Hill District killing illustrates teen struggle to escape gang violence
They're young. They're violent. And they have the attention of Pittsburgh law enforcement officials.
Police are searching for multiple people as part of an investigation that spans beyond the shooting death of a Hill District teenager, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Friday.
“What concerns me is there are two different groups of people working the Middle Hill,” Zappala said. “They're mostly younger people, and they're extremely violent. Those persons for the most part have been identified, and not only are we going to solve that homicide, we're going to do something about these associations.”
Eric Young, 17, was fatally shot in the head in a targeted attack as he and his mother left their Morgan Street home to go to Pittsburgh Public Schools' University Prep on Wednesday morning. He had survived a shooting attempt on his way to school Sept. 19.
City police have responded by putting more uniformed and plainclothes officers on Hill District streets, police Cmdr. Eric Holmes said.
The immediate priority is to arrest the gang members involved and get them off the street, Holmes said at a news conference Friday evening.
“We recognize that gun violence must stop,” he said. “Gun violence is not going to stop unless we work with the community.”
The violence goes beyond teenagers tracking school schedules of their targets, to surveillance of school vans and even entry into University Prep, court records show.
In an incident Aug. 25, court records indicate a University Prep student opened the door to the gymnasium to let in a classmate, a former student and a third unidentified male. They pushed past a teacher to attack another male student. The attack caused the student's eye to swell and possibly tore his cornea.
School police wrote in court paperwork that the three attackers are known members of the “ ‘G' Block and/or Wavy Boys” gang.
In March 2013, one of the teens identified in that group was charged with opening fire on a school van on Bentley Drive that carried students for The Academy Schools, a network of schools for court-adjudicated juveniles.
Four days before the first attempt on Young, another one of the teens associated with the gang approached a Community Intensive Supervision Program van while it was on Bentley Drive and asked if Young was on board. A judge in August ordered Young into CISP, which provides after-school supervision for youths in the criminal justice system. Penn Hills police had charged him with a robbery in July.
“There's a philosophy that's being advanced in juvenile court,” Zappala said. “They want to take kids who have educational potential, they want to take them out of the criminal justice system, and they want to regulate their conduct and give them a schedule. ... They're giving them a chance.”
Richard Garland, a lecturer with the University of Pittsburgh's Community Violence Prevention Project, is studying the causes of homicides in Allegheny County and Pittsburgh. In the Hill District, juveniles are robbing one another and feuding over drugs and girls, both in person and through social media, he said.
“That's just how these boys are right now; they don't care,” Garland said. “They're not afraid to go to jail, so that makes it even harder. Some of them, they're not afraid to die, either. They talk about how bad their life is right now.”
Photos posted to Young's Facebook page show him fanning out cash and holding a gun. That doesn't necessarily prove anything about Young, said Amanda Lenhart, who specializes in teens, family and technology as associate director of research for Pew Research Center in Washington. Teens and adults post photos to social media for a particular audience, she said, and people outside the intended audience — not knowing the context — can misinterpret the message.
“He might have been posing with a gun to show other members of a community he shouldn't be messed with,” Lenhart said. “It could have been posted out of fear.”
Garland meets with victims with gunshot wounds at city hospitals as part of an intervention program.
He said recently that he has heard more and more that shooters are “young boys.”
Garland's approach is bolstered by a study published last year in the American Journal of Public Health by two Yale University sociologists who analyzed six years of criminal data in Chicago. They found that in one high-crime, predominantly black neighborhood, 41 percent of all gun homicides occurred within a network of less than 4 percent of the population of about 82,000.
Whom you hang out with, the study said, is far more likely to determine whether you get shot than where you live, what you look like or how poor you are.
Comparing gun violence with the transmission of AIDS, the authors of the study concluded that “homicide is socially contagious.”
“It's about who you associate with,” Garland said. “... It's what kind of ties you have to the group of people you're with, and it depends on what that group of guys is into.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said teachers and other school staffers work to build relationships with students in an attempt to mitigate problems.
“When they're aware there is an issue, the school works with the students' parents to, as much as possible, alleviate things when they hear something is brewing,” Pugh said. “There are a lot of students at the school who are not violent and who are coming to school to do what they need to do at school.”
Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Michael Hasch contributed to this report.