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Feds help Newburgh break cycle of violence

A Newburgh police SUV is shown in this

A Newburgh police SUV is shown in this file photo. (June 18, 2012) Photo Credit: Leslie Barbaro

In September of last year, hours after a predawn raid took 20 members of the Bloods off the streets of Newburgh, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara had a message for people in the tiny city.

"Sixteen months ago, I made a promise to the good people of this city that we would do everything possible to break the cycle of violence," Bharara said at a news conference. "And so here we are back again, in force, for the third time in 16 months, to make another payment on that promise."

Since 2010, federal agents, troopers and local cops have teamed up for three large-scale raids in Newburgh. The raids were aimed at crippling gangs, using the power of federal racketeering laws -- potent weapons usually reserved for mob takedowns -- to hammer accused gang leaders with significantly longer prison sentences.

Agents and officers have made more than 100 arrests. By removing gang leaders and the most violent gang members from the streets, law enforcement and community leaders hope to break a cycle of violence that's been ongoing for decades and make Newburgh's more notorious streets safe to walk again. And, they say, by removing the threat of violence and the pressure on Newburgh's teenagers to join gangs, the community can focus on longer-term solutions, like reinventing the small city aesthetically, economically and culturally. They want Newburgh to be known once again as a major hub with a Hudson River view and a place in American history, not as a blighted stain best known for frequent gunfire.

Statistics don't tell the whole story

Last month, pointing to preliminary statistics submitted for the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Reports, Newburgh police touted the progress -- while there were 11 murders in the city of 28,000 in 2010, there were only four in 2011, none of them gang-related. Figures for other violent crimes, like assault and robbery, had leveled off.

But several key players in the ongoing effort in Newburgh say progress can't be measured in next-year statistics -- and they haven't finished their work.

Gang leaders and other violent offenders know that too, said Jim Gagliano, an FBI agent who leads the federal task force assigned to Newburgh.

"The bad guys put their heads down for a while and pray we find something more pressing to investigate," Gagliano said, "and then they come out of the woodwork."

That's how things typically went in violent Hudson Valley cities like Poughkeepsie, Beacon and Peekskill, and it's how things went in Newburgh until 2009, when Newburgh led the state in violent crime per capita and things came to a head.

"Frankly, the community realized it had a crisis on its hands," said Chris White, a district representative for Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), who is the congressman's man on the ground in the small city.

In 2010, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, Newburgh reported 522 violent crimes, including 195 robberies and 309 assaults. By comparison, Mount Vernon -- a city more than twice the size of Newburgh, with its own reputation for violence, reported 678 violent crimes in the same year, according to FBI statistics. Yonkers, with a population of more than 195,000, reported 895.

Newburgh gets help from feds

Violence was escalating, and the community was calling out for help. That's when Gagliano -- who in his spare time is a youth basketball coach in Newburgh -- and his team were assigned to coordinate with local and State Police, and suddenly the city was saturated with law enforcement resources. While previous efforts -- like the late Assemb. Thomas Kirwan's plan to bring State Police into Newburgh last decade -- resulted in increased police presence over the short term, the recent cooperative effort means the task force is in it for the long haul.

Broadway, the city's main thoroughfare, spans several short hills and ends at the riverfront. It's dotted with vacant, dusty storefronts, bodegas and hangout spots where kids congregate on hot days.

Although Newburgh, with its decaying industrial structures and high unemployment rates, has been known as a "tough town" for more than three decades, not all of its problems are homegrown. There is truth to speculation that crime has migrated, according to Michael Walker, a criminologist who serves on the FBI's Criminal Justice Information System Advisory Board.

"There's been a displacement of crime out of New York City," Walker said.

New York City has been regarded as the nation's safest big city for several years running, according to analysis of FBI statistics, and the reasons for the exodus -- and resulting influx to smaller cities like Newburgh -- are many, Walker said. Despite recent department cuts, New York still employs some 35,000 police officers, enough to saturate problem areas and stamp out crime spikes. It's also expensive to live there.

By contrast, Newburgh has about 80 police officers. The city is broke and can't hire more. The cost of living is a comparative deal. And, experts say, the city's unemployed and often-idle youth provide fertile recruiting grounds for gangs like the Bloods and the Latin Kings.

Investigations and large-scale, coordinated raids -- often involving hundreds of police officers -- are one tool authorities have at their disposal. But equally important are the community-building efforts -- removing blight, giving kids something to do, and creating conditions favorable to business owners, White said.

The Greater Newburgh Partnership brings together "anchor institutions" like St. Luke's Cornwall Hospital, Mount Saint Mary College and SUNY Orange. Partnering with local businesses, they help organize community volunteers to rehab run-down buildings, clean up abandoned lots and plant trees. They also help secure funding for things like security cameras and better, brighter street lighting, White said.

Those efforts are slowly paying off, according to people in the city. An old, blighted factory is now the Newburgh Brewing Company, with a tasting room and a home-brew sold in local restaurants. A high-end furniture maker recently returned another old factory to life. And a group called Safe Harbors on the Hudson, a local nonprofit, restored the decaying, historic Hotel Newburgh. It's now a 128-unit building with artist lofts, a fitness center and a computer lab.

Gagliano is particularly proud of a new community center occupying a building that used to be an abandoned armory. Two years ago, federal agents and police were using the armory as a staging ground for their drug raids.

While he's hesitant to point to statistics, Gagliano said progress can be measured on the ground.

"A lot of the streets that were historically rife with gangsters, streets that were kind of free-fire zones, you can walk down them freely now," he said. "You see kids outside playing."

Newburgh's future

What's the end game? Gagliano recalled the Newburgh of the 1970s and earlier, when the city was the "Gateway to the Hudson," a commuter hub and a place where people felt safe. He can only support economic development from the sidelines and work as a positive influence to the kids he coaches, but he can take an active role in making people feel safe again.

"First and foremost, to stop the senseless killings, then to disrupt and dismantle the gangs," he said. "Our hope is to go after these guys, get them stiff sentences, and maintain the pressure so the criminal element knows we're still there, we're still working these cases."

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