With each deep breath, the eyes of one young man seated in the jury box shifted downward as he sank further into his chair. The photographs flashing onto the large screen in front of him revealed the harsh realities of a life of violence he admitted he knows “all too well.”
On Dec. 20, Donnie was among more than a dozen men called into a Trumbull County Common Pleas courtroom as part of an effort to reduce violence in Warren. The session was part of state Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Safe Neighborhoods Initiative and served as the program’s official Warren kickoff. The local “call-in” event lasted nearly two hours and included speakers ranging from law enforcement officials to family members of individuals killed by gunfire.
Recently, Donnie and another member of that group, Thomas, who are both in their 20s, along with Pastor Vince Peterson, met with a Tribune Chronicle reporter to talk about the program and the impact it has had on their lives in the three months since that initial meeting.
Both men asked that their full names not be published. They are among a group of Warren residents identified as some of the most violent local offenders on parole or probation and considered among the most likely to commit gang-related violence.
During the meeting, the harsh images projected in front of the group showed people who had been severely wounded, maimed or fatally shot part of a presentation by Dr. James Graham of St. Elizabeth Health Center, who spoke about the medical effects of gunshot wounds.
“Yeah. It was hard to look at those. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. I’ve known it. But to see it up there like that, put out there like that. I don’t know. I thought about my family, my kids. It could be me,” Donnie remarked.
After the meeting, Donnie and Thomas said they have pledged to lay down their guns.
“It’s just not worth it. I just kept thinking about my kids. I don’t want them growing up without a dad around. I know what that’s like. I know if I don’t make some changes I’ll be back in jail or dead. That’s not right. That’s not fair to them,” Thomas explained.
Along with being incarcerated, both of them said they have been shot. They’ve lost family members and friends to violence.
“I just don’t want to do it anymore,” Thomas said.
“The main thing is that we are asking all of them to change one aspect of their lives. Don’t shoot at one another,” explained Ohio Assistant Attorney General Robert Fiatal, director of the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative.
“It’s a positive message we’re trying to give these young men. The main one being to put the guns down.”
The offenders were required to attend the session as part of their parole or probation. Subsequent meetings also have been held.
Fiatal said that based on the reaction received in Warren, he is confident the initiative is netting positive results.
“We believe strongly in that community and are very encouraged by not only the young men we’ve made contact with but also the commitment from the city leaders,” he said.
Fiatal said state leaders have already seen positive results in other communities around Ohio. Early on, Warren Police Chief Eric Merkel said the success seen in other cities was what prompted him to want to add Warren to the list of participants.
“The majority of the problems are caused by a minority of people,” Merkel said. “With them off the streets, whether they’re back in jail or working with this program, crime goes down. We’re seeing that happening right now.”
In December, Merkel told the offenders he had one goal to eliminate gun violence in Warren.
Although it’s still early in the process, Merkel said it’s apparent violent crime has declined in Warren based on the fact detectives have been called out to fewer crime scenes involving guns since the initial “cease fire” session was held.
By this time last year, Warren had two homicides. Both involved firearms. By the end of 2013, there were 10 homicides. Of those, half were gun related. The city saw five homicides in 2012, all of which were firearms related. In the same time frame, the city had more felonious assaults and armed robberies last year.
Officials, including Fiatal and Warren Police Lt. Jeff Cole, said there are a lot of circumstances to look at and factors that play into the numbers, such as the blast of winter weather the past few months, that can act as a crime deterrent.
“It is true that we haven’t been called out very much so far this year other than maybe for some minor call-outs for forensics,” Cole said. “But at this point I can’t say whether that might be precipitated by the weather or directly related to the initiative.”
Roscoe Thomas Sr. of Warren, said he believes the effort is working because of the help being provided to participants. In exchange for their compliance, program participants are given access to job training, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and other services.
“One of the biggest, hardest things to do is to get a job, especially when you have a criminal record,” explained Roscoe Thomas.
Roscoe Thomas said he knows because he has been where Donnie and Thomas are now. He has been in prison several times on drug trafficking and weapons charges. He spoke to the men in December and he, along with Peterson, who is also a Trumbull County probation officer, and Fiatal, are members of a steering committee recently established to help participants.
“You want to make changes. You don’t want to be in and out of the system like this. I’d go to the penitentiary and back out and each time I’d tell myself I’d fool the cops this time. I’d do the same thing over again. But I got tired of being in and out of the system. I made changes. I went to school. You do what you have to do,” Roscoe Thomas said. “Society still looks at us like monsters. You have to overcome that. You have to be the one to make the change.”