Safe, Alive, and out of Jail: Newburgh’s Strategy of Intervention
Posted in Proactive Policing | Last Updated April 6, 2020
City of Newburgh police officer Lieutenant Joe Cortez and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office Program Manager Isabel Rojas. Two key members of the City’s Group Violence Intervention strategy to reduce gun violence in Newburgh
The phone is ringing in City of Newburgh police officer Lieutenant Joe Cortez’s office.
In the general office area outside, cops are chatting with each other, typing up reports, talking on the phone.
The room has the restless energy conveyed on every police show since Hill Street Blues.
Cortez picks up the phone and listens to a cop’s report: There may be an incident at NFA, the city’s high school.
As Cortez talks, you have a choice. You can either enjoy the view of the Hudson River out the window or focus on the image on his desktop of a koi fish computer screensaver.
You’re avoiding the appearance of eavesdropping, but you’re hanging on his every word.
When the call came in, this eager, energetic and busy man was just concluding our interview about the Newburgh Police Department’s Community Progressive Response Team’s approach to curbing gun violence as detailed in our story here.
An amazing program, it was built on a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s program, “Project Safe Neighborhoods.”
According to the U.S. government’s Justice Department’s website, Project Safe Neighborhoods “is a nationwide initiative that brings together federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and community leaders to identify the most pressing violent crime problems in a community and develop comprehensive solutions to address them.”
Isabel Rojas, program manager of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office of the Newburgh Group Intervention Program
In the case of Newburgh, the federal grant was issued as part of an overall Newburgh Group Violence Intervention (GVI) strategic initiative.
In a city like Newburgh where violent and gun-related crime is legendary, the GVI method weaves together a triage of active policing, community outreach, and social service assistance in order to curtail, reduce, and eliminate the spread of violent crime.
After finishing his call (false alarm), Cortez wants to make sure he has accurately conveyed the police department’s role in GVI and how Project Safe Neighborhood works in the policing done by the Community Progressive Response Team.
He wants to close the loop by focusing next on the community outreach and social services assistance that are part and parcel of the overall strategic effort.
“You have to talk to Isabel Rojas,” Lt. Cortez insists…
And so he invites her to join us in a follow-up meeting.
A few days later, the meeting commences. Rojas is a pretty, petite woman with a demeanor the opposite of Cortez.
Where he is exuberant, she is reserved. Where Cortez’s lively eyes suggest a thought process that is racing 20 m.p.h. ahead of everybody else, Rojas’s demeanor reveals a person who takes a circumspect approach to life.
Cortez and his team work the streets in an effort to eliminate violent crime. Rojas is on the other side of that effort: she works for David Hoovler, Orange County’s District Attorney.
Under Hoovler, the district attorney’s office offers a program that galvanizes and coordinates community outreach and social services assistance. The program is offered to parolees that Rojas and Cortez are trying to keep safe, alive, and out of jail.
Lieutenant Cortez at the Call In
Focussed Deterrence can mean safe, alive, and out of jail
It’s a frequent refrain in talking to Cortez and Rojas. They work together to keep identified gang members (although they eschew the term “gang”), as they say, safe, alive, and out of jail.
In so doing, in their efforts, they embody in real life a theory advanced by Professor David Kennedy of John Jay College of Criminal Law, known as Focused Deterrence.
Kennedy’s thesis maintains that in most communities with high rates of gun violence (like Newburgh) only a small portion of the population is actually associated with gun violence.
Decades ago, in a study known as Operation Ceasefire, Kennedy proposed that by gathering data on identified small groups and strategizing interventions, a police force and community members could successfully deploy the principles of Focussed Deterrence and thereby reduce crime and have an impact on directing a better course for the entire community.
The ultimate goal? By “pulling the levers” of a framework of direct intervention with offenders, and articulating clear incentives as well as consequences, law enforcement together with the community can decrease violence and increase the quality of life for all.
Consistent, direct communication
With the GVI model, strategies and tactics embrace consistent, direct communication with potential offenders.
Cortez and Rojas accomplish this together (of course, with many, many other members of the police force, the DA’s office, and throughout an extended community of social services agencies).
They deploy outreach strategies by going door to door to meet with gang-involved individuals, and— importantly—they participate together (again, with literally dozens of others) in an event known as a Call In.
Organized by Rojas, these Call Ins gather individuals currently under legal supervision into a tightly regulated and private session typically held at SUNY Orange’s Kaplan Hall in Newburgh where, behind closed doors, an interventionist method with a simple message is delivered.
A message of anti-violence
It is a message of anti-violence, choices, and options.
Isabel Rojas, in her special role as the GVI program manager, works out of the Orange County DA’s Newburgh Office.
She is responsible for organizing Call Ins, delivering custom notifications, and coordinating social services and follow-ups with Call In attendees.
She helps deliver a message of anti-violence to gang-involved individuals who are under supervision.
