Following a recent spike in gun crime in the city of Kingston, a number of local elected and law enforcement officials convened at the county probation office on Tuesday, March 23 to denounce the violence and announce new programs meant to reduce it.
These programs include a gun buyback initiative that would trade grocery-store gift certificates for guns, extended hours with programming at city schools to give youth a safe place to congregate, and participation in a statewide law-enforcement program that would fund community-policing efforts designed to build trust and improve relations between the community and police.
“Enough is enough, it is time for us to take a stand against gun violence and provide our community with action-oriented solutions to end this epidemic of violence,” said County Executive Pat Ryan. “As we continue to navigate through the pandemic, it is even more important for us to partner with the community to find safe after-school programming for our youth and put real dollars behind taking guns off of our streets. Ulster County is prepared to do just that, we cannot allow the cycle of violence to continue unchecked.”
Gun buyback program
The “Groceries for Guns” program in Kingston will allow residents to exchange their guns for Hannaford gift cards, no questions asked. All types of firearms will be accepted: $25 for a non-working gun, pellet gun or air rifle, $200 for any rifle or shotgun in working condition, $300 for any working handgun and $400 for any working “assault type” rifle. Additionally, those who have information that leads the Kingston Police Department to the location of an illegal gun will also be eligible for the gift card and can remain anonymous. Those interested in leaving an anonymous tip can call 845-331-4499 or Police Chief Egidio Tinti directly at 845-943-5766. The program will not have one dedicated drop-off location; instead, officers will meet at a mutually convenient location.
“The police department is offering this incentive for the community and not as an information-gathering tool,” said Police Chief Egidio Tinti. “We will not be collecting information from those who use the Groceries for Guns program to exchange a gun or those who provide us with information that leads to the recovery of an illegal firearm.”
Mayor Steve Noble said while it’s unclear how many guns the city will receive from this program, and thus how much it could cost, the police department has $5,000 in seed money (with additional donations coming in, according to Tinti). Noble said the $5,000 for this program is coming from “donated funds that were set aside many years ago for a program like this one.” No taxpayer dollars will be used. Although the city will be giving out Hannaford gift cards, the city has no formal partnership with the grocery store.
“We do think this is a tool that can be utilized,” said Noble. “We think having this as an ongoing program can’t hurt. Most weapons that are used in illegal crimes are stolen, and stolen from people’s houses that don’t have the guns properly locked up, in their basement or attic. It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the fact that many of the weapons are gotten into the hands of criminals through burglaries.”
Beginning June 1 and running throughout the summer, Lights on Kingston will allow for the high school doors to be open on Fridays from 6 to 10 p.m. Between those hours, there will be different events including basketball, dance activities, videos games and more. The program will be a community collaboration with local restaurants providing food to participating students.
The program will be led in partnership with the Kingston School District, the City of Kingston, Harambee, and the Ulster County Youth Bureau with $45,000 of funding coming from Project Resilience, the county’s Covid-19 relief program funded through community donations.
“It has a model of a village – everyone taking care of each other and the community in which we live,” said Ulster County Human Rights Commissioner Tyrone Wilson. “With the Lights On program, it doesn’t cost our kids anything. They can come, it’s free for them. It’s an opportunity where we can put arms around our kids and keep them safe, give them programs, let them explore, challenge their minds. Their minds are constantly running, and they need to let that out. They need a space where they can dream again.”
Gun Involved Violence Elimination, or GIVE, is a state-wide program that works to help law-enforcement deter gun violence. Ryan announced that $240,320 would be used to participate in the program, which works with 17 different counties outside of New York City that have high rates of shootings and violent crimes. The funding is used “for equipment, overtime, training, technical support and personnel, including crime analysts and prosecutors.” With the GIVE program, participants are required to “design a gun violence reduction plan that employs at least two of the following evidence-based strategies: hot-spots policing, focused deterrence, street outreach and crime prevention through environmental design.” Additionally, participants must merge procedural justice into the plan “in an effort to foster trust and respect among individuals and communities with the law enforcement professionals who serve and protect them.”
