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July 10, 2006
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Taking aim at street guns: As shootings soar, special police team pursues illegal firearms

By Rick Hartford

`Start with the little things,'' he says. ``The little things make a difference.''

It's early evening on Albany Avenue, one of Hartford's meanest of streets, and police Sgt. Norm Godard is trying to make a difference.

In response to increasing gun violence, the Hartford Police Department has made it a top priority to clear the city's streets of illegal firearms. Through June, 107 people have been shot so far this year, compared to 88 during the same period in 2005, according to department records.

Godard's team of six uniformed officers -- the Northeast Conditions Unit -- work in the city's northeast corner as part of the department's strategy. Godard refers to his unit members as his ``crime-fighting piranhas.''

They concentrate on the gangsters, the drug dealers, the loiterers, the public drinkers and the ``mopes'' -- the surly young men who shuffle down the avenue with no particular place to go. Their gangs have names like ``The Ave.,'' ``CNN'' and ``West Hell.''

Officers since January have taken dozens of illegal guns off the streets.

On this Friday evening, Godard is dealing with one of the ``little things'' -- what he calls a ``quality-of-life issue.'' He is about to separate a man from his beer.

Godard tells the man he can't walk down a public street with an open bottle of beer, even if it's in a paper bag. The man is not buying it. The man says the bottle has a cap on it, so it's not an open bottle. A verbal tug of war ensues, and the man grips the bottle tighter. The argument goes in circles, accelerating as the man's voice gets louder and he moves his face closer to Godard's.

Godard takes the bottle and tells the man to back away from the police car. He pulls out his ticket book and starts to write. The man sings out a note of despair. He knows he is going to lose his beer and will have a date in community court.

But suddenly fate intervenes and the man's fortunes change. The police radio crackles with urgent voices of breathless, running officers. Godard hands the beer back to the man and orders him to pour it out. ``Now!'' he yells as he throws the car into gear. He's not waiting around to see if the man takes one last sip.

Responding to a loitering complaint at the corner of Albany and Vine Street, officers Gabe Laureano, Matt Labbe and Tony Rinaldi approach some young men, their oversized jeans strapped tight with belts somewhere way south of their waistlines. As the officers approach, one of the youths bolts, throwing down what appears to be an ``8 ball,'' one-eighth ounce of cocaine. His companions either don't see him discard the packet or are trying to ignore it.

Either way, the fleeing young man now is in the unit's sights for suspected drug possession.

What had begun as a loitering complaint on Vine Street is now a foot chase. The suspect is weaving through backyards and jumping over chain-link fences. But he's sprinting Godard's way.

From his car on Albany Avenue, Goddard spots a skinny young man in a long white T-shirt and baggy jeans flitting through the back yards on Magnolia Street -- a trail of blue uniforms behind him. Godard guns his patrol car onto Magnolia Street, stopping in front of No. 59.

He gets out of the car and draws his weapon. The suspect, sprinting toward the street, almost runs into him. But the youth skitters to the left up a set of stairs and onto a front porch.

Godard is right behind and grabs him by the neck. Exhausted, the suspect deflates ``like a 30-pound bag of air,'' Godard says.

As he's being handcuffed, the suspect complains, ``You're breaking my arm.'' Closer inspection shows that the cuffs are chafing a recent gunshot wound on his wrist. The officers search him and find 34 grams of crack cocaine and five bags of marijuana.

This is the second time Jaquan Leggett, 18, has been arrested recently with crack cocaine, police say. He volunteers to Laureano, Labbe and Rinaldi that he knows where a gun is hidden on Albany Avenue.

It checks out. Another gun seized.

Back at the substation, Labbe takes a Polaroid picture of the weapon, a .22 caliber target pistol, and Laureano pins the photograph to a bulletin board. It is the newest addition to the photo gallery of their work. It is a small trophy this time, but it's still possible the gun eventually could be linked to a shooting.

A gun Laureano seized last fall could have been used to murder him, he says. He was in his patrol car near the corner of Albany and Brook Street, where drug dealers were having a dispute, and one of them shot four rounds at him.

On this night, Godard says he saw Leggett reach into his waistband as he ran out from the backyard on Magnolia Street. Godard knows that whenever a suspect reaches for his waistband, he could be going for a gun.

As it turns out, Leggett was not going for a gun. But the daily reality for Godard and the rest of the Northeast Conditions Unit is that he could have been.

There is one thing always on Godard's mind as he patrols the North End: ``I may have to shoot somebody tonight.''

It's the little things that make a difference.

Copyright 2006 The Hartford Courant Company
Hartford Courant (Connecticut)

Full story: Taking aim at street guns: As shootings soar, special police team pursues illegal firearms






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