Set to debut next month, the Chester Partnership for Safe Neighborhoods (CPSN) will take, as District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer described it, a “carrot-and-stick” approach to curbing gun violence in Chester.
Brice, as community resource consultant, will be the program’s on-the-ground resource, spreading its message to Chester’s young people from a perspective they can understand.
“Somebody has to want to listen,” he said. “These kids don’t want to be a detriment to their lives and their families' lives. So, you know, you have to give options."
Modeled after the focused deterrence program used in such major cities as Philadelphia, Boston, and Indianapolis, CPSN will target the small percentage of Chester’s population that commits the majority of its violent crime. Through regular call-in meetings, prosecutors from Stollsteimer’s office will meet with young people in the city deemed to be at risk of being affected by gun violence and tell them the penalties for carrying guns will be steep — and shared..
If one member of a neighborhood crew is carrying a gun, for instance, police will be vigilant toward the people they’re known to associate with, assuming that they, too, are armed. The week after a shooting, the county sheriff’s office might prioritize serving warrants, even low-level ones, in the city, or stiffen probation reporting requirements for associates of the alleged shooter.
But the program will also extend another option. If a teen surrounded by criminal activity wants help getting stable housing or food for his family, that can be arranged through the county’s Department of Human Services at the call-in meetings. The department can also open the door to longer-term aid, like GED classes, trauma therapy, or jobs.
“We hope that that young person, because we’re doing such great work clearing cases, might stop and think: ‘Well, wait a minute, I’m going to get arrested. I’m actually going to go to jail. Maybe I should stop,'" Stollsteimer said. "And if we can stop them because we’re giving them a better alternative, or we can stop them because we’re going to arrest his ass. It doesn’t matter to me.
“But at the end of the day,” he said, “we got to get them to stop shooting each other.”
As of Thursday, Chester had seen 26 homicides this year, compared with 18 in all of 2019. For a city with a population of about 34,000, that’s a per capita murder rate that eclipses both Philadelphia’s and Camden’s.
Conversely, shootings are down significantly in the city, to a point not seen since 2015, according to Deputy District Attorney Matthew Krouse, one of the prosecutors overseeing CPSN.
The program represents the first time a data-driven approach has been taken to combating gun violence in Chester. Krouse, a veteran of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, aims to use intelligence gathered from the Chester Police Department during its investigations to create a list of the most at-risk young adults in the city — “people most likely to shoot or be shot,” he said — who will then be invited to the call-in meetings.
But the work goes beyond that. Prosecutors, county detectives, and city police are now meeting weekly to review active shooting cases, a level of collaboration that Krouse says was nonexistent before Stollsteimer took office in January. Federal resources are also being tapped, and, when appropriate, cases may be referred to the higher court for prosecution.
“It helps our office and it helps DHS by putting the resources that already exist into the hands of the people that need them the most,” Krouse said. “But there are going to be some individuals that have no interest in being involved in this program or taking advantage of what we’re trying to offer. And so naturally anytime you pull the trigger, there has got to be consequences to those actions.”
The concept of focused deterrence at the core of Delaware County’s new initiative was the brainchild of David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a graduate of Swarthmore College who has spent time studying Chester and its history.
Kennedy, in an interview last week, said the city, like many others, is dealing with violence as a result of failed economic and housing policies forced on it from the outside. Poverty brings trauma, he said, which in turn breeds the desperation that can lead some people to pick up guns.
He applauded Stollsteimer and his office for taking a targeted approach, focusing on the specific, rather than attacking the city generally.
“It’s a way in which people in authority can say, ‘We’ve gotten this badly wrong, we’ve done things wrong here,’” Kennedy said. "We’ve said these are dangerous communities full of bad people, and we know with scientific certainty that that’s not right.
“And places like Chester, with all the bad things done to it, has raised its children in a way that almost no one in it is at risk for violence,” he added. “We should celebrate this community, rather than malign it."
Alexia Clark supports that philosophy. As director of the Chester Community Coalition, she has overseen trauma therapy sessions for about a year, dealing directly with families torn apart by gun violence.
She supports the ideas being touted by CPSN, having seen similar efforts find success in Camden. The emphasis on offering a better way, a safer way, for at-risk youth, can be the foundation of substantive change in Chester.
“Trauma is at the root of so much of the violence and the retaliation that happens," Clark said. "And we need to take steps to try to address that so that people are better able to handle it. Trauma has to be part of the equation, healing has to be part of that equation, and we are happy to support folks who are willing to take that step.”