To curb Chester County’s troubles with gangs and youth violence, parents need to be engaged, residents need to be more proactive and relationships between public officials must improve, about 50 concerned residents said Thursday night.
Neighbors, parents, community leaders, public officials and law enforcement gathered at the county’s law enforcement complex on Dawson Drive to discuss what actions could be taken to keep kids out of gangs – a situation that some feel has grown worse after 16-year-old Shyheim Kennedy was shot to death while walking to a store last week.
By meeting’s end, there was standing room only as those gathered bounced around ideas such as more gang training seminars for parents and school leaders, to opening 24/7 recreational facilities for young people to keep them off the streets at night.
For Sheriff Alex Underwood and Police Chief Andre Williams, community involvement is key.
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Nothing will change “until all of you step up,” Williams said, stressing that residents must be willing to pick up the phone and dial 911.
“A lot of people don’t get involved until it personally affects them,” Underwood said, adding that it’s not uncommon for him or deputies to find underage children wandering the streets at 2 or 3 in the morning. “It starts at home.”
Several people at the meeting drilled police about programs and the county’s 20 active neighborhood watch groups. Others questioned if the city’s 10 p.m. curfew for young people could be modified or more strictly enforced.
“Where are you going to take the kids when their parents aren’t home?” Williams challenged, stressing that juvenile detention facilities won’t admit children of a certain age. “What are you going to do with them right then?”
Ron Robinson suggested the county invest money in a community center that’s open 24 hours and provides activities for youths who police find past curfew.
Both Linda Simpson and Chester Mayor Wanda Stringfellow explained there is space available in the county for that kind of facility, but opening and operating it will take cooperation from city and county leaders and taxpayers.
Kids who join gangs seek love and attention and try to fill those voids with colors and crime, said Neek Emerson.
“We’ve got to learn about what they’ve got going on,” he said. “We can’t walk away from them. Turning your back on them is not the answer.”
Robinson asked if it’s possible community leaders and police gather the known gang leaders together and give them a choice to shape up or ship out of Chester. Echoing Emerson, he said gang leaders are offering youths something they don’t already receive.
“We have to be able to counteroffer these kids,” he said.
But even approaching some troubled youths is an issue because some “pop off” if you say a word, said Danielle Jackson, who added she often sees teens openly smoking marijuana in her neighborhood. She’s reluctant to call police because she fears troublemakers will learn her identity.
Sheriff’s Deputy Kito Crank said 911 callers can remain anonymous. After deputies gave her a flier with numbers and email addresses for a tip line to report gang or drug activity, Jackson felt better. She said she “feels confident” any issues she reports will be addressed.
Makeda Baker, a community activist and columnist for Chester’s newspaper, The News and Reporter, said Chester suffers from a “code of silence” that can’t be overcome by law enforcement alone.
“It’s not just youth, not just gangs – it’s the community itself,” she said. “Everybody has a part to do. Law enforcement is not going to fix it politics isn’t going to fix it religion isn’t going to fix it. The community itself is going to fix it.”