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Police chiefs plot new strategies against gun violence and mass shootings

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson listens to a question about body cameras in 2016. Johnson said technology has helped reduce crime in the city this year. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Even as it is beset by gun violence, Chicago likes to claim it has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. “I laugh because that’s not true,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson said Thursday. “For the first six months [after the law making gun possession a felony passed], we could not find a gun out on the street. But it actually takes three times for them to be treated like a felon” by Chicago’s courts, where judges and prosecutors were reducing gun charges to misdemeanors, and the word quickly spread. Soon, it was back to violent business as usual.

Johnson spoke at a gathering of the nation’s big-city police chiefs in Washington on Thursday, exchanging ideas on what works and what needs to change to stem the tide of shootings in urban America. The Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank that advises the chiefs on policy issues, then released an “Action Plan to Reduce Gun Violence,” which included items such as Johnson’s call for laws to serve as actual deterrents to criminals, stopping guns from entering the black market and improving threat assessments for possible mass shooters.

The police chiefs and the conference organizer, PERF executive director Chuck Wexler, did not discuss gun control or gun rights explicitly, but they showed a lack of patience with some of the devices that play a role in the carnage of mass shootings. Shawn Andersen, deputy chief of the Las Vegas police, described the killing of 59 people in 11 minutes at a country music festival there last October, aided by a “bump stock” that enables guns to fire faster.

“Bump stocks clearly serve no legitimate purpose,” Andersen said.

In Nashville, a man walked into a Waffle House with a rifle with a 30-round magazine and killed four people and wounded two others in April. Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson noted that a customer, James Shaw Jr., was able to disarm the shooter when he tried to change magazines, but Anderson said that if the magazine had fewer rounds, fewer people would have been killed.

Banning large magazines and bump stocks was part of PERF’s call to limit the availability of high-power firearms. The Waffle House shooting also raised the issue of “red flag” laws, under which authorities are empowered to seize weapons from those who show signs of mental illness or other crises. Police had earlier taken guns from the Waffle House shooter, but his father apparently returned them to him.

“We’ve had three horrific incidents recently,” said Sheriff Tim Cameron of St. Mary’s County, Md., including a school shooting in which a 17-year-old killed a classmate, wounded another student and killed himself in March. “We embrace the notion of ‘red flag’ laws, giving us the ability to take guns away from those who are dangers to themselves and others.”

One problem a number of chiefs cited was the theft of guns from cars and homes, and the fact that many gun owners do not report gun thefts. “A large percentage of the guns we confiscate are stolen,” and they expand the black market and make firearms harder to trace, said New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison. Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham said he has tried to persuade Virginia’s General Assembly to pass a law requiring gun owners to report gun thefts within 24 hours, with no success.

Although little probably can be done legislatively, Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Erick Fors said police there had observed an interesting trend in gun thefts during burglaries. He said thieves apparently have targeted homes with American flags outside, figuring — mostly correctly, he said — that those homeowners have guns inside.

A number of cities have increased their focus on nonfatal shootings, which Wexler said are really just failed attempts at murder. PERF called for policing strategies to target the offenders most responsible for gun violence. In Houston, where patrol officers formerly handled nonfatal shooting investigations, Chief Art Acevedo launched an aggravated-assault unit and now sends detectives to the scene of every shooting. “We are making arrests the day of,” Acevedo said, rather than placing a lower priority on the case because no one died.

“When a human being shoots another human being,” Acevedo said, “the likelihood of that being the first time is slim to none. And it’s probably not the last time. That’s why it matters. We can’t wait until somebody murders another human. And the life we save may be one of our own.”

Police in Houston, Denver, Chicago and elsewhere are diligently recovering bullet casings at crime scenes and entering their characteristics into a growing national database administered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The casings can be matched to casings left at other crime scenes through comparison of the marks left by weapons’ firing mechanisms, just as bullets can be matched by the impressions made on them as they pass through gun barrels. Such matching can provide valuable investigative leads. PERF called for greater use of ballistics technology to solve and prevent crimes.

The ATF has created the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network and provided about 180 jurisdictions with units that take 3-D photos of casings and enter that information into the national database, said Erin Hine, a NIBIN specialist. In addition, a NIBIN van travels the country working with cities to process bullet casings immediately. In one visit to Chicago, the NIBIN unit examined 985 casings and made 442 matches with prior shootings, Hine said.

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The casings still must be matched with guns, which must be matched with shooters. And matches made by the computer must still be verified by human examiners. But Hine said NIBIN had a 95 percent accuracy rate in matching casings from different shootings.

Johnson, the chief in Chicago, said police have had great success in using NIBIN and other technology to target offenders in some of Chicago’s most troubled neighborhoods. He said that shootings had dropped by 63 percent in the city’s rough Englewood neighborhood, with 160 fewer occurrences, and that the number of homicides citywide was down 22 percent this year.

Note: This article has been updated to state that the shooter in the Nashville Waffle House case had a 30-round magazine, not a 10-round magazine.