New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
Officials seek cause of increased gun violence
Too many guns, not enough police among reasons cited for the spike
As gun violence remains a fact of life in parts of Connecticut, experts and officials continue to weigh and seek to understand the factors behind it, striving to help avert the death and pain that has affected many.
In New Haven, for example, there have been three homicides since Sunday, Aug. 5, bringing the total for the year to 22. There were 20 homicides in New Haven in all of 2020, which, in turn, was up from 11 in 2019.
In Bridgeport, there have been 14 homicides so far this year, about the same as this time last year, when the city ended the year with 24.
In Hartford, there had been 27 homicides as of Sept. 4, up from 16 at the same point in 2020, according to police.
Across the country, there have been 14,166 non-suicide
related deaths due to gun violence so far in 2021, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. In all of 2020, there were
19,411; in 2019, there were 15,488; in 2018, 14,896.
Shooting incidents in Hartford have decreased this year, falling from 145 to 126, but remain up compared to 2017 through 2019, when 91, 108 and 104 were reported by this time.
In Waterbury, there had been seven homicides as of Aug. 31, compared to seven during the same period in 2020, according to police. In Middletown, there have three homicides to date this year; two were the result of gun violence.
In Danbury there was one fatal shooting this year, when an 18-year-old was killed in a drive-by incident.
In Bridgeport, Mayor Joe Ganim and Acting Police Chief Rebeca Garcia announced in June that police patrols would increase citywide with focuses on high-crime areas after two shooting homicides in less than 24 hours in the Park City.
‘Explosion of guns’
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker noted the complexity of the issue; he said the prevalence of guns in society, as well as the city, as one of the factors behind the continuing violence, noting gun purchases had increased, as had firearm seizures by city police.
As of Aug. 29, there had been 78 nonfatal shootings in the Elm City this year, according to New Haven police. At the same point in 2020, there had been 71.
“Frankly, there isn’t a consensus about what’s going on. There’s a lot of things at play here. For example, during the pandemic, there’s an explosion of guns being purchased,” said Elicker. “Our department has taken many more
guns off the street this year, as compared to last year . ... The fact that there are so many more guns on the street is likely contributing to this problem.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported conducting 39.7 million firearm-related background checks in 2020, up from
28.4 million in 2019 and 26.2 million in 2018. As of Aug. 31, the FBI had conducted 27.8 million such checks in 2021.
The FBI first conducted more than 20 million firearm-related background checks in a single year in 2013, according to the agency. It first conducted more than 10 million in a single year in 2006.
New Haven police have seized 140 guns so far this year and made 135 associated arrests in 2021, as compared to 92 firearms seized and 109 arrests at the same time in 2020, Elicker said.
Drugs; pandemic backlogs
Experts have said that when the state was in the tightest grip of the pandemic, years of community work to stem violence in major Connecticut cities was decimated. Further, state police data show homicides in Connecticut increased nearly 25 percent in 2020.
John DeCarlo, a retired Branford police chief and associate professor in criminal justice at the University of New Haven, said there was a drop in some crime in the state during the during the height of the pandemic last year, but that has changed.
In part, said DeCarlo, some violent crime dropped during the pandemic because “open air markets,” the term used to describe street sales of drugs, abated to a degree.
“It was whole different milieu of how we were operating as a society – we didn’t go to the store ... we didn’t go to our favorite drug dealers,” said DeCarlo, who is the director of the
master’s program in criminal justice at the Henry C. Lee School of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at UNH. “Drug markets were not occurring during COVID; there were so few people on the street.”
But as people were able to leave their homes, that changed, he said.
“We know that drug transactions and the whole culture around drugs and drug sales causes a lot of crime,” DeCarlo said. “This is also related to gangs; it is not just individuals who are selling drugs. Gang-affiliated people are selling drugs.”
Achilles “Archie” Generoso, who served as the statewide head of antiviolence organization Project Longevity until July and previously worked as an assistant police chief in
New Haven, said the disruption to the court system during the pandemic, crimes by juveniles and a lack of staffing in police departments were factors, as well.
During the pandemic, the court system stopped holding jury trials, helping foster a backlog of cases and leading to some people involved in violence being released on bond, Generoso said.
Probation and parole officers also were limited in their efforts, conducting most of their check-ins over the phone and on Zoom, he said. While the staffers did the best they could, the lessened supervision “was madness,” he said.
