By: Emily Gursky

For decades, violence seemed to be part of the landscape of Newburgh, N.Y. Crime rates were consistently rising and the presence of gang members in the city was a serious concern for residents.  

In a reflective piece for The Havok Journal, current Mayor of Cornwall-on-Hudson James A. Gagliano recalled that Newburgh was “hemorrhaging” between 2005 and 2009, when the Newburgh Bloods and Latin Kings were the most powerful gangs in the city. That’s when he created the Hudson Valley Safe Streets Task Force through New York’s FBI office to take down leadership of these groups. 

Combining federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, HVSSTF conducted investigations and pursued “surge” raids, similar to tactics used in military operations. Hudson Valley Magazine reported that a notable May 2010 raid resulted in 78 arrests, crippling leadership of the Bloods and Latin Kings. 

 “We really brought the hammer down,” the former agent recalled. 

Just three years after the task force arrested the final major Newburgh suspect, a new approach developed in the city. This would be the Group Violence Intervention Model, made possible through a grant from the Department of Justice and guidance from the National Network for Safe Communities. While the task force is still present in the area, the GVI model can target the now-reduced number of group members more directly. 

“You go after the worst of the worst,” Gagliano said. “And I do think the task force broke down some barriers,” thus becoming a stepping stone for newer initiatives to build on that success. 

Roughly 20 groups currently exist in Newburgh, according to Isabel Rojas, GVI Project Manager at the Orange County District Attorney’s office. But she says that members are “few and identifiable.” She also notes that the number of “impact players”—those who actively commit crimes—is even less than that. 

This allows the GVI program to maintain consistent communication with these individuals, while also stressing group accountability through a clear message delivered by members of Newburgh law enforcement and social services. This happens through regular call-ins and door-to-door visits with group-affiliated individuals. 

“We tell them, ‘if one of you commits a crime, we’re coming after the whole group,’” stated Rojas. Most importantly, she and her team express to members that they’ve got their backs—and just want to keep them “safe, alive and out of prison.” 

Since the model’s implementation in 2015, instances of violence seem to have decreased each year. For instance, Rojas reports that in 2015 there were 54 shooting incidents, which went down to 20 in 2016 before dropping to just eight in 2017. 

Both programs require cooperation between law enforcement and a level of community outreach to make a lasting impact. Rojas, having been in law enforcement for 20 years, knows the challenges community members face amid the violence. 

“I’ve seen how violence disrupts neighborhoods and destroys families on both sides,” she said. “It’s hard to watch the devastation this violence leaves behind.” 

Similarly, Gagliano had lived near the area and coached “at-risk” youth of Newburgh through the Boys and Girls Club, many of whom had connections to group members or were impacted by gang violence in some way. This kind of connection, he says, built sustainable trust between these teens and law enforcement. 

His bond with one player in particular really pushed him to stop powerful Newburgh gangs for good—Jeffrey Zachary, a 13-year-old straight-A student who was killed by two Latin Kings who mistook him for a Blood. 

While both the HVSSTF and GVI model have been successful so far, they’ve also faced limitations of funding and manpower. 

“There’s only so many hours in a day,” Gagliano explained. “Everything costs money, everything is overtime.” He continues, “so you’ve got to be smart about it.” 

The GVI approach is fairly new in the grand scheme of things, but it continues to operate in Newburgh and is continually reassessed to remain flexible and adaptable. 

“My biggest wish is for folks to understand that this is not a program that goes away once it’s all said and done.” Rojas continues, “it works well when we have buy-in from every level.”