Tips to Reduce Celebratory Gunfire on New Year’s Eve
Ralph Clark, CEO, SST/ShotSpotter
December 28, 2016
Police Chief Magazine
When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, many people think of champagne toasts, balloon drops, and kissing their loved ones to celebrate. Unfortunately, for law enforcement, it is the busiest night of the year for illegal “celebratory” gunfire. Many people are wounded or killed on this day directly due to celebrating by shooting guns into the air.
In fact, just after midnight on the morning of January 1, 2010, four-year-old Marquel Peters was sitting next to his mother in a church in Decatur, Georgia, playing on a portable Nintendo, when a bullet went through the building’s roof and struck him in the head. He died shortly afterwards. Ballistics experts speculate that the round—likely shot from an AK-47—could have been fired anywhere from a half-mile to three miles away; the shooter remains unknown.1
Bullets that are fired at angles less than vertical are more dangerous. The bullet maintains its angular ballistic trajectory and is far less likely to engage in a tumbling motion; instead travelling at speeds much higher than a bullet in free fall. Firearms expert Julian Hatcher studied falling bullets in the 1920s, and his study showed that .30-caliber rounds can reach terminal velocities of 300 feet per second as they fall.2 More recent research has indicated that 200 feet per second is enough to penetrate the skull.3
Celebratory gunfire has wounded hundreds and killed dozens in recent years in the United States alone.4 Deaths and injuries are reported and investigated every year when people are struck, often fatally, by gunfire falling back to the ground. Most bullets from celebratory gunfire land harmlessly or lodge in roofs or other property, but, in areas with high population densities, bullets might hit human beings. Falling bullets are most likely to hit victims’ heads, shoulders, and feet and can easily cause extensive damage and injury.
According to data analysis from a gunfire detection and alert company, a staggering 22.9 percent of all gunfire incidents took place during the New Year’s Eve period (24 hours prior and 48 hours after New Year’s Eve in 2014)—with New Year’s Eve registering as the busiest night of the year for illegal celebratory gunfire.5 Knowing that gunfire is at an all-time high during this holiday period, law enforcement agencies and communities need to plan ahead for the deluge of gunfire. With preparation and collaboration by both law enforcement and the community, many cities have had success in reducing New Year’s Eve gunfire.
These six tips for law enforcement officials can help reduce celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Eve:
1. Plan ahead: Identify hotspot areas and address where celebratory gunfire was detected in previous years.
2. Engage agency personnel early: Communicate about the risks with personnel, along with probation or parole officers, and gang enforcement units.
3. Knock on doors: Assign uniformed agency personnel to visit each address on the hotspot list and talk with residents before New Year’s Eve. The officers should take time to explain the dangers of celebratory gunfire to the residents and tell them about related tragedies the local agency might have experienced.
4. Enforce consequences of celebratory gunfire: Remind residents of the criminal consequences of celebratory gunfire.
5. Assign special police units: During the New Year’s Eve period, assign special police units or overtime cars to hotspot areas for quick response to gunfire alerts.
6. Identify gang activity: Take the time to match illegal gunfire activity with known gang activity in local neighborhoods.
In addition to the six tips listed above, strong community engagement is a powerful tool for combating New Year’s Eve celebratory gunfire. Agencies can consider the following methods to engage their communities in prevention efforts:
Broadly announce the agency’s New Year’s Eve proactive policing plan via community meetings, notices, and social media.
Make community leaders and members aware of the dangers of celebratory gunfire and encourage them to report all incidents.
Encourage media to report about the dangers of celebratory gunfire. Media reports will help to educate the public and show them your agency will be watching and taking action to prosecute offenders. Let the local media know the agency is taking an active role in catching and prosecuting offenders of illegal gunfire this year. To make it relevant, use specific local examples.
Use “door hangers” to alert the community to the dangers of celebratory gunfire and encourage residents to report it.
Many communities, such as Springfield, Massachusetts, have been successful in curtailing celebratory gunfire. Springfield Police Captain Trent Hufnagel said that his department enacted strict policies mandating an aggressive response to ensure prompt officer arrival. For every activation of a gunfire alert