Targeting guns to reduce violent crime
A new law enforcement strategy takes hold under the radar of the gun control debate: Targeting guns and their users is seen as surest way to reduce violent crime
In the roll call room of Baltimore's Northwestern District Police Headquarters, a squat building in a neighborhood of liquor stores and crumbling row houses, photos of the city's most wanted suspects flash on a new, flat-screen TV.Skip to next paragraph
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They are not necessarily drug kingpins or murderers or even dealers. But to Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, they are top priority in this city with one of the highest homicide rates in the country; a city that residents occasionally, grimly, refer to as Bodymore, Murderland.
They are, he says, "bad guys with guns." And he wants them off the street.
"If you start boiling down the violence in Baltimore – the homicides and the nonfatal shootings – you find that 50 percent of all the people we charge with those offenses have one thing in common: They have gun offenses in their backgrounds," Mr. Bealefeld says. "And we know that when bad guys get out, they get guns again. They don't work for IBM. They don't hand out Bibles. They stand outside with guns waiting to perpetrate another crime."
And so, Bealefeld says, he has made it clear whom his officers should be targeting.
"I don't aim to make [it] all that complicated," he says. "Find out all we can about gun offenders and focus on those guys."
After years of fighting the so-called "war on drugs" – the obsessive pursuit of everyone involved in drug crime, from users to dealers to suppliers – Bealefeld and other urban police chiefs nationwide are shifting their focus toward a new prime target: gun offenders.
This law enforcement philosophy is born of the growing acknowledgment that millions of dollars and arrests have done little to slow urban America's drug trade, and that a fresh strategy is needed to further reduce violence in the country's toughest cities. From new gunshot-detection cameras in New Haven, Conn., to a gun-offender registry in Baltimore; from a Sacramento, Calif., law requiring gun dealers to notify police about people who buy bullets to a proposal approved by the Los Angeles City Council that would let landlords evict tenants convicted of gun crimes, city police departments and governments are putting new emphasis on fighting illegal guns.
The shifts are local, differ from city to city, and are largely beneath the radar of the national gun control debate. Yet taken together, it is a sea change in how cities are attempting to tackle what has often been viewed as hopeless, ingrained urban violence, say criminal justice analysts.
"You're never going to stop the drug trade," says Sheryl Goldstein, the director of the mayor's office on criminal justice in Baltimore.
"For a long time, many police departments in this country really focused on the war against drugs – they believed that drug trade sparked violence…. [Now] we're seeing a shifting of that focus to gun trafficking and getting guns off the street."
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Baltimore, under the guidance of Bealefeld, shows one of the clearest breaks with old police strategy.
The commissioner has encouraged his officers to focus their efforts on gun crime, even if that means letting some drug arrests slide. The "bad guy" with the gun, he says, is the focus.
"When my cops pull up to a corner, what I want them to do is look for that guy first," Bealefeld says, pointing to a face on the flat-screen. "The 15-year-old with three bags of weed? He's going to drop the weed and run and lead them on a four-block foot chase. The guy with the gun, with the baggy pants and no belt? With the Glock jammed down there? He's going to saunter off very quietly. He's been arrested before; he knows what cops do.… I want my cop to get out of my car and say, 'Run, Forrest, run. But you sit down. I'm talking to you."