This will be the second year Ulster has participated in this program, and Ryan said the county will be able to “amp it up even more” with the additional funding.
“We’re still finalizing the plan,” said Ryan. “The idea is each of those different agencies [the Kingston Police Department, district attorney, probation department and sheriff’s office] will have a slightly different role to play in reducing gun violence. It has to all be in coordination, so that’s the role the county plays in it. I think it will be a combination of more focus on illegal-gun elimination efforts, whether it’s buyback programs or investigative work to try and get the illicit weapons off the streets.”
Noble said the focus would be on community-policing rather than the hot-spot saturation patrols employed last summer following another warm-weather spike in shootings.
“We need to take a community policing approach, which means more officers walking in the neighborhood, getting to know the community and creating that trust,” said Noble. “It’s how we’ve been most successful, including getting an arrest made so quickly. The murder [of Erik Crawford that occurred March 21] was solved because the community was so willing to talk to us. We are starting to build those bridges.”
Tinti described increased community policing as an “evolving program,” which has been implemented for some time now, but has continued to be discussed internally as it “takes some time for these programs to be put together.”
“A lot of it is going to require a ‘buy-in’ from the officers,” said Tinti. “I could come up with an idea, a supervisor could come up with an idea – but until it’s implemented and there is buy-in from the rank and file, it’s going to be difficult to get it off the ground.”
Right now, the department is considering how to increase engagement – which might have different definitions depending on each officer.
“Some people feel a traffic ticket is police engagement, others feel it’s a friendly wave or discussion of a baseball game,” said Tinti. “What we’re trying to do is allow the police officers to have the freedom to explore possibilities of community engagement.”
Despite the police officers having the “freedom” and “discretion” based on the situation, Tinti did say there would be a process to hold the officers accountable.
“At some point, there will be an evaluation of what’s going on,” said Tinti. “We do have our daily activity reports that are being reviewed. If we find that officers are doing traffic stops and giving warnings, then that’s great. If we find they’re walking the beat more, that is fine.”
Recent shootings sparked response
The new initiatives come after two additional fatal shootings in the city of Kingston in recent weeks. Erick D. Crawford, 38, of Kingston, was shot over the weekend at the intersection of Liberty Street and Broadway. Police later arrested Truvock Noble, also known as Jeffrey Ali, 45, a homeless man living in Kingston, who was charged with the murder. The shooting was the fifth in Kingston since February 27, and the first homicide. Just days prior, 19-year-old Raymond Robinson accidentally shot himself in a Broadway apartment, which ultimately led to his death at the MidHudson Regional Hospital the next day. Since the fall of 2019, there have been a total of six fatal shootings in the city.
The recent rise in gun activity led several city of Kingston aldermen to call on Noble to take a stance against the shootings. The call to action asked Noble to “clearly denounce the illegal drug trade and violence of all types,” “work closely with the Common Council to engage in true community development of effective and widely supported safety practices,” and “develop a full articulated plan that includes 1) clearly defined benchmarks for demonstrating progress and 2) specific dates for reaching them.”
Noble called for a multifaceted approach to the city’s increase in gun violence.
“We need to make sure that there are enough jobs in our community,” he said. “It’s a big lift, but we are working on all aspects of what makes people turn to illegal drugs and guns and violence. It’s because they don’t have good housing, it’s because they don’t have access to jobs – they don’t have a foundation where they feel comfortable in. We have to tackle all of those. It’s not just putting more cops on the street.”
The gun-related violence hasn’t been confined to the City of Kingston. On March 20, Garry Kniffen, 56 of New Paltz, was allegedly involved in an altercation at the Orale Mexico restaurant, located on Old Route 299 in New Paltz, where a weapon was discharged inside the bar striking a 59-year-old male.
Ryan said he also wants to send a message to those perpetrating the violence.
“I want to be very clear that we have zero tolerance for this kind of violence and those that are out there hurting young people and our residents with gun violence,” said Ryan. “The whole community is going to come together and make sure this doesn’t continue to happen. We cannot let it continue to happen. I’m committed to that, and I know others are as well. I see it as a critical role for the county.”