Generoso called for cities to hire more officers to dissuade gun violence.
The community policing model takes time and bodies, he noted — officers have to be able to walk the beat and meet with people, which requires them to have some latitude, instead of being focused on responding to emergency calls.
For example, when he returned to the New Haven Police Department in 2012,
Generoso said, the department was budgeted for 495 officers.
By 2016, it had 455 officers on staff, Generoso said. Now, it’s budgeted for 406 officers, with 319 currently on staff, according to Interim Chief Renee Dominguez.
“Cops count. Staffing counts. The amount of police officers on the street count,” said Generoso. “We have to change the conversation.”
DeCarlo also noted the issue of whether municipalities can spend enough to fully staff police departments.
“Policing is municipal; politics are involved. Money is involved,” DeCarlo said. “They are not able to do community policing – not able to prevent crime – if there are not enough of them. We cannot have the effect we need.”
“When you do not have enough cops, you can’t institute smart policing ... if they are running from one call to the other,” he said, rather than taking preventative steps. “Once a crime occurs, we then have a victim.”
Without the ability to draw on the entire potential of the police or rely on the ability of the courts to sanction those who commit crimes, organizations like Project Longevity were limited, Generoso said. Their offer of assistance means less to those at risk of being involved in crimes, as the threat of punishment is lessened, as well; it’s harder to respond when a group or gang commits violence.
“If there’s no consequences, how do you keep your promises?” Generoso said.
DeCarlo said the biggest promise of any government is public safety – and if there is not enough money to provide that, then crime has a chance to grow.
“Crime is a social disease; if police do preventive policing that is a huge impediment to crime occurring,” DeCarlo said. “We're never going to ameliorate crime completely, but (we) can get mitigation – of course.”
Generoso also noted the prevalence of guns in society. When he was first on the job, after joining the New Haven force in 1975, it was a big deal for an officer to seize a firearm, he said. Now, it’s an everyday occurrence in Connecticut’s major cities.
“The availability of guns out there is just mind-shattering,” said Generoso.
To keep crime rates in context, state residents should understand that there was a drop in violent crime in the United States beginning in 1994, DeCarlo said.
This translated to a reduction of about 45 percent in both violence and property crime, he said.
“That was unprecedented,” he said. “Even the upticks we are seeing now are upticks but not anywhere (near) the pre-1994 numbers.”
DeCarlo said, for instance, when he worked in New York City around 1991-92, there were about 2,700 homicides per year. By 2019-20 that number was about 300, he said.
“It was an incredible decrease in violent crime,” he said, attributing it to better police methodologies among other factors.
DeCarlo said criminologists have struggled for years with determining the factors that drive crime.
He said three factors have to be in places for crime to occur: a likely target, such as an unlocked car or house, a motivated offender, and a lack of capable guardianship, such as community-based policing.
“In New Haven and other places there aren’t enough people to prevent crime – they are forced into a reactive role,” he said.
Elicker also noted economic pressure, the mental health impact of the coronavirus
pandemic and the interruption to gun violence-related programs, such as Project Longevity in New Haven, as factors behind the rise in gun violence.
Some of the shootings are related to groups and gangs; some are domestic violence; some come about because of everyday disputes, such as a recent homicide on Sherman Parkway, which seemingly stemmed from a dice game, Elicker said.
“There’s all kinds of reasons that we are speculating, not just in New Haven, but nationally, about why this is occurring,” said Elicker. “Because there are all these different issues going on at the same time, it makes it more challenging for us to address it. We need to do all of the above to respond to it.”
The city’s approach to addressing violence includes, among other facets, increased walking beats, efforts to meet and help or dissuade people at risk of becoming involved in violence, street outreach workers, social and youth programs and a reentry center for people returning to New Haven from prison, Elicker has said previously.
New Haven Interim Chief Dominugez said the three most recent homicides in New Haven are not currently believed to be related, although investigatory efforts are still in the early stages.
When killings occur in such a short time period, she noted, the department has to shift around officers and resources, taking focus off one incident to turn to another.
“There’s a lot of work that has now fallen on the detective bureau,” she said.
Some of the violence in 2021 has been gang and group-related, she said, but they stem from a series of situations, such as domestic violence.