08/21/2007

To target crime, Mesa, Ariz. targets guns

By Faye Bowers
The Christian Science Monitor
 
MESA, Ariz. 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.

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 Gascon. 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.

"I modeled this program after other cities, successful operational plans," says Peter Forcelli, the ATF's supervisory special agent in charge of VCIT in Mesa. "After talking with [Chief] Gascon and his people, we realized gangs are more of a problem here, much like in Los Angeles and Chicago. The Aryan Brotherhood is big here, as are Hispanic gangs - the East Side and West Side Mesa gangs."

The three individuals charged so far in the Tracker pursuit case, for example, are aligned with the Mesa Crew, a local branch of the Aryan Brotherhood, according to local police. In this case, ATF agents helped the police identify additional people allegedly involved in the crime, including the alleged bombmaker who was not present in the Tracker the night of the pursuit, both through investigative work and gun and explosives tracing.

What VCIT aims to do, adds Mr. Forcelli, who was a New York City police officer for 21 years before joining the ATF seven years ago, is target the "worst of the worst" offenders. About 30 percent of violent crimes are committed by 1 percent of serious criminals, he says.

In addition to their expertise in guns and bombmaking investigations, ATF agents also have a variety of technologies that aren't otherwise readily available to local law enforcement. Among others, they have a National Tracing Center that traces gun ownership back to the original owner. They also have what's known as the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, a tracing system for bullets and spent cartridges that works much like fingerprinting.

"We didn't utilize [the network] as much as we should have," says Mesa's Sergeant Baggs.

Now, the department is beginning to input shell casings that officers pick up at crime scenes, as well as spent cartridges from each gun they confiscate. Once the data are in a national database, an officer can quickly link shell casings to guns used in other crimes.

For example, the ATF's ballistics database led to the January arrest of a young man accused of shooting a suburban man in his garage in August 2006. Police found a spent cartridge at the scene of that shooting. It was later connected with a gun used in a September 2006 drive-by shooting in Mesa and an aggravated assault in Tempe, Ariz. Mesa police had entered a test-fired cartridge from each weapon into the national database.

'A strategy that works'

"It's a strategy that works, and the numbers show it's been successful," says William Hoover, assistant director for field operations at ATF headquarters in Washington. "When we pair up [with state and local agencies], it has a good effect on reducing violent crime."

In fiscal year 2006, for example, more than 2,000 gang members, drug dealers, and other criminals, including 650 termed "worst of the worst" were arrested through the VCIT program, and more than 4,900 firearms were recovered, according to ATF officials.

The Mesa VCIT is funded for 90 days at a time. "Every 90 days we look to see if it's working. If it's not successful, we either fix it or end it," the ATF's Forcelli says.

Copyright 2007 The Christian Science Monitor 

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