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Officials: Shooting Task Force Reduced Hartford Gun Deaths By 40 Percent

Rovella: 'Fishing With A Spear' Effort Targets Most Violent Criminals

By JENNA CARLESSO

August 07, 2012

HARTFORD A year after the city's latest effort to combat gun violence began, members of the Hartford shooting task force made a case Tuesday for why it should continue:

The number of gun-related homicides dropped by more than 40 percent during the last year, and first-degree assaults with firearms decreased by nearly 30 percent, according to police department data.

Acting Police Chief James Rovella said the task force is set to run through the fall, but that he would push to extend it.

He said the effort has been effective in targeting the city's most violent criminals

"We're now seeing that we are fishing with more of a spear" instead of a net, he said. "I don't look for hundreds and hundreds of arrests. I look for those violent people that are impacting our city and our region on a daily basis."

The shooting task force, created July 5, 2011, as a way to quell escalating gun violence in Hartford, has made more than 214 felony arrests and more than 50 misdemeanor arrests since its inception, according to the city. Members also have seized 76 firearms.

"In June 2011, shootings in the city of Hartford were up 13.9 percent and climbing at a rate to exceed 180 to 200 victims for the year," officials wrote in the task force's 2012 report. "After the inception of the shooting task force, shooting victims decreased rapidly and the year ended with 39 fewer shooting victims than the previous calendar year."

Hyacinth Yennie, a city activist who lives in the South End, said the effort has helped residents feel more comfortable.

"You're not going to satisfy everyone, but at least there is a sense of calmness in the city," she said. "That's what we needed."

So far, 67 criminal cases investigated by the task force have resulted in convictions, according to data provided by the city. Seventy-four more cases are pending.

Members of the task force have been visible at some court hearings on cases in which they were involved. In July, about two dozen members sat in on the sentencing of Cecil Grant, who was found guilty of shooting and seriously injuring a pizza delivery woman in Hartford. Grant was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The task force has evolved over the year to include new initiatives, like a larger cold case unit, and is working to establish a regional stolen firearms protocol.

Shortly after the task force started, 21 members from various law enforcement agencies were involved. More than 35 people now serve on the task force.

The group includes 14 members of the Hartford Police Department; 10 employees of the chief state's attorney's office; two employees from the state's correction department; two state troopers; two prosecutors from the Hartford state's attorney's office; one prosecutor from the Waterbury state's attorney's office; one detective each from the East Hartford; West Hartford and Manchester police departments; one adult probation officer from the state's judicial department and one special agent from the federal drug enforcement administration.

Suburban police departments were invited to participate, officials have said, because crime is a regional problem, with incidents spilling over from the suburbs into Hartford, and vice versa.

Rovella said Tuesday that he did not have updated figures for how much the task force's work has cost the city. In the police department's spring/summer/fall plan for combating violence, Lt. Lance Sigersmith wrote that the task force would generate a projected $160,000 in overtime costs between July 5, 2011, and Dec. 31, 2011. Of that, $45,000 was covered by a federal grant, he wrote.

The task force has worked to "interrupt" violence by predicting retaliatory shootings and identifying potential future shooters or victims and putting those people under surveillance.

"Analysis shows that a small number of Hartford residents are responsible for a large percentage of violence," Sigersmith wrote in the spring/summer/fall plan. "The theory is that by targeting as few as 100 to 200 active violent felons, the violent crime rate can be dramatically reduced. When intelligence suggests that a particular person is at high risk for being a shooter, that person is targeted for surveillance, controlled buys and cold case investigation, as is the shooter's potential victim."

The group also focuses on non-fatal shootings, which typically were under-investigated or not investigated by the city's police department, members have said. Police were unable to get to those cases because they were busy investigating homicides.

Rovella, who served as head of the task force, has said that investigating non-fatal shootings is a priority because, if left unsolved, those cases can escalate into homicides.

Hartford State's Attorney Gail Hardy said prosecutors have worked more closely with police in an effort to build stronger cases.

"What we were finding is that sometimes the [police] searches were bad, which would make the arrest a bad one," she said. "We would lose the stronger case the drugs, some of the felony arrests and maybe we would only be able to prosecute that person on the trespass or the disorderly conduct [charges], which really does nothing. What we're seeing now is that the police are doing longer, more involved investigations and trying to put together a stronger case, a case that will subject the person to a felony period of incarceration."

City officials said Tuesday that the police department's major crimes unit, working with the shooting task force, has solved 67 percent of the homicides that occurred this year.

"[Those are] staggering numbers," Rovella said during a press conference, "considering some of the national averages run around 20 percent and more locally, we're around the averages of 40 percent."

In the spring/summer/fall plan, released in May, one of the goals set for the shooting task force was to exceed the state average in its murder clearance rate.

The plan also noted that prior efforts to reduce gun violence, including a similar task force formed in 2008, were effective only until the effort was disbanded.

"Unfortunately these law enforcement efforts deterred crime while being implemented, but as soon as the effort ceased, the violent crime rates rose," Sigersmith wrote in the plan. "The goals of the current shooting task force have sustainability in mind."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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