While mounting a campaign for his first full term, Mayor Pedro Segarra has put a strong emphasis on crime, particularly the escalating gun violence that contributed to the 21 homicides this year.
"It gets in the way of everything we're trying to do," Segarra said recently, sitting in his office at city hall. "We're trying to fight off the perception that our city is not a safe place."
The city's solution to the spike in shootings this summer has been to forge a stronger working relationship with the Hartford state's attorney, chief state's attorney and state police, among other agencies, in creating a shooting task force. The task force became active July 5 and has made at least 14 arrests in connection with shooting incidents, Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts said.
But the number of homicides the city has recorded this year - 21 compared with 13 at this point last year - has roiled some residents.
A lifelong city resident who asked to be identified only as Lillian said she has been living on Vine Street for about a year but is anxious to move. Police were outside her home last month on reports of shots fired.
"My daughter won't even let my grandkids come over here," she said. "Do I feel safe? No."
To get a better idea about crime, Segarra and Roberts have gone on several nightly drives and walks in the neighborhoods as part of their "on the beat" effort.
After speaking with dozens of residents about crime, employment and other issues, Segarra said he and other administrators had more work to do.
"When I came in [as mayor], I went to regular meetings with the police chief and the state's attorney," Segarra said. "It became apparent that we really needed to start implementing intervention strategies."
This year's homicide toll is a 61 percent increase over the amount in Hartford at this time in 2010, but only a slight jump over the numbers in each of the three previous years. Seven arrests have been made in connection with this year's homicides, according to police department statistics.
The cause of death in 17 of this year's homicides was due to gun violence. Two people were killed by blunt force trauma, one by stabbing and one by arson, according to statistics.
Shootings have also increased to 91 this year compared with 87 at this point last year, a modest increase.
"It's a combination of gangs and drug-related shootings," Roberts said. "The difference is they are not young people." Many of the cases have involved criminals in the 20- to 28-year-old age range, he said, as opposed to teenagers.
Segarra said many of the shootings appear to be "retaliatory" and involve repeat offenders.
"There are precursors to going out and shooting or attempting to shoot someone to death," he said. "These people are not unknown to the system."
Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane, whose office is involved in the shooting task force, said most violent crimes are committed by "a relatively small group of people."
Kane said the task force has focused primarily on the large number of nonfatal shootings, but those efforts have also led to solving some homicide cases.
"Without this task force, police wouldn't have time to do the necessary follow-up investigations on nonfatal shootings," he said.
Kane said the task-force collaboration has helped prosecutors and police more effectively handle the cases.
"We've learned over the years that when prosecutors and police officers can work together during the course of an investigation, it helps develop better cases," he said. "The prosecutors certainly are more aware of the nature of the cases and as a result are able to take the appropriate steps. The whole process is improved."
Segarra said he has several ideas that, combined, create a longer-term plan to reduce crime.
Part of it involves a focus on intelligence work, surveillance and new technology, including the ShotSpotter sensors that officials plan to install in a 3-square-mile area of the city's North End. The sensors are designed to pick up sounds and geographical locations of gunfire.
If the sensors prove useful in that area, Segarra said, he will look to expand the system throughout the city.
The mayor said more stringent supervision of the city's re-entry population - especially those on parole or probation - is part of the plan, along with an "improved relationship" between police and the community.
He also said he would encourage more city residents to pursue a career in public safety. Police who work and live in the city take their cruisers home with them, which increases police presence, Segarra said.
"We need to have more of our police force living in the city," he said. "In some communities, that has an impact."
Segarra and Roberts both floated the idea of creating a separate court docket for shooting, weapons and certain types of assault cases. A special "shooting docket" would ensure that those cases are closely monitored, possibly all by the same prosecutor, they said.
But Kane said the Hartford state's attorney's office doesn't have the resources to accommodate such a request.
"It is certainly a good idea, but we've learned that specialized dockets put a heavy demand on very limited resources," he said.
Roberts proposed toughening the state's gun laws. In Connecticut, he said, it's not unusual to see someone convicted of illegal gun possession back on the streets in six to nine months.
Roberts said he would like to see penalties similar to New York City's for illegal gun possession - three-year prison terms.
"These guys don't fear the consequences," he said of illegal weapons carriers in Hartford.
Segarra said fighting crime doesn't just occur by making adjustments in the police department or court system.
The city's education system needs improvement, children and teenagers need training for jobs that will be available upon graduation from school and more youth recreation and employment opportunities must be made available, he said.
Segarra noted that the 2011-12 budget sets aside an additional $500,000 for its summer youth employment program.
"None of these things by themselves has great significance," he said of his plan. "I'm trying to implement as many strategies as possible to improve the situation."
The Rev. Henry Brown, whose Mothers United Against Violence organization holds prayer vigils for Hartford's homicide victims, echoed Segarra's concern that police should do more to build relationships with the community.
He also said residents need to hold city officials like Segarra, Roberts and the city council accountable or nothing will change.
"If this was Glastonbury or Simsbury, this situation would be under control by now because the residents wouldn't tolerate it," Brown said.
Anyone with information on crimes in Hartford is urged to call the police department's anonymous tip line at 860-722-TIPS (8477).
What Hartford is doing to stem escalating gun violence:
Created: Task force coordinating efforts of Hartford state's attorney, chief state's attorney and state police.
Will install: ShotSpotter sensors in North End to pick up sounds of gunfire.
Improve: Relationship between police and the community.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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