Police executives from across the United States are calling for tougher prosecution and stiffer penalties of gun crimes.
“The fact is, people don’t go to prison for firearms in Chicago,” Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy told a meeting of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in Washington DC last week. “We’re losing about half of our gun cases without disposition.”
McCarthy’s comments were echoed by several other law enforcement leaders at the meeting, attended by about 250 police chiefs, assistant chiefs, FBI officials, Department of Justice authorities, public policy experts and others.
Many of the speakers complained that their enforcement efforts were hampered by lack of prosecutions and punishments on even the most serious of gun crimes—and said many U.S.Attorneys did not appear to be addressing the problem..
“No one wants to put anyone in jail in D.C.,” said D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier.
Others pointed out that they could only be sure of getting the courts to focus on gun violence when they could tack federal charges onto a case.
“Any time we can make a federal case out of a weapons or drugs play, we do,” said Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo.
The comments came during a standing-room-only discussion of a PERF study, released at the conference Thursday, on gun violence in six North American cities–Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Austin, San Diego, Philadelphia, and Toronto.
The study noted that gun crime across the U.S. has generally declined in recent years. For example, many major cities, including Washington DC, New York, and Chicago have seen large decreases in the annual number of reported gun-related homicides for example since the mid- 1990’s.
But U.S. gun violence continues to far outrank reported incidents of gun violence in other developed countries.
“If we’re measuring ourselves against ourselves we’re doing great,” said PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler. “But measuring against the rest of the world, we’re not doing so good.”
The study, which analyzed crime data from those cities over a one-week period in April 2011, concluded that the majority of those involved in gun crimes had extensive prior criminal records— even the youngest victims and offenders.
In Milwaukee, about half of gun violence victims in the one-week study period had previously been arrested in Wisconsin. Eight of them were on probation and two were on parole at the time that they were victimized in a gun homicide, robbery or aggravated assault.
One 19-year-old victim had a rap sheet with more than 20 arrests.
Among the suspected perpetrators of Milwaukee gun crimes in that same period, 90 percent of them had Wisconsin arrest records, including one 13-year-old armed robbery suspect.
Study participants said that seeing long rap sheets for victims and offenders didn’t surprise them. Even in the one week of the study, certain patterns of victims and offenders were obvious.
In Philadelphia, one young woman is believed to have been responsible for a series of three shootings the week of the study. In one of those incidents, the woman shot a man 16 times, said Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.
“I think a huge part of this is the prosecution of gun offenders,” Lanier said.
Lanier said that prosecutors in DC focus on getting convictions by plea instead of by jury, resulting in lesser charges and punishments for what police view as more serious crimes.
“Where is the outrage that no one is going to jail?” she said.
In San Diego, however, gun crime offenders do go to jail, Police Chief Boyd Lyons said.
In California, a defendant convicted of using a gun is automatically sentenced to 10 years. If they fire the gun, it’s 20 years, and if someone is injured, the penalty is 25 years.
The sentencing regime has ” had a significant impact,” Lyons said.
“What we see is in each city a handful of people are responsible for your violent crime. If you make an impact on that group of people, you make a significant dent in your violent crime.”
Austin Chief Acevedo would like similar prosecutions in Texas.
“There have to really be consequences,” he said. “You use a gun, you go to prison for ten years.”
But that’s not the way Texas is now, he said.
“One of the challenges we do have is prosecution. With our (Keep Austin Weird) juries and justices, people can get probation.”
EDITORS NOTE: The PERF study examined five categories of gun crimes over a one-week period in April 2011. Below is a graphic showing the comparative data on gun crimes in participating cities.
Laura Amico is editor of the nationally recognized online reporting project Homicide Watch Washington D.C., which covers every D.C. murder case from crime to conviction. She welcomes comment from readers.