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Getting Answers: Holyoke, Chicopee awarded grant to combat youth gang violence

Efforts are underway across Massachusetts to help address youth and gang violence.
Published: May. 23, 2022 at 6:15 PM EDT|Updated: May. 23, 2022 at 7:02 PM EDT
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HOLYOKE, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - Efforts are underway across Massachusetts to help address youth and gang violence. Holyoke and Chicopee have received half a million dollars combined through a state grant program to help combat the problem.

Holyoke Police said the opioid epidemic has contributed to the problem of youth gangs in the city with the more violent offenders in their mid to upper 20s. The intersection of Appleton and Elm Streets in Holyoke is one of the areas in the city known for high crime

“So that’s one of the hotspots we will constantly have officers patrolling. Our everyday patrol officers are very good that they are in the areas. They will get out and check the rear of the building,” said Holyoke Police Capt. Matthew Moriarty.

Moriarty told Western Mass News that area and other locations known for high violence, including South Bridge Street and Chestnut Street, are continuously monitored by the gang suppression unit, or GSU.

“We have one unmarked cruiser. This way, we have a better chance of pulling up on activity going on and this way the officers are out in the street in these most critical areas,” Moriarty added.

This unit is funded by the Senator Charles E. Shannon Jr. Community Safety Initiative Grant. The Baker-Polito Administration announced in February that $11.2 million in grant funding is aimed at addressing youth and gang violence across the Bay State.

Holyoke and partnering community Chicopee received $566,355. Moriarty said the goal of the GSU is twofold: to make arrests of known offenders in the city and also to conduct field interviews with people who may be on the wrong path. Holyoke Police said the GSU is also focused on prevention, intervention, and suppression of gang violence and distribution of drugs.

“…And for the people who are in the wrongdoing, these are the people we are targeting and on numerous occasions, if we do make an arrest, but there are also times that we know the players, the troublemakers and they are advised of the situation of how to get out the situation…The resources that are available to them, as I said like MassHire or programs that are being run through the Boys Club or through the schools,” Moriarty explained.

According to police data, 75 percent of violent crimes and 90 percent of drug-related crimes in Chicopee and Holyoke are gang-related. In Holyoke and Chicopee combined, there are 10 street gangs and 300 gang members.

In examining the five-year crime trends between 2017 and 2021 for young people ages 10 to 25 in the two cities:

  • Simple assaults decreased by 48 percent.
  • Robberies decreased 100 percent.
  • Aggravated assaults increased 38 percent.

In addition to the Gang Suppression Unit, Moriarty said the grant program also funds a Mobile Policing Unit, or MCP.

“With this vehicle and the funding, we are able to go all through the city to areas that we would normally call hotspots either due to gang activity or drug activity and the vehicle along with several officers would be there for 12 hours,” Moriarty noted.

Police officers typically spend the day in this van from noon until midnight once or twice a week interacting with the community, specifically with at-risk youth. Moriarty told us children are provided with educational tools and fun activities.

“So we welcome the children to come over. We try to put it in areas where children will be playing, so officers will partake in it. We will have basketballs and footballs, so officers once in a while get into a game of catch,” Moriarty added.

Moriarity said this helps bridge a gap between law enforcement and the community, as well as providing an additional police presence in those hotspot areas.

Another recipient of the Shannon Grant, hoping to help endangered youth, is the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke. President and CEO Eileen Cavanaugh told Western Mass News that this year, the organization received about $150,000.

“We use that funding and have been using Shannon funding to support a majority of our teen membership programs and our satellite programs,” Cavanaugh said.

The satellite programs are in partnership with the Holyoke Housing Authority, aimed at bringing resources directly to youth in danger.

“…And we set up the space and do free after-school and summer programming for youth that live within those public housing communities…so that we are taking away any kind of barriers for participation, so transportation is no longer a concern, access is no longer a concern,” Cavanaugh added.

Cavanaugh said engagement is, often times, one of the obstacles when helping youth in unprivileged communities.

“When you have a child is stressed for a lot of environmental factors, growing up in poverty, in poor housing, familial connections that may have connections with law enforcement and criminal activity, it can be very difficult sometimes to engage these youth and to make sure they know that they are other opportunities that they can try,” Cavanaugh added.

The ultimate goal of the Shannon Grant to help guide adolescents to make healthier choices.

“…And so the intent is again for them to understand that there all alternate activities to engage in and that there are ways of making better choices,” Cavanaugh explained.