To fight crime, Mesa, Ariz., targets guns
The fast-growing city is seeing early success in its new partnership with federal firearms officials.
When the speeding Chevrolet Tracker came to a screeching halt in a quiet cul de sac, two men jumped out and leapt over a cement wall. The driver, a woman, backed up – nearly hitting a police car – then sped off.Skip to next paragraph
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A simple joy ride? That's what officers in hot pursuit thought until they found a homemade bomb in the street near where the Tracker stopped and a handgun in the yard by the wall that the two men jumped. The high-speed chase turned into a months-long investigation that has led to the arrests of three gang members, the possibility of more arrests, and the prospect of a federal trial with stiffer penalties than state charges.
Welcome to Mesa, a fast-growing Arizona city that faces so much gun-related violent crime that it has brought in the federal government to help. The Violent Crime Impact Team (VCIT) of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is working with Mesa and 28 other cities to reduce gun-related crime. Here in Mesa, as elsewhere, there are early signs of success.
"VCIT is a really important factor" in reducing crime, says Mesa Police Chief George Gascón. For example, the number of violent crimes in the city fell 24 percent for the May-July period this year compared with the same period a year ago, he says. The VCIT "gives us additional federal resources – money, people, equipment, the ability to investigate gun crimes more thoroughly."
Developed by the US Attorney General's office in 2004, the VCIT aims to reduce the numbers of homicides and other violent crimes committed with guns in cities that have a high and rising level of violent crime.
"What I like about the ... program is, first, its focus on reaching the most violent criminals in the community and getting them off the streets," says Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "Second, many of these cities are impoverished and don't have the resources to fight crime in a realistic way."
The program is a reaction to the loss of focus on fighting urban street crime after 9/11, Dr. Levin says. Funding for police on the beat and social programs, such as after-school care, was drastically reduced – or completely taken away. Ordinary people became complacent because the crime rates had dropped, he adds.
Out of prison, young men lead gangs
But many of the young men who were sent to prison joined gangs for protection, he says. Today, those men are out on the streets and have become gang leaders. That's why there's a dramatic increase in the murder rate, he adds, "especially murders by young people using handguns."
Mesa, with a population of 447,500 spread over 132 square miles, has a burgeoning gang problem that has spilled out onto the streets. The murder rate more than doubled last year – 20 compared with nine in 2005. Last year's violent-crime rate reached 51 per 1,000 residents – higher than even Los Angeles's rate of 32 per 1,000.
Work with Mesa began in January
Although Mesa only became a VCIT city officially in June, two agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) began working with the Mesa Police Department in January to lay the groundwork for joint operations. In early July, the Phoenix division of the ATF embedded six of its agents in the department. Two of them are working in a crime analysis center, looking at local crime patterns and evaluating current processes to determine how they can be improved. The others are working in the field with police officers, often paying "special visits" to known gang members, says Kevin Baggs, the police department's detective sergeant in charge of VCIT.