The latest in our series, Queen City Crime, is a story about Manchester’s struggle to prevent violent crime through urban planning and social services. Rising poverty in the city has made an uphill battle for police and nonprofits working together to stem crime at the source.
In the worst parts of Manchester, you see a lot of run-down, nondescript buildings. But walk into the blue and white one on the corner of Lake and Beech and you’ll find a gym with punching bags, weights, a judo mat and a boxing ring. It’s the Manchester Police Athletic League or MPAL, a nonprofit run by the police in the inner city.
“I smartened up when I came here…”
Joel Felix is a twenty year old community college student who trains every day at the gym with the hopes of becoming an Olympic boxer.
“I’ve been coming here for about seven years now. Since I was thirteen, and it’s been nothing but good to me. Keeps me out of trouble and I love it.”
Felix is the pride of the gym. In 2011 he won the Golden Gloves with a torn ligament in his left shoulder.
The MPAL building has a sign out front that says it’s a Weed and Seed Safe Haven for kids. The federally-funded Weed and Seed program targeted an area of inner-city Manchester from 2001 to 2006. About 400 communities took part nationwide. Manchester was the only one in the state.
The strategy was simple says the captain of the Community Policing Division, Richard Reilly:
“The police go into the neighborhood. They weed out the problems. They weed out the bad guys. And then social services comes in behind them and does some seeding to prevent the weeds from growing back.”
The federal grant provided about $125,000 a year to the city. Some of that paid for a coordinator who worked to connect the police and a long list of different services. And even though the grant ended, it’s a network that still exists today.
“I like to think of Weed and Seed as the White Pages for social services in Manchester.”
Kristen Treacy is the current Weed and Seed coordinator, a position the city kept paying for after the federal grant ran out. Treacy says poverty keeps rising in the city, with slightly more than half of the kids taking part in the free or reduced lunch program. And that, she says, doesn’t bode well for crime rates.
“If every day is a struggle for them just to get food on the table then there might get to a point where the status quo isn’t good enough. And we often hear about folks who feel the need to take their situations into their own hands—whatever form that may take.”
To help stop that, Treacy connects at-risk kids and their parents with organizations that can help. Captain Reilly says that while social services make up the bulk of the seeding, that’s not the whole story.
“Traditionally, the weeding end of it is police action, but especially in community policing and areas of witness advocacy and crime prevention, we also become seeders on the other side of it.”
On a mild August afternoon, about 85 kids in football helmets and shoulder pads show up for training at a center city field. They cycle through five different practice routines led by officers of the Manchester police department. The team, called the Manchester Bears, is designed to instill some discipline and structure in the lives of at-risk kids in the city.
Ofc. Andre Smith: “All right so what’s gonna happen.. you guys are gonna get your feet going. When I say ‘hit it’ you’re gonna hit the ground and I want you to shout ‘Bears.’ Ok, let’s go…”
The police officers help lead the practice in part to show kids that cops are not the bad guys. At the end of the practice, Officer Paul Rondeau gives a pep talk.
“Very good hustle. We came here today to talk to you guys about sportsmanship. Sportsmanship is important when you’re playing the game but sportsmanship is also important when you’re out in the real world.”
Police are trying to get to these kids early, to reduce the likelihood that they’ll turn to crime later on. So a lot of Weed and Seed’s strategy is to focus on helping kids.
But some organizations in the network, like the Manchester Community Resource Center, focus on a different demographic.
“We focus more on adults. On the adult workforce…”
Renie Denton is the Executive Director.
“Over here we have public computers so people can come in and work on their own resume, they can do their job search…”
The resource center sits in the heart of a poor part of town known as the Hollow. Earlier this summer, a homicide took place right next door when a man shot a home invader.
Inside the building, people can sign up for computer classes and train for jobs like pharmacy tech.
“If people have a steady income and they feel good about raising their own money and working an honest job, they’re less likely to go out and do some of the criminal behaviors that we’re witnessing right now.”
After its five-year run, it’s unclear if the Weed and Seed program made a measurable impact on reducing crime. Crime rates dipped in the area, but they rose in other parts of the city.
But for some individuals, it did make a difference. Like Joel Felix. The young boxer says he knows where he’d be if it weren’t for his coaches at the Manchester Police Athletic League.
“I’d probably still be in the streets doing crazy things…You know I just wanted to do the right thing.”
And police say that’s the real lesson of the project—the philosophy that you can provide help and alternatives to people before they ever turn to crime.