It's Like Gps For Gun Thugs

Tyree Richards in a Facebook photo: He'll be updating his status from a prison cell after being sentenced on gun charges.
Tyree Richards in a Facebook photo: He'll be updating his status from a prison cell after being sentenced on gun charges.

GunStat zeroes in on repeat firearm offenders in target areas

Posted: September 28, 2012

IF TYREE RICHARDS had walked down South Street with a loaded Colt Police .38 Special revolver tucked in his waistband a few months earlier than he did, he probably would have gotten probation, despite his Facebook-advertised gang affiliation and teenage arrest record.

But Richards' sentencing in April happened after the city started GunStat, an initiative to reduce gun violence by targeting violent and repeat offenders in some neighborhoods where bullets fly too often.

"Do you have a role model, someone you look up to?" Judge Adam Beloff asked Richards in court.

"No," the teen answered.

With that, Beloff slapped Richards with a stiff sentence for carrying the gun: 2 1/2 to five years in state prison.

Richards, 19, was among an ever-expanding list of repeat offenders scooped up by the program, which identifies hotbeds of gun violence then tracks and targets violent offenders there before they commit other major crimes. Started in February, the initiative involves unprecedented collaboration among the Police Department, the District Attorney's Office, the mayor's and managing director's offices, the city probation department and several federal partners.

In a city where about 1,421 people were shot in 2011, about four per day, GunStat is a strategy that city officials say will work because it keeps the people who are most likely to shoot - and, in many cases, most likely to be shot - off the streets.

"If we can get these people in [custody] by whatever legal means to stop the violence, that's what we're trying to do," District Attorney Seth Williams said.

Staying behind bars

Under GunStat, police work with assistant district attorneys who are assigned to regional offices to identify the most violent offenders in the program's small target areas - a two-square-mile section of North Philly and a three-square-mile stretch of Kensington - based on arrests, gang affiliations and probation status.

Police keep close watch on the offenders and stop them for even the most minor offense, such as spitting on the sidewalk, so they can pat them down.

If an arrest is made, officials said, the assigned ADA is notified by the police and requests a higher bail. In some cases, they argue to revoke bail based on the person's record.

About seven months in, authorities are already seeing dramatic results.

Since GunStat started, according to the D.A.'s office, nearly 70 percent of the 473 suspects awaiting trial or a hearing on gun charges are still in custody. Williams said that before GunStat was implemented, most of those defendants would have been released "unless they had a terrible record of failing to appear."

In 2012, 98 percent of people convicted of illegal-gun possession have been sentenced to jail time, and fewer than 5 percent of illegal-gun- possession cases this year have been dismissed or withdrawn - staggering numbers when compared with past lax penalties

"Before, you would get arrested, get out on bail, go to trial and get probation. So there was really, in many cases, no period of incarceration as a result of carrying a gun illegally," said Bryan Lentz, who heads the collaborative Gun Violence Task Force for the D.A.'s office and the Attorney General's Office. "As a result of this effort, we can say we are getting more jail sentences on guns than we had in the past."

The changes have also begun to make a difference on the street.

Police statistics say that on average between Aug. 20 and Sept. 20 over the last five years, there were 18.2 violent gun crimes - homicides, aggravated assaults and gunpoint robberies - in the two GunStat areas, the boundaries of which the Daily News agreed not to publicize.

During that period in 2012, there were 13 gun crimes - a 29 percent drop from the five-year average.

Officials say the case of Jerome Hill, 22, is a prime example of how GunStat is intended to work. Hill has a lengthy rap sheet and is a member of the same gang as Richards, the "Platter Boyz." He was sentenced in July to four to eight years in prison for carrying a gun while on probation, which he had received for accidentally shooting his cousin with an illegal gun.

"This is a 22-year-old man who just went to state prison and will probably do at least five years," Lentz said. "Gun possession, for years, was a probationary sentence, if anything. This is four to eight years. I think we can all agree that we don't get four to eight years on Jerome Hill but for the marshaling of our resources as part of the GunStat program."

When Hill was arrested on his gun-possession charge before GunStat was instituted, his bail was set at $10,000. In comparison, bail for Shaheed Springs, another GunStat offender with a similar violent-crime record and arrested on the same charge, was set at $200,000.

"You can have a guy who just has a basic [violation of the Uniform Firearms Act] gun case, but they know he's part of this larger issue and can prioritize," Managing Director Rich Negrin said. "So, a run-of-the-mill, standard gun case that might get probation is not going to get probation. They're going to argue for a high bail on that guy."

Starting small

The District Attorney's Office has already expanded the GunStat prosecution model to all six of its divisions, Williams said, but city officials said that they're cautious about letting the overall strategy grow too fast.

"It's a balance that we struggle with," Negrin said. "We're trying to resist the temptation to grow really quickly, because I do believe this is a very targeted strategy."

Jerry Ratcliffe, chairman of Temple University's department of criminal justice, cautioned that expanding an initiative like GunStat too quickly could render it ineffective.

"When you try to make programs that are much larger, the problem is they become unsustainable over time," Ratcliffe said. "I'm much happier with the city having a strategy identifying areas they can sustain and a project they can help people work together on."

Although initial numbers show that GunStat has reduced gun crime in the areas targeted, officials said they're far from declaring it a success.

"I want to see the downward trend in violence," First Assistant District Attorney Ed McCann said. "Then we'll feel like some of the stuff we're doing is having an effect on the street."

City and police department officials said that because they're trying to establish a sustainable strategy, more significant, lasting results may come slowly.

"Unfortunately, for everyone we take off the street, someone slips into their place," Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said. "It's going to be a while before you see a notable reduction in gun violence. Word has to spread. People have to know this is not a flash in the pan. We need to do something we can maintain and be consistent."

Stiff penalties on gun cases for violent offenders like Hill, he said, should send a firm message to others in the city committing gun crimes.

"He's an example of a guy who's had numerous contacts with law enforcement, and who's in the best place he's been in a long time," Ramsey said. "And that's jail."


Contact Morgan Zalot at zalotm@phillynews.com or 215-854-5928. Follow her on Twitter @morganzalot. Read her blog at PhillyConfidential.com.

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