Three years ago, charges of drug possession and trafficking were what brought most kids to Cleveland’s juvenile detention center. Now, says Sam Amata, the head of the juvenile division in the Cuyahoga County public defender’s office, the drug charges “have gone away.” It’s almost always firearms now. The most notorious recent cases – five teenagers who terrorized a Shaker Heights lawyer out for a jog on New Year’s Eve; a 15-year-old robber who shot a convenience store clerk and then demanded cash from him; the 17-year-old pulled out of the wreck of a stolen car with a bullet-proof vest strapped to his body – all involved guns. Governing magazine reports on a shift in strategy against guns in two major cities.
Since 2004, Cleveland’s murder total has risen by 56 percent, from 86 in 2004 to 134 in 2007. Faced with this bad news, police departments have been focusing their attention on guns. In Cleveland and Philadelphia, African-American mayors have directed their police departments to use tactics in high-crime, black neighborhoods that few white mayors would dare to authorize. In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has instructed police to conduct more “stop-and-frisk” searches. In Cleveland, Mayor Jackson signed off in January on an aggressive new gun-suppression strategy that hinges on profiling pedestrians who might be carrying guns. If it is successful, it could redefine the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in policing. “What we’re trying to do,” says Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath, “is persuade people that it’s not necessarily a smart thing to carry a weapon. A lot of these killings arise from violent confrontations – they just happen. If we can persuade people to leave their weapons in a car or at home,” a lot of deaths could be averted. Some experts have sought to temper the notion that an aggressive and questionable expansion of police powers is underway. “I don’t like the word ‘aggressive,'” says criminologist Lawrence Sherman of the University of Pennsylvania. As he sees it, the Philadelphia police department is merely making “a systematic effort to put specially trained police in the places at the times where and when gun violence is more likely to occur.