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Reading mayor outlines plan to fight gun violence in city

Reading Eagle - 2/17/2021

Feb. 17—In response to a fatal shooting by a 14-year-old boy earlier this month and the public outcry that followed, Mayor Eddie Moran released a three-pronged plan Tuesday to curb gun violence in the city.

"Today we address an issue of serious concern," said Moran, who was flanked by Police Chief Richard Tornielli and Dr. Khalid N. Mumin, Reading School District superintendent, at the press conference in City Hall. "Families are torn apart. Neighborhoods are damaged and communities suffer as a whole to gun violence."

Moran then issued a call to action.

"City Hall cannot combat crime by itself," Moran said. "It takes an entire community to work on these issues."

The first part of Moran's plan is to create a gun buyback program.

"That is going to take guns out of our streets," Moran said. "According to several studies, gun buyback programs have been shown to be successful, not only reducing the number of guns on our streets, but also reducing injuries and deaths."

Reading School Board member Becky Ellis suggested a gun buyback program at City Council's meeting last week.

Moran also announced the city will explore creating an auxiliary police program "that will empower residents to work with local police."

"Auxiliary police officers are civilians that are trained to support police and serve as volunteers who would donate their time to serve as eyes and ears for our community," he said.

The initiative will require greater research, collaboration and resources, he said.

"I had personal experience with such a program when I was raised in New York City," he said. "I have seen how that can come to fruition to benefit the community."

The third part is to partner with community organizations such as YouthBuild, Moms Demand Action, Village of Reading, Reading Recreation Commission, Olivet Boys & Girls Club and Reading School District.

"We are asking for those who are interested in and invested in our community to reach out to the mayor's office," Moran said.

In the police department, Tornielli appointed Lt. Eric Driesbach to coordinate with federal, state and local agencies to focus the department's resources on locating individuals responsible for bringing violence to the city.

Drop in crime

Crime in the city is at the lowest in decades, Tornielli said.

"Now is not the time for dramatics and hyperbole," Tornielli said. "Statements like there's an epidemic of gun violence or there's unchecked gun violence in our city is not based in fact."

He cited a 22% drop in crime in 2020, including a 3% decrease in violent crime. Officers also seized 234 firearms in 2020.

However, there has been an uptick in gun crimes over the past three years, he said.

"Many of the gun crimes are perpetrated by young adults and juveniles," Tornielli said.

To make a difference and prevent these incidents, the police need help, he said.

Tornielli credited partnerships with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies as helping to curb gun crimes.

In March, the police department partnered with the U.S. Marshals Service. That resulted in the arrest of 98 individuals, many wanted for violent crimes, Tornielli said. Officers also seized 11 firearms during those operations, he added.

Working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, seven individuals were arrested and 18 firearms and a large amount of illegal drugs were seized, Tornielli said.

But the police department could use some help from a local law enforcement department, he said.

"We need the Berks County Probation Office, specifically their juvenile probation office, to get back to meaningful work," Tornielli said. "Since the start of the (coronavirus) pandemic there has been little to no enforcement or compliance checks on juveniles under supervision in their homes or communities."

Berks County Probation Chief Robert Williams did not see the press conference but in an email said Tornielli's statement was "inaccurate," and he would be happy to discuss the issue later.

Nineteen juvenile offenders who were under the supervision of the county probation office committed acts of gun violence in 2020, Tornielli said.

"The rate of recidivism of unsupervised juvenile offenders, and it relates to violent crimes, is staggering," he said.

"I call on the leadership of the county probation office to let the excellent men and women that work for you to get out in our community and do the great work they always do to help us prevent these tragedies," he said.

School district will help

The Reading School District is ready to support Moran's initiatives, Mumin said.

When the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting happened in 2018, there was an outcry from the youth nationally to do something about gun violence.

Reading's students wanted to participate in a walk, and Mumin said he worked with the student leadership to organize it.

Mumin suggested that the youth be brought into the conversation about gun violence.

"Who am I to tell our kids they are not allowed to exercise voice, that they are not allowed to engage with community partners and they are not allowed to take on the responsibility to end a problem that is dramatically impacting them, their families and community?" he asked.

Mumin disagreed with Tornielli's suggestion that students not being in school buildings is leading to an increase in violent juvenile crime.

"There's no dataset that says 'While students are in school violence goes down,'" Mumin said.

Because of the pandemic, the Reading School District has been in an all virtual learning environment since the beginning of the school year.

Mumin did say there is more structure and support in place for students when they are able to attend school in person.

In-person instruction is the best form of instruction, but people need to be realistic about students returning to school during the pandemic, Mumin said.

"There are a lot of variables that go into having students return to school safely," he said.

Mumin would not commit to when students and teachers could return to the buildings.

"What if the numbers go down? Vaccines are available. Testing is available. Will students be returning to the classrooms this school year?" Mumin said. "My answer to that is I hope it would be 'yes.'"

Radarra McLendon, president of the Village of Reading, wanted to know what can be done to stop gun violence.

"We really need to sit down with local influencers and organizations," McLendon said. "We really need to talk about prevention and community outreach. We know that is the way to reduce gun violence."

McLendon's group held a community forum on gun violence last week.

Moran said this is just the beginning of trying to reduce violent crime in the city.

"We are far from finished," Moran said. "We just began talking about these difficult issues. I can assure you that I am not one to just come here and give you a statement. I won't come here unless we have an action plan. These will be moving forward in the days to come."


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