This message explains why law enforcement is targeting them as well as the legal consequences that the individual, as well as the group, will experience if the violence continues (demonstrated by examples from past enforcement actions), and it is accompanied by an offer of aid.
Individuals (and family members) are approached with care and concern and are linked to the social services agencies that can help bring about a change in the individual, the family, and the larger community.
Police Academy trainees attend the Group Violence Intervention Call-In in Newburgh. Newburgh’s police force
A conversation with identified at-risk individuals
“So you bring in the men, and you are giving them a message: we want you safe, alive, and out of prison,” Rojas explains.
“What the police department does is show them the prior takedowns—anything that has happened in the past—and we let them know, ‘we want you to stop committing the violence’ because we all know that there’s a very small group of people that are committing violence.”
Rojas further describes her role in this way: “I’m going to facilitate between the probation officer and the social services. I’m going to match you with the necessary intervention for your particular profile case, whatever it may be.”
“We are meeting people and saying, ‘Hey, do you have help, for, you know, for the whole family?’ We have to get the whole family, get that structure—the family structure—back on track.
“And we’ve done that. It’s nice to see—I shouldn’t say nice, but it is nice when you go to a parent and they are saying ‘thank you, I want you to help.’”
Rojas’s job is also to make sure that the social services agencies she works with are actually following through, that they’re helping the guys Rojas and Cortez (and his team) have used data to identify.
Rojas observes, “We help them navigate the system. And like the lieutenant (Cortez) always says, we are taking all excuses away. We help them to explore everything that’s available to be able to have a better life.
“So it’s definitely important to follow through, and it’s definitely important to have good people on the team. People that are really passionate about getting this done. In a nutshell.”
Rojas points out that the thing that may be working here in Newburgh, as opposed to other places that may not have the same degree of success in their communities, is the fact that there is a great support system between the police department, the social services agency (especially Exodus of Newburgh, which in many respects acts as a traffic cop directing clients AND the service agencies through the enormous amounts of red tape which that in itself can be a deterrent to success), and the district attorney’s office.
“And we’ve done that. It’s nice to see, I mean, I shouldn’t say nice, but it is nice when you go to a parent and they are saying ‘thank you, I want you to help.’”
A Former Cop
The fact that Rojas is herself a former cop may have a lot to do with the success the program is having.
She knows what the police have to go through; she understands the procedures as well as the emotional precariousness cops experience.
They are doing hard work, going into dangerous situations, and balancing trying to change the direction of lives while at the same time being fully committed to seeing that the law is upheld and justice is served.
Invited to a Call In
SUNY Orange’s Newburgh Campus where the GVI Newburgh Call In takes place
When you arrive at the Call In, you walk past security at the entrance to Kaplan Hall and pass through the vestibule with a view out onto an adjacent patio.
It’s a beautiful building: modern with a soaring atrium.
At the doors to the Kaplan Hall auditorium, police officers stand guard. There is a list, and your name must be on it if you are going through the doors into the auditorium.
The windows to the doors are blacked out with construction paper.
Security is tight, and officers are everywhere. They are polite and respectful as they smile and say hello.
The crowd trickling in is beginning to grow; some take seats, while others stand around at the back of the room.
The front rows are empty. They are reserved for the parolees, and behind them are seats for family and friends.
Behind these seats are police academy trainees in attendance, people from John Jay College, others who appear to be law enforcement, some reporters, and various local politicians.
On this Wednesday, the Call In will begin promptly at 6:00 p.m.
Rojas, in her role as GVI program manager, serves as moderator.
The evening is about to begin, and a quiet descends on the crowd as Rojas takes the podium.
She has a few announcements and establishes rules for the following hour:
- Silence all phones.
- Leave the room if you must, but you will not be allowed re-entry.
- Stand when the attendees enter the room: we are showing them support.
- No photos nor recordings (although this writer and other reporters were permitted to take some photos and record some information so long as the privacy of the individuals is maintained).
The doors suddenly open, and the attendees for whom this whole event is intended begin to enter the room. Police officers are in front of them and as they escorting them in, they are simultaneously blocking them: you can’t make out who the attendees are.
They are quickly seated, their backs to us, and from the vantage point at the back of the room, it appears as though there are twelve men.
Isabel Rojas, all five-foot-five of her (in heels), takes control of the evening.
She starts by giving a brief overview of the program: who will be speaking and what their role is.
She emphasizes what I have come to recognize as the central mission of GVI: the entire Newburgh community wants and needs the attendees to be “safe, alive, and out of prison.”
Rojas calmly advises, “This is not a negotiation. The violence must end.”
A slew of law enforcement representatives, including Lieutenant Cortez, Newburgh Chief of Police Doug Solomon, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, and the Orange County Prosecutor, all address the attendees.
To a man and a woman, all make the same solemn vow:
- We want you safe.
- We want you alive.
- We want you out of prison.
Each presenter also delivers the second message of the one-two velvet-gloved punch:
“If you or anyone in your group commits a murder, we’re coming after the whole group.”
What they also promise is swift retribution for those who refuse to comply.
An Exodus Social Services Agency representative counsels the attendees at a Newburgh GVI Call In. He wants, as all speakers do, to keep the young men safe, alive, and out of jail. He offers them access to social services.
A federal law enforcement representative describes a high-security, solitary confinement bunker, buried two stories below ground and located far away in Utah. He presents a lonely, frightening landscape.
“You will not have visits from family members,” he warns, “because you will be so far away, nobody will come to visit. You will have squandered any opportunity for parole.”
Attendees are advised that they are here because they have been identified as individuals who are “most likely to kill someone else or be killed…
As this is spoken, the room seems to collectively share an inaudible internal groan.
“We need you here in the community. Please consider if what you are doing is worth the risk.”
Community leaders speak
We are nearing the halfway mark at 6:30, and the evening now turns from law enforcement to speakers from the community.
A man from Exodus Transitional Community (the social services agency Rojas works closely with) heads to the front of the room.
He is a tall black man, sixtyish, with a dignified bearing and the ever-so-slight stoop of a pugilist who fought life hard, absorbing body blows from which he has never quite recovered.
“I was your age once,” he relates, “and I thought I knew it all, too.”
He laments with the wisdom of age that an over-thirty-year stay in detention affords, clearly regretting the loss of his own youthful promise. It is a life, in part, wasted.
This work is making up for it now, though, and with the fervor of the saved, he pleads with them: don’t make the mistake I made. Don’t risk the promise of your potential and your future by wasting it on a moment’s passing youthful impulse.
The audience begins to visibly tilt their heads as they wonder, “Is this getting through? Can youth ever really be made to understand?”
They lower their heads and collectively sigh, perhaps musing on their own pasts.
He offers a card with a telephone number to each young man.
“Call me,” he says.
“Call me whenever, and about whatever you need to. If I don’t pick up, my answering service will—they will find me, and we will talk.”
Isabel Rojas and speakers from law enforcement and the community prepare to address attendees at a 2019 Call In
Outside, it is dusk, now, and a painterly light of reds and pinks splashes across the blue Hudson River sky.
Next door, the grand old church that has stood there for two hundred years patiently watches over river traffic.
Another community member takes the stage.
The heart of a mother
A small middle-aged white woman slowly moves to the center.
She’s come to talk in the past tense.
An image lights the screen, catching the strobe of an ambulance mid-throb as a recording of a 911 call plays. What we are hearing is chaotic. There’s been a shooting.
We know, now, that this mother has come to talk about the agony of the night her young daughter died.
The waiting, the learning, and now the endless mourning are discussed at length.
With each moment relayed, the audience’s internal agony builds and, as she finishes, most of us are full-on weeping at the senselessness of her daughter’s death; at the loss of it all.
Through our tears, we marvel at the compassion she displays. Difficult as it is to comprehend, she is now practically kneeling in front of the men in the front rows.
She cannot beg for her daughter’s life: it is gone. Instead, we begin to understand, she is begging for theirs.
Lastly, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church addresses us and the attendees.
He, like the man from Exodus, is dignified in bearing. He is also slightly stooped.
With a heavy heart, he recounts too many funerals. At times wistful, at times angry, he leads his sermon.
Begging and pleading
In the gentlest of ways he chides and argues with the young men, first trying an appeal to pity, next an appeal to reason.
Anything to move the attendees to stop the violence:
“We are begging you. We are pleading. If you have a gun, we are begging you to put it down. If you are with someone with a gun, we are begging them to put it down.”
Isabel Rojas retakes the podium and concludes the evening by informing the attendees that she, personally, will find them if they do not find her.
She reprises the evening’s refrain, and in a last effort asks the attendees—begs the attendees—to embrace an epiphany that will bring about a change.
The audience is preparing to adjourn but first joins hands in group prayer. Following the prayer, everyone gathers for a catered meal.
A prayer for change and a communal meal
The mother who spoke has headed over to the buffet. She has an undeniable buoyancy. She hopes that she may have reached someone.
She stands amid a few young men who appear to be attendees and she smiles and speaks with them, easily.
Isabel Rojas moves among small groups of threes and fours. She plays the role of a hostess chatting with guests.
She is joined by Lieutenant Cortez. Both graciously urge people to stay for a bite to eat. Many do, while others with puffy eyes and hollowed-out expressions make for the door.
It is just about 7:30 p.m., and the Call In is ending.
Outside, a siren wails. Another evening in the city of Newburgh has begun.
A young man strides out of the building. Crossing the street, his face mixes youthful energy with a guarded look.
He is handsome.
Where is he headed? What direction will he choose?
Only time will tell.
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