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Gangs in Pittsburgh get message to spread the word

| Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Valerie Dixon opened her son's autopsy report for the first time in nine years Tuesday.

With tears in her eyes, the East Liberty woman shared details about how her son, Robert James Houston Dixon, 22, was killed in 2001.

"This is not what you want," Dixon, an advocate at the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime, told about 60 gang members. "This is not what you want to leave your parents with."

Dixon was one of more than a dozen people who talked with gang members during two private meetings at the Federal Courthouse, Downtown, to kick off the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime, a plan to cut the number of homicides in the city. About a dozen Pittsburgh police officers and two K-9 units stood guard outside the courthouse.

As of Monday, 36 homicides have occurred this year in Allegheny County, 24 of them in Pittsburgh. That compares to 49 homicides by this time last year, 30 of them in the city. It's not known how many of those murders are gang-related, but officials believe a majority of them might be.

Loosely based on Boston's Operation Ceasefire, the PIRC program entails mapping relationships between gang members in the city and letting them know that authorities won't tolerate killings. Gang members will be responsible for spreading the message. Officials said judges won't be lenient on gang members involved in killings.

Pittsburgh police have identified 37 violent gangs with roughly 1,400 members, said mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven.

Gang members leaving the courthouse after the morning meeting refused to give their names. Many said they thought the meeting was a scare tactic that wouldn't lessen violence. They said the "no snitch" rule of the street will remain.

Defense attorney Wendy Williams said her client, whom she declined to identify, was pressured into attending the meeting.

"Literally the message was, 'If you don't show up at 9 a.m., you're going to jail for a long time,' " Williams said. "I think they could have gotten the same message out in less heavy-handed ways."

Ken Huston, community liaison for the Black Political Empowerment Project in the Hill District, acknowledged the message isn't new "but it was unprecedented to see those levels of government in one room speaking with one voice."

"We're all serious when we say we're here to help," Huston said. "These senseless killings happen too often."

Tim Stevens, Black Political Empowerment Project chairman and co-founder of the Coalition Against Violence, said the men who attended the meeting "wouldn't be there if they didn't have a reason to be."

Stevens said speakers "sent a very strong message," and are giving gang members opportunities to change their lives. Speakers included city police Chief Nate Harper, Acting U.S. Attorney Bob Cessar, Allegheny County Jail Warden Ramon Rustin and Richard Garland, executive director of the street intervention group One Vision One Life.

"All of us are tired of seeing another young life has been taken," Stevens said. "It has become far too common and it must stop."

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