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From left, Keith Murphy, McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko and Los Angeles-based educators Angelina Arrington and Darnell Bell following an anti-violence workshop with young people at Auberle in June. The workshop was funded in part by the state Commission on Crime and Delinquency in support of McKeesport's Gun Violence Reduction Project. (Submitted photo courtesy City of McKeesport)
For the second year in a row, McKeesport has been awarded funding from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to support programs to reduce gun violence.
The $133,000 grant to the McKeesport Alternative Policing Strategies Initiative and the McKeesport Gun Violence Reduction Program includes money earmarked toward policing as well as mentoring and community outreach to divert young people away from violent confrontations.
The money will partially pay for an additional patrol vehicle as well as license-plate recognition, or LPR, equipment, McKeesport police Chief Adam Alfer said in a prepared statement.
"From a law-enforcement perspective, this grant allows McKeesport police to increase patrols by adding an additional vehicle to nightly saturation patrols," he said. "It also allows us to continue adding LPR camera systems to intersections throughout the City of McKeesport, which aids in solving crimes not only here, but across Allegheny County."
Similar cameras have already been credited in leading to arrests in a number of crimes, including the abduction and murder of a toddler from Penn Hills earlier this month.
Keith Murphy, founder of the Healthy Village Learning Institute on Versailles Avenue, serves as the MAPS initiative's community outreach specialist. He said Tuesday that he's grateful the state has agreed to fund the effort for a second year.
"We have got to find a way to be proactive, rather than waiting for the bad stuff to happen," said Murphy, whose street-level approach to mentoring and intervention is being funded in part by the PCCD grant.
Events organized by Murphy during the first year of the grant included summer activities and assemblies at Auberle, the LaRosa Boys & Girls Club and Founder's Hall Middle School.
In the second year, Murphy wants to go deeper, into the lower grades. "Everyone says, 'Well, in seventh grade, that's where you start to have the problems,'" he said. "But if you don't set the tone before they get to seventh grade, things start building up.
"If we're going to be anti-gun violence, then the anti-bullying piece is the first piece," Murphy said.
Teaching young people the critical thinking skills to non-violently resolve conflicts is another piece of the puzzle, he said. "We talk about the 'what-if' game," Murphy said. "Everything comes with a consequence. If you make the right choice, the right thing is probably going to happen. What if you do the wrong thing? What are the possible outcomes?"
Ultimately, he wants young people who participate in outreach events to become peer leaders.
"A lot of them know friends who post pictures of themselves with guns on social media," Murphy said. "I ask them, are you supporting them or are you trying to be an advocate for change? What does it mean to be complicit? What does conspiracy mean? Do you realize that if you're with someone who shot someone else, you could be charged with the same crime they are?"
In June, Murphy also brought two nationally known anti-violence advocates from California to work with young people at the Healthy Village institute, which is located in the former St. Pius V Catholic School.
State Rep. Austin Davis, who announced the grant, said that through the gun violence reduction program, young people are being engaged with alternatives to "street life" and are being taught to become stakeholders in their community.
"In order for young adults to be successful, they need to have the resources to accomplish that goal," Davis said in a press release. The PCCD funding will help provide "a brighter future, a positive outlook and a wealth of constructive learning experiences."
McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko said he's hopeful that the combined effort of additional policing as well as continued outreach helps break the cycle of gun violence.
The city, he said via email, is "very appreciative" that the state has agreed to help McKeesport reduce incidents of "violent crime today, and our society's addiction to crime in future generations."
Jason Togyer is the editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published September 19, 2019.