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Billboards are no substitute for show of force on streets



Published: Sat, April 2, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Just days after U.S. Attorney Greg White, U.S. Marshal Peter J. Elliot and Youngstown Police Chief Robert E. Bush Jr. announced that 25 billboards will be unveiled in the city displaying a handgun and the message "Your future is shot," gunfire erupted on the streets of Youngstown. In a five-day period, the casualty count was one dead and five wounded.

But what makes the recent crime wave even more disturbing and urgent is the fact that one of the victims was a five-year-old boy. Alfonso Flores' only crime was that he was playing outside his father's house on East Judson Avenue on the South Side.

And before anyone jumps to the conclusion that the shooting took place at night and, therefore, Alfonso should not have been outdoors, here's the bitter truth: It was around 3:50 p.m. on Tuesday and the weather was beautiful. After the long, cold winter, Alfonso had every right to be playing outside -- without worrying about getting shot.

But a drive-by shooting in board daylight resulted in his being hit three or four times in the legs. He was taken to St. Elizabeth Health Center and was in stable condition Tuesday night. It is noteworthy that at the time Alfonso was shot, he was playing with his two brothers, one aged 2 and the other 7. The children weren't the targets of the drive-by shooter. They simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Innocent children in harm's way are more than a crime statistic. They are an indication of an epidemic. And the cure for such an epidemic isn't a billboard.

Record rate

In 2003, federal, state and local officials got together in the city in the wake of the highest per capita homicide rate in the country and launched a major initiative to get guns and their criminal users off the streets. U.S. Attorney White contended at the time that the Guns Reduction Interdiction Project -- GRIP -- would go a long way toward reducing gun violence in Youngstown.

Between 1991 and 2002, the city recorded 564 homicides, an average of 47 per year. But in 2003, there were 19 homicides, the first year the number had dipped below 20 in more than a decade.

But then in 2004, the number went up to 22.

Since December, there have been 15 killings.

There needs to be a show of force by law enforcement on the streets of the city of Youngstown. There need to be federal gun charges filed wherever possible. There need to be aggressive prosecutions and maximum sentencing by judges.

Federal and state agencies must be asked by Mayor George M. McKelvey, members of city council and police Chief Bush to come in with the same kind of commitment to getting the criminals off the streets as they displayed in 2003. This is not to suggest that there has been a lessening of the war on crime and that the zero-tolerance campaign has become lax, but the shooting of five-year-old Alfonso in broad daylight makes it clear that something more needs to be done.




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