Targeting Violence: Regional Conference Explores Prevention of Crimes, Gang Awareness
The conference in Cranberry brings together law enforcement members, school administrators, and community leaders from Western Pennsylvania to discuss violent crime and gang activity
As an interviewer off-screen asks him if the crimes he committed were worth the penalty, Luke Woodham begins to cry.
“It’s real hard to live with the things I’ve done,” he said between sobs.
Now 30, Woodham is serving three life sentences for killing two students and injuring seven others in 1997 at his high school in Pearl, MS. Before heading to class that day he also fatally bludgeoned his mother.
Asked in the videotaped interview if anything might have prevented him from attacking, Woodham said he might have reconsidered his plan — if someone had talked to him.
“I would have opened up,” he said.
Woodham’s story was featured at a regional conference on gang awareness and violent crime Wednesday at the Regional Learning Alliance Center in Cranberry Township. The event, which aimed to prevent violent crimes, brought together law enforcement agencies — including FBI, Pittsburgh Police, and state police — school administrators and community leaders from around Western Pennsylvania. Law enforcement officers on Tuesday attended a separate conference for only them.
In opening remarks, U.S. Attorney David Hickton said stopping crimes from happening is as important as prosecuting them.
“It is our duty and mission to aggressively enforce the law,” he said. “But it is not enough to be tough. More importantly, we must be smart about our prosecution.
"Every case must be viewed through the lens of the community impact, while giving due weight to the efficiency and economic impact of our enforcement.”
About two-thirds of the people released from jail eventually are rearrested, he said. The cost to incarcerate them isn’t cheap either — about $25,000 each per year, he said. Much less expensive — about a quarter of the cost of incarceration — is paying for treatment of prisoners in the hopes they will not return to crime.
Hickton said this is why such programs as the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative are important. The program, run by the county's jail, court system and departments of human services and health, supports former offenders and their families in an effort to help them rebuild their lives and avoid returning to jail.
“The jail collaboration recognizes that effective re-entry starts long before a defendant is back on the street, and that importing treatment and training into the jail pays dividends in lower re-offense rates,” he said.
Hickton said targeted gang prosecution against 26 members of the Northview Heights/Brighton Place Crips and nearly 40 members of the Manchester OG and their associates in Pittsburgh's North Side neighborhoods was driven by concern for community impact. The gangs' shootings and heroin-trafficking terrorized residents of those neighborhoods, he said.
Pittsburgh also stands apart from the national average in violent crimes, according to recent FBI statistics. Nationally, violent crime rates are down by nearly 6 percent. In Pittsburgh, the rates have decreased by 9 percent, Hickton said.
Wednesday’s conference also featured Art Kelly III of the U.S. Secret Service’s Safe School Initiative. A 45-year veteran of law enforcement, Kelly gave a presentation on threat assessments in schools.
Kelly said violence in schools rarely is sudden. In most cases, the students plot out the attacks months, or even years, in advance. In the case of Columbine, he said Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold spent two years planning the school shooting, which is still the deadliest attack at an American high school.
“This is a process of thinking and behavior that moves them from idea to action,” Kelly said. “They are not sudden impulsive attacks.”
He encouraged law enforcement to work with schools and the community to prevent violence. Key findings from the Safe School Initative showed many students felt bullied or persecuted prior to the attacks. Most also had access to weapons found in their homes or in the homes of friends or relatives, he said.
The shooters also didn’t make a secret of their plans. Kelly said most told other people about their plans, or even posted it on the Internet. By paying attention to red flags, communities can prevent violence in schools, he said.
Dangers of the Internet
The conference also took a look at cyber-bullying, which Hickton called “the new highway of bullying.”
While the Internet is useful, Hickton said it also exposes children to exploitation. He suggested parents limit their child’s time on the Internet and place computers in a common area where they may easily view what is on screen.
“You have to be very careful,” he said.
The U.S. Attorney's office continues to work with Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pittsburgh Police, and the United Way of Allegheny County on the “Be 1 in a Million” campaign. That challenge from First Lady Michelle Obama calls for creating or expanding mentoring programs that reduce dropout rates and juvenile delinquency.
As part of the campaign, Hickton said the organization hopes to recruit and equip at least 4,000 readers, tutors, and mentors in the next three years.
“It’s a proven fact that students with mentors do better,” he said. “Having an adult take an interest makes a student work harder in school.”