Murder is up in Hartford, and there's more federal law enforcement at work here than you might think. Still, there are limits on what they can do, says the U.S. Attorney for Connecticut.
By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
January 23, 2008
The Hartford Courant and the city have been sparring lately over whether the relevant crime statistic to consider for 2007 is that overall crime is down to “historic lows,” as Mayor Eddie Perez put it in his inaugural address, or that murders were up by nearly 50 percent, from 23 last year to 33 this year, as the Courant reported earlier this month.
The Advocate covered the issue in a Dec. 6 story, when it was already clear it was going to be a bad year for murders, up by 23 percent at that point to 27 compared to 22 at the same time in 2006. December was not a good month, with six more murders bringing the total to 33.
Kevin O’Connor, the U.S. Attorney for Connecticut, weighed in on the debate in a front page story in the Courant last week, saying everyone wanted to see Hartford’s murder trend headed in the opposite direction — down. He said he was going to ask his agencies, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI, if there was more the federal government could do to help Hartford.
That brought a reaction a few days later from Hartford resident Uchenna Richards, who wrote a letter to the Courant saying shame on everyone in charge for failing to deal with Hartford’s murder problem. Shame on Perez for insisting “crime is low”; shame on Police Chief Daryl Roberts for trying to put the best possible spin on the murders by saying the victims were mostly drug dealers; and shame on O’Connor, for “just now getting the idea to start asking the federal government for some insights into the high murder rate.”
Richards’ letter caused a little frustration in O’Connor’s office, where spokesman Tom Carson said last week, “I think what’s lost upon that person and maybe some other people is that there are a lot of federal resources already devoted to the city.”
Indeed there are. Hartford hosts a Violent Crime Impact Team (VCIT), comprised of an ATF Resident Agent in Charge, four ATF Special Agents, one DEA Special Agent, one Deputy U.S. Marshal, three Hartford Police Detectives, and a Hartford Police Detective Sergeant, which has been operating in Hartford since spring 2005.
Hartford is one of 25 cities in the United States that have been provided with Impact Teams, which focus on reducing gun-related murders and other violent crimes. In 2005 there were 159 arrests for illegal firearms in Hartford, and 349 guns recovered. In 2006, there were 201 arrests and 500 guns recovered, and in 2007, there were 229 arrests and 406 guns recovered.
The Violent Crime Impact Team is part of a larger federal program in Hartford called Project Safe Neighborhoods, which provides the city with an Assistant U.S. Attorney to help prosecute gun cases.
“Project Safe Neighborhoods targets the ‘worst of the worst’ offenders, many with lengthy criminal histories, who violate federal firearms laws — often possession of a firearm by a previously convicted felon,” Carson said in an e-mail message.
Hartford also receives federal funding for the so-called Weed and Seed program in the Upper Albany and Clay-Arsenal neighborhoods, where some 11,000 people live.
The Weed and Seed program is a “two-pronged strategy that aims to prevent, control and reduce violent crime and drug abuse in targeted neighborhoods across the country,” according to Carson.
The program works by pairing law enforcement officers and prosecutors together to “weed out” criminal activity from the community, then help to “seed” it with human services programs that bring “prevention, intervention, treatment and neighborhood revitalization.”
Weed and Seed began in Hartford in 2006 with a $175,000 federal grant, and is slated to receive four additional $200,000 grants yearly through 2010 for a total investment of $975,000.
O’Connor himself has been pretty busy in Hartford over the years, overseeing some major drug cases. In March 2004, Operation Close Trim brought down a drug ring supplying cocaine to the Savage Nomads, a street gang who sold the drugs in the South End.
In February 2005, Operation Big Boy dismantled a crack cocaine distribution network based in Hartford and linked to Mexico, resulting in 48 arrests. In February 2006, another crack cocaine ring was taken down with 25 indictments and arrests.
And last March the DEA and State Police made 16 arrests breaking up a heroin trafficking organization that distributed more than a kilogram of heroin a week in and around Hartford.
Yet O’Connor is sympathetic to Richards.
“She may not have a full understanding [of our efforts], on the other hand I’m not going to quibble with her frustration,” O’Connor said. “She obviously cares about the city.”
O’Connor said he works closely with Chief Roberts, who has told him he’s getting everything he needs from the feds. As for his remark in the Courant about whether there’s more federal agencies could be doing, O’Connor said he checked with his people at the FBI, DEA and ATF and is satisfied with what he found. There are a number of investigations in the works, which he can’t discuss.
Still, O’Connor concedes Hartford is not going to prosecute its way out of its rising murder rate.
“The problem with law enforcement is we’re addressing the symptom, the question is the cause,” said O’Connor. “Why are young people choosing to embark on a [criminal] lifestyle and throw their futures away? Law enforcement is not capable of solving these problems. The cause goes beyond our abilities.”