Prevention and intervention are the keys to curbing gang violence, and effective solutions require a collaborative approach based on shared data, according to panelists discussing “Confronting Gang Violence: Lessons from Massachusetts and Beyond” at Suffolk University on Oct. 2.

The discussion, an outgrowth of a statewide initiative to put best practices in gang suppression to work in Massachusetts communities, began with an overview of the multi-faceted problem:

•Only a small percentage of individuals in urban communities become involved in gangs.
•Gangs are responsible for committing a large portion of crime.
•Most gang members are part of a high-risk population who may use drugs and alcohol, practice unsafe sex and have mental health issues.
•Many gang members have been victimized repeatedly in their lives.
•Gang members are not connected to pro-social organizations like schools, and they do not have relationships with caring individuals who can promote positive change.
•This is a social and public health issue requiring state, city, nonprofit and community collaboration.
•Suppression isn’t the only answer.
Suffolk Professors Erika Gebo of the College of Arts and Sciences and Brenda J. Bond of the Sawyer Business School, co-editors the recently published book Looking Beyond Suppression: Community Strategies to Reduce Gang Violence, moderated the discussion.

Research leaders

“The issue of gang violence is of critical importance to cities across Massachusetts and across the nation,” said Suffolk University President James McCarthy. “Professors Bond and Gebo are research leaders in this field. Their work illustrates Suffolk’s continuing engagement beyond the walls of the school to generate knowledge and to take action for safe and healthy communities.”

Implementing best practices

Massachusetts implemented best practices delineated in the Comprehensive Gang Model through the Shannon Community Safety Initiative grant program administered by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. The Shannon Initiative and the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative, or SSY, were created to develop anti-gang strategies by strengthening partnerships with local officials, law enforcement professionals, hospitals, community organizations, schools, and faith based groups.

“It is clear that we cannot take a ‘best practice’ and deposit it into a community,” said Mary Elizabeth Heffernan, Secretary of the Massachusetts Executive office of Public Safety and a Suffolk University alumna. “Our job is to identify the biggest needs and create a program of services to address them.”

Sen. Michael Rodrigues, (D-Westport), Chair of the Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities Committee said that the “the collaboration fostered by Shannon and the SSY has made a difference” in the ongoing effort to curtail gang violence.

“It is enlightening to have representatives from schools, churches, police, and nonprofit organizations come together to meet with me,” he said. “They are not advocating as individual groups. They are concerned about sustaining the work they are doing together.”

Sgt. Miguel A. Lopez of the Worcester Police Department and Andrea Perry, executive director of YouthConnect, also took part in the discussion.

The panel discussion gathered together the resources of the University’s Center for Crime & Justice Policy Research in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Moakley Center for Public Management in the Sawyer Business School and the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service in the Law School.