Task Force Brings Multi-department Focus On Hartford's Gun Violence
The Consensus Is That There Are 75 To 125 Bad, Bad People Who Shoot People
By JENNA CARLESSO and STEVE GOODE
September 05, 2011
HARTFORD —— Mug shots of some of the city's most violent criminals line the walls of an old classroom in a vacant North End school. Personal details are scrawled next to the images, and arrows connect some suspects with two or more crimes.
Chief Inspector Jim Rovella, leading a group of law enforcement officials from various departments and jurisdictions, said the men in the photos are the "bad guys."
"They know us. They're afraid of us," said Rovella, from the chief state's attorney's office. "People see our cars out there. They see us driving by. It's a presence they understand."
In its two months of operation, the shooting task force has made at least 25 arrests. At any given time, its members are working on about 35 cases — some of them 4 or 5 years old — and have leads on several others. While the cases range from narcotics possession to assault and homicide, all have one thing in common: gun violence.
Since it was established July 5, the task force has reduced shootings in the city by nearly 80 percent, Rovella said. Paying more attention to non-fatal shootings has also helped drive down the number of homicides, he said.
Non-fatal shootings are typically under-investigated or not investigated by the city's police department, which is busy working on homicides, Rovella said. But when non-fatal shootings aren't solved, they sometimes escalate into homicides, he said.
"If someone shot them, they're looking to retaliate," Rovella said. That's among the reasons the city has seen homicides rise this year, to the present number of 21.
'Bad, Bad People'
After a particularly bad stretch of shootings and homicides earlier this summer, Mayor Pedro Segarra and several law enforcement agencies announced that they would revive a task force first formed in 2008 to help quell city gun violence.
This time, though, in addition to representatives from the chief state's attorney's office, the Hartford Police Department, state police and the Department of Correction, an agent from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and officers from the East Hartford, West Hartford and Manchester police departments were invited to participate.
Twenty-one law enforcement officials joined, including six inspectors from the chief state's attorney's office, eight members of the Hartford police, one member of the correction department, one DEA agent, three officers from the suburban police departments and two state police detectives.
"This really is, in my mind, the best way to combat violent crime of this nature," Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane said. "It's really a way to begin to make our city safe and give it an opportunity to develop into the capital city Hartford ought to be.
"We learned a lot the first time around. I think this time we made progress because of the prior experience and the additional resources. It's a little more focused, and because we have more people, we've cast a wider net.
"The 2008 task force was good. This exceeds that greatly."
From their work so far, members of the task force have concluded that most of the shootings plaguing the city are being committed by a relatively small group.
"The consensus is that there are 75 to 125 bad, bad people who shoot people," Rovella said. "It's a small group doing a lot of crime."
Most of the shootings have been retaliatory and involve drugs, he said. The suspects generally range in age from 17 to 25 and have a criminal history.
The task force takes time to search for links between the cases.
"Seldom are they standalone cases," said Ken Edwards, an inspector from the chief state's attorney's office. "They're usually influenced by another homicide or shooting. If you understand the connections between the cases, you can be more effective in disrupting the violence."
'Build Those Bridges'
While the task force has worked hard to stem gun violence, its members have also focused on building relationships with the community.
When executing search warrants or making arrests they've made a point, whenever possible, to take a peaceful approach.
"It's a softer approach. You're trying to build that rapport," Hartford police Lt. Lance Sigersmith said. "You're trying to build that relationship from the beginning."
So rather than kicking down a door, officers on the task force might knock and try to talk with suspects or their families. That strategy encourages residents to reach out to police in the future.
"It pays for itself years and years down the road," Sigersmith said. "It gives us more access and cooperation. We want to build those bridges in the community."
Hitting the streets in numbers is also an important part of the routine. Once they've developed enough intelligence or secured warrants for a search or arrest, task force members pile into a half-dozen cars and trucks and head out into the neighborhoods.
One recent night, the squad was on the lookout for a silver Nissan Maxima believed to have been used as the getaway car in an armed robbery the night before.
When a car matching the description pulled into an Albany Avenue gas station, task force members rushed into the lot and surrounded it. The driver and the passenger were taken from the car and frisked, and the Maxima's interior was searched. No arrests were made, but motorists and pedestrians noticed the commotion. Rovella is pleased because it reinforces the message that the group is out and about.
"Presence, presence, presence," he said.
As more arrests are made, Rovella said, he expects more people to feel comfortable sharing information about violent crime with authorities.
"It's a ripple effect. People see we're sincere in arresting people and getting convictions," he said. "Eventually more will come forward."
The shooting task force was originally set to run from early July to late September. Rovella said it has been extended through the end of October.
But some, like Segarra, would like to see it operate longer.
"My goal is to continue to sustain it to the point where we have no shootings," he said. "That's a big demand, but I don't think we're at a point yet where we've said, 'We've done our job. Let's call it off.' "
The mayor said he'd like to have the task force operate for another year. He said he hoped to have it run through at least January, and then reassess the group's strategy. If more resources are needed to keep it going, Segarra said, he would try to ensure they're available.
"There's been an increase in the number of arrests and a drop in the number of homicides. I think that can be directly correlated to this effort," he said. "I'm extremely satisfied with the impact the task force has had.
"We're not over the hump yet. We should continue running it for at least the next year."
Rovella said he has recommended to Segarra that even if the task force is disbanded, communication between agencies should continue.
"We saw shootings start to increase slightly and homicides started going back up in a year" following the 2008 task force, he said.
Once the task force has disbanded, Hartford Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts said, he would reach out to police chiefs in surrounding towns to share information and resources.
"We all have limited resources and funding, but I think we could do this," Roberts said.
Kane said he believes the task force's impact will ultimately be felt in the neighborhoods.
"Do we get a sense that people feel safer and protected? I'd like to think so," he said. "That's certainly the ultimate goal."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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