Rochester, N.Y.—Today 22-year-old Ashley Johnson has her life in control. She has a job and is going to school to study Business Administration. In her spare time, she volunteers with R.I.S.E Youth Connection.
But years ago, when she was 16 years old, Ashley’s future didn’t shine so bright. She was a member of a gang and was constantly getting into fights.
“The wrong crowd I was around and all the anger I had inside of me, it just led me down the wrong path,” she says.
Ashley had a warrant out for her arrest after a large fight broke out at her school. She didn’t want to go to jail so she knew she had to turn her life around.
Through the help of Paul McFadden, the executive director of R.I.S.E. Youth Connection and her family, Ashley was able to leave gang life and get back on track.
The Rochester Police Department says it knows the important role families and loved ones play in people’s lives. That’s why they are seeking the help of gang members’ families to help stop the violence in the city.
“We want to reach out to the people who have influence over these people’s lives,” says Sgt. Justin Collins of RPD. “If they don’t respect the police, they respect someone in their lives.”
Talking to gang members’ families is nothing new for the department, but officers are doing more of it. Sgt. Collins says it’s because of the increased violence in the city this year and also because the method had worked in the past.
“Someone in [the gang member’s] life does have influence over them, so we want to speak to those people so they can speak in their own language and tell the person ‘Hey, the police are trying to let you know as much as they can, this is about stopping this. The violence has to stop. Stop before a life is lost’,” says Sgt. Collins.
Officers don’t necessarily visit gang members’ families only when they are trying to make an arrest, but also as a preventative measure or as a warning. Sgt. Collins says family members are often either shocked, angry or in denial when a police officer tells them about a loved one’s involvement in gangs.
“I think most people would protect their loved one. They say ‘Oh, not my loved one!’ That’s just the natural human reaction, but it’s what happens when we leave. We’ve heard and seen… we’ve gotten a lot of feedback that families end up telling their loved ones ‘Police were here and they say you’re involved in this stuff’.”
Victor Saunders from Pathways to Peace says this method of reaching out to the family can be effective - especially when it comes to teens and youth.
“When you’re talking to parents or guardians who have a vested interest in their young person, they still have a hold on them,” Saunders says. “It gives them a greater power to fight against this behavior.”
Ashley says she believes there are ways families can help gang members.
“Just the love and care they put towards the child and showing that child that [their family] really cares and are there for them. They don’t have to be scared to talk to [their family] and that they are not going to judge them for the mistakes they’ve made. I think that a young child or youth would really appreciate that and want to change more if they hear that.”
McFadden says families often need support and resources to help teens who are a part of a gang.
“Here at R.I.S.E Youth Connection we try to help not only the teens in gangs with resources but with family members who want to show support,” McFadden says. “If the whole family is strengthening it actually helps the individual to transition out of gangs better.”
He says while families can intervene and support their youth or teens in gangs, it is ultimately up to the individual.
“I would implore the young people to take the time out and listen,” McFadden says. “This is a chance for you to make the change inside of your life and for a better future.”