New Haven teams canvass campaign aims to halt killing of city's children

New Haven - She hoped to be attending Torrence Gamble's graduation in a few years, not visiting him in prison, Superintendent Garth Harries recalled a teacher telling him after Gamble was shot to death.

"Now she's going to do neither," Harries said.

Gamble, 16, was shot in the head on Daggett Street April 2. He was the second teenager killed in the city in less than two weeks, and for the hundreds who gathered Thursday for My Brother's Keeper Community Canvass, a reason to take action.

"We want to stop the senseless violent crimes that have been stealing our children from New Haven families, stealing life itself from young people in our city, and stealing all the potential contributions of those young people from our city forevermore," Mayor Toni Harp said.

Harp was joined by Harries, Police Chief Dean Esserman, Fire Chief Allyn Wright and Youth Director Jason Bartlett. While they all come from different backgrounds, Harp said, they are "united" by a common objective: raising awareness about the surge in violence and resolving to end it.

There have been six homicides so far this year.

Four-person teams of educators, public safety officers and citizens knocked on doors of "at-risk" youths Thursday hoping to prevent a seventh homicide. According to literature provided to canvassers, youths are considered to be "at-risk" if they are frequently absent from school, get in trouble often and are associated with guns, drugs or the "wrong crowd."

The teams were armed with an invitation to Parent University, a "Teenage Guide to Being an Upstander," a list of resources for the students and families, and a card for parents to fill out if they would like their child to be mentored. If a family engaged the team, they received a $20 gift card for Walgreens or Stop and Shop. If no one was home, the teams were instructed to leave the package of information at the home.

The canvass is the first in a series of initiatives the city plans to roll out to combat violence.

"My grave concern beyond the tragic loss of each life is the prospect of our community becoming desensitized to the violence and deaths," Harp said.

Harp said the city cannot become "so callous" to the "steady sound of gunshots" that we forget each gunshot impacts a family.

"This is something I needed to see," Esserman said of Thursday's turnout, "because I still go to every shooting, and I go to every emergency room, and I go to every wake, and I go to every funeral, and I've seen our mayor there, and now, I see you," he told the crowd at a meeting prior to the canvassing effort.

"There is nothing normal, there is nothing acceptable about losing a child," Esserman said. "So I don't know where this ends, but it feels like it begins here today."

Fire Chief Allyn Wright said firefighters make the ultimate sacrifice of risking their lives to save another's. These days, he said, children make the ultimate sacrifice too, but in "an unnecessary way."

"You used to bury your grandparents, your parents, not your children, and it really bothers me," he said.

Wright pledged to have every single firefighter on the streets trying to mentor youth. He said anyone who needs help can always ring the buzzer at the firehouse.

"I want to make sure that we are truly role models," Wright said.

Members of the community were urged to sign up to be mentors through Gang of Dads, My Brother's Keeper or the city's youth department.

Leonard Jahad, a mentor through My Brother's Keeper, said Gamble reached out the day before he was murdered.

"Two weeks ago Doug Bethea, he went to Riverside Academy to talk to youth," Jahad said. "And a young man signed up. This young man approached Doug again at the funeral of Taijhon Washington, and he said, 'Doug, don't forget about me.' The next evening, this young man was shot in the head and killed."

Jahad said they decided then that they couldn't wait any longer to take action.

"I think people are innately good and there are people who you can work with," he said. "The youth in our community are people you can work with."

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