Ohio program links criminals, positive influences

AVONDALE, OH (FOX19) - This Cincinnati neighborhood, where 11 murders took place last year, will be the first in the country to try a ground-breaking anti-violence program that uses a relatively simple approach.

The Moral Voice program involves people of influence in the lives of criminals to speak to them, to encourage them to stop shooting and selling drugs and offer real help if they do.

Cincinnati Police and Avondale leaders unveiled details of Moral Voice to about 75 residents at a Council Public Safety Committee meeting recently.

"We recognize that it's not Avondale that has the problem. It is a few individuals in Avondale who have the issues," said Dorothy Smoot, executive director of the Police Partnering Center and chief program officer at the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati.

She is one of the community leaders who've put the program together. Conversations will begin immediately with some 15 to 20 offenders who've made Ridgeway Avenue and Carplin Place the hottest of Avondale's crime hot spots.

Moral Voice is one of three parts of the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV), an anti-crime program started in 2007.

The Urban League and Ohio Justice and Policy Center are two of the agencies poised to help. Avondale's Moral Voice program is the first nationally directed by the community, said program creator David Kennedy, a New York City criminologist.

"The moral voice is that of the community, of Avondale, and the message is that we need you to understand the pain you are causing, we need for you to reject violence, and we are here to help you get out and find a better life," Kennedy said in a phone interview with the Enquirer.

If the offenders don't accept help, they will be the subject of intense police attention. If the approach works in Avondale, Moral Voice will be used in other Cincinnati neighborhoods, say CIRV and Cincinnati Police, who chose Avondale as the first site because of the commitment of community leaders to address violence and recent improvements in the overall crime rate.

Cincinnati Police Chief James Craig said at this time last year Avondale had experienced three homicides and eight shootings, compared to just one shooting this year.

Yet about an hour after Craig spoke at the recreation center, a 4-year-old boy was caught in crossfire and wounded in the leg, just one block north of the Ridgeway hot spot.

Avondale and Over-the-Rhine led the city with 11 homicides each in 2011.

"This is about helping a community in crisis with gun violence," said Eliot Isaac, a Cincinnati Police captain and commander of District 4, which includes Avondale.

Moral Voice organizers, which include the police, the Urban League and new Avondale Comprehensive Development Corp., will evaluate results in June.

"How many people will have decided to change direction," Smoot said. Evelyn Manuel, a 32-year-old married mother of five children, is hoping that her 17-year-old son, Romello Wheeler, decides to turn his life around.

She last saw him this past summer and is now hoping a new anti-violence initiative can locate him and pull him away from a life of crime before it's too late.

She fears for his life. "He's been lured to the streets, and he wants to be a part of it," Manuel said. Manuel, a nurse who grew up on Ridgeway Avenue in Avondale but now lives in Northside, thinks her son might be among the 15 to 20 offenders that Moral Voice could reach in the next couple of months.

Manuel told the story of her son and brother, Carlos Manuel, shot and killed in a drug deal gone wrong in Avondale in 2003. He would be 34.

"I lost my brother to the streets," she said. "I don't want to lose my son the same way." Moral Voice is just one of the many programs and projects gaining a foothold in Avondale, a community determined to improve the quality of life for its 12,500 residents.

Several Avondale-based organizations and community groups have been involved in putting Moral Voice together.

Among them are Community Oriented Problem Policing, Project Nehemiah Ceasefire, the Community Police Partnering Center - located in the Avondale headquarters of the Urban League - and the Avondale Community Council.

Moral Voice works on four levels of involvement. The first is the overall community, in this case, the neighborhood of Avondale.

Community members have quietly provided the identities of some known criminal leaders and their underlings on Ridgeway and Carplin.

It's not the residents of Ridgeway who are necessarily causing the problems. Sometimes, drug sellers from outside the neighborhood will take occupancy of a resident's front porch from which to do business.

The second level is called "brokers," community leaders such as Smoot, Comprehensive Development executive director Ozie Davis, Avondale Community Council members and clergy.

"We're getting more and more community people involved," Davis said. "That's what's going to change the reality of the situation and the perception that Avondale is a dangerous place."

Some of Avondale's 52 churches are a source of volunteers, said Ennis Tait, pastor of Church of the Living God on Forest Avenue and director of Project Nehemiah Ceasefire. "These are positive angels who can watch over the neighborhood," Tait said.

The third level consists of "influencers," people who've been identified by the brokers to have or previously had relationships with the offenders.

This group can include former teachers or youth sports coaches, clergy members and even relatives. CIRV program manager Reggie Brazzile, 48, a former social worker, is familiar with some of the offenders whom the community is trying to reach.

"You want to get as close to the individual as possible," Brazzile said. .

The final group in the Moral Voice process is the offenders themselves, and the Moral Voice draws two demographic groups - 18- to 24-year-old men and 24- to 35-year-old men, the latter group being more likely to accept help getting out.

"They know it's a dead-end, and incentives might work," Brazzile said of the older group.

Those incentives range from help clearing up a child support arrearage, past legal problems or an expired driver's license.

The Ohio Justice and Policy Center is among the agencies ready to help.

"The younger guys just want the notoriety that comes with being somebody on the street," Brazzile said. Romello Wheeler might be one of them.

At just 17, he last completed 10th grade at Taft High School, where, his mother said, he excelled in math and science.

"Right now it's just truancy and disorderly conduct, but you worry that there's always a sprinkle before the rain falls," Evelyn Manuel said.

"He is logical and articulate.

He just needs to know there are better choices to be made.

He has to stop living for just right now and live for the future."

--- Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer

 (Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)