Commonwealth Attorney announces new program to address violence crimes

Published 4:56 pm Tuesday, April 18, 2023

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It was a press conference focused on safety as Commonwealth Attorney Narendra R. Pleas’ new Operation Ceasefire Program looks to address the increase of violent crimes Suffolk has experienced since 2019. 

At a Thursday news conference, Pleas explained the goal is to bring prosecutors, law enforcement agencies and community organizations together in a “collaborative, focused-deterrence program.” 

The state awarded the Commonwealth’s Attorney a two-year grant for $326,500 to cover full-time attorney, part-time legal assistant and additional incidental costs.

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“What we had done is we applied for a grant in November of last year that allows for us to have a full time prosecutor and a part-time legal assistant to assist us with cases in prosecution involving violent crime,” Pleas said. “ And our definition of violent crime for the purpose of our grant — one was particularly homicides, aggravated assaults, cases involving firearms and felony drug distribution cases.”

She explained how Suffolk’s Ceasefire program will operate differently compared to others in the past, working to steer a person away from criminal activity.

“Ours focuses on deterring behavior before we get to the point where we have negative consequences,” she said. “We are trying to stem individuals away from the tide of increased violence that we’re seeing by offering alternatives, or for some people not just alternatives, but perhaps a launching pad for them to be successful in other ways that they weren’t before.” 

Pleas said what they do know is a lot of crime stems from lack of education, lack of resources, lack of treatment for some people.

“If we can get in and deter those people before they get connected to the criminal activity, then that makes them a better person, that makes their families better, that makes our communities better and safer,” she said.

Pleas said the program needs the community’s help and involvement to be successful.

“This has to be a community effort. It has to be an effort that is not just led by the Commonwealth Attorney, that’s not just led by the police department. We cannot do it all. We need our community to step up and assist,” Pleas said.  “We’ve already had commitment from community partners for education, for substance abuse treatment, for mental health resources. So those things will help us to help those individuals to steer them away from the activities that lead them to commit and things that would cause violent crime.”

Pleas also introduced Operations Ceasefire Prosecutor Amanda Abbey, who has worked as a veteran prosecutor for more than 15 years and has assisted both Newport News and Chesapeake commonwealth’s attorney’s offices. Joining Pleas’ team, Abbey gave insight into Operation Ceasefire’s history prior to its implementation in Suffolk.

“Operation Ceasefire was a program that started in Boston back in the mid-90s and it was a collaborative deterrence focused program that was successful,” Abbey said. “Given the grant from the Commonwealth, we are going to tailor that successful Boston Ceasefire Program to Suffolk.”

She said there will be two work groups — law enforcement and services and that the program “will not succeed without both.” 

The law enforcement work group consists of local law, state and federal law enforcement, probation and Commonwealth Attorney Pleas’ office. Services work group includes community outreach programs, community service board, prohibition, Suffolk Workforce Development and “other programs that fall under those umbrellas.”

The program uses intelligence-based methodology and provides a directed cease and desist message to those identified as engaged in activities leading to violent crimes to stop from illegal activity. 

Abbey offered more detail and emphasized its zero tolerance approach.

“We know what they’re doing in the community. We know that they are instigating violence in the community, and the community is no longer going to tolerate it,” she said. “We want them to be successful, productive citizens in the community and we are going to offer them this one opportunity and assist them in becoming productive citizens within our communities.”

Abbey emphasized this is done with the zero tolerance approach. 

“If after receiving their notice, [that] they do not take the opportunity that is being given them, to go through our services work group, to receive those services, to address the things that are preventing them from being productive citizens of Suffolk,” she said, “whether that is education issues, job skill issues, substance abuse issues, mental health issues, or any other issues that the community can assist them with so they can become productive members of the community.”

She said this is the ultimate goal.

If they do not take this avenue that is presented to them and they choose to continue instigating and victimizing the community of Suffolk, Abbey said Operation Ceasefire is going to focus on them until they stop committing crime or they have been removed from the community.

Pleas shared her long-term hopes for the project.

“I hope we start to bridge and repair the damage that’s been done for police relations over the past few years,” she said. “What we’ve seen is after the tragedy with George Floyd that there was a lot of police resentment.”

While it is completely understandable, Please said it has also created this very negative perception. 

“I will not take up for any police officer that has done anything wrong,” she said. “However, to categorically say that they’re all bad is not fair either. And we do need to rely on police, you know, when we have a school shooter. Who’s going in?”

The public also must understand that the role of prosecutors isn’t solely based on locking people up, Pleas said.

“I’ve had cases, and we’ve all had cases, where it’s very clear that the person committed the crime. I can prove it with my eyes closed,” she explained. “The ultimate goal may not be conviction, that may not be what is right, or just or fair.”

Pleas said they may need to come up and craft something just for the situation. 

“It’s not just about taking a case to court, getting a conviction and locking someone up and throwing away the key. I do believe in second chances,” she said. “I don’t believe in third, fourth, fifth, sixth. But to the extent that you have a community of individuals that have been raised and they don’t know what lies outside their neighborhood. We have some people here that have never been outside of Suffolk. We can do better.”