Atryal Womack, 18, died on Jan. 4, 2007, in what police believe was a gang-related shooting in Hartford's North End.
Over the next 11 months, there would be 32 more homicides in the capital city.
There was Deanna Pugh, a 45-year-old grandmother from Enfield killed in a drive-by shooting in February in the Behind the Rocks neighborhood.
There was the execution-style double slaying in July of Kent McLaurin, 19, of Hartford, a member of the Bloods street gang, and his friend Xion Davidson, 17, of West Hartford, a Conard High School football standout. Their bodies were found about a block apart in the Parkville section of the city, their faces blown apart by shotgun blasts.
And there was the Christmas Day shooting of 18-year-old Oshane Green of Bloomfield, gunned down following a momentary spat in a North End takeout joint.
While city and police officials insist that violent crime has declined in the city — Mayor Eddie A. Perez said in his inaugural address Monday that overall "crime is down to historic lows" — the 33 homicides were 10 more than in 2006. It was the worst year for homicides since 2003, when there were 44 — 16 attributed to an intentionally set fire at the Greenwood Health Center nursing home.
Many of the killings in 2007, including those cited above, remain unsolved.
The increase occurred during a year in which major cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago experienced significant drops in reported homicides.
In Connecticut, other cities of 100,000 residents or more also saw declines. New Haven had 24 homicides in 2006 and 13 last year; Waterbury had seven in 2006 and three last year; Bridgeport had 30 in 2006 and 14 last year. Stamford had three in both years.
Hartford's 33 homicides equaled the combined total of those four other cities.
The McLaurin and Davidson killings exhibited a brutality common among many of the killings that made even a dedicated foot soldier against gun violence take pause.
"These criminals now have no fear of the police," said the Rev. Henry Brown, a U.S. Postal Service mail handler who volunteers with Mothers United Against Violence and has helped organize many of Hartford's rallies against gun violence since 2002.
"This stuff really bothers me because people are getting shot in the face and [many of] the people who did it are still on the streets," Brown said. "As sure as I'm talking they are going to kill again, because the community won't get involved. We can't blame the police for everything. The community isn't saying, 'I want Johnny off the street.'"
Hartford Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts plans to address the city's overall crime statistics for 2007 at a press conference today in city hall. But he said Friday that he can rest comfortably knowing "we are one of the safest cities in the state. The most important thing is these were victims of their lifestyles."
In large part, Roberts said, the city's homicide victims were drug dealers killed during confrontations with other drug dealers.
"These are not random acts of violence," he said. "These people knew one another."
Roberts also believes the true number of homicides in the city last year is 32. He disputes whether Domaine Richards, an East Harford man who was found dead Dec. 13 in the trunk of his car on Ashley Street, died in Hartford.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner said Richards died of traumatic asphyxiation, and has referred the investigation back to Hartford police.
Roberts declined to elaborate on why the number of homicides increased last year.
"We all need to ask why this has happened and to get the trend going in the opposite direction," Kevin O'Connor, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, said of Hartford's homicide numbers in 2007.
O'Connor said that if homicides are tied to the drug and gun trade, the federal government can prosecute those cases after arrests are made.
"I'm going to start asking our agencies" — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI — "if we are doing enough," O'Connor said. "It [raises] the question, should [the federal government] be doing more?"
Why Hartford's homicide numbers increased when other municipalities in the state and across the country saw decreases is difficult to answer, said Ivan Kuzyk, an independent consultant who has spent years studying crime trends and criminal justice issues across the state.
"In Hartford, there's not enough information made available to evaluate this," Kuzyk said.
A thorough review would require the city to examine where a homicide victim died, what weapon was used and whether he or she was recently released from prison.
"Without having open data and independent consultants looking at it, you can't state why," said Kuzyk, who also is a consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice. "Thirty is a lot. Sirens and red lights should be going off."
In Waterbury and New Haven, police officials say officers used overtime and community and federal programs to reduce the homicide levels.
Shafiq Abdussabur, chief executive officer for the New Haven Police Department, said it has teamed up with community groups that offer youths jobs and classes on conflict resolution. That outreach program has helped curb violent crime because those at risk of committing street crimes are kept busy, he said.
"You're not going to arrest your way out of the social, economic and educational dilemma that is facing many urban centers," Abdussabur said — adding that he was quoting from Police Chief Francisco Ortiz's mantra.
Waterbury Police Chief Neil O'Leary said a partnership with city, state and federal officials who are targeting gun violence using the U.S. government's Project Safe Neighborhoods program is working there.
O'Leary said his department received a federal award after it used undercover officers and agents to arrest more than 300 felons caught with guns over the past four years. The city had nine shootings last year.
While Hartford police and community leaders complain that not enough residents come forward when they witness a homicide, O'Leary said his department has gained cooperation. "People in the community help us every day," he said.
O'Leary said more police officers are on foot and bicycle patrols and in schools in Waterbury. Its Police Athletic League program, operated by the department, went from serving 80 youths four years ago to more than 2,000 last year after it purchased two buildings to house the program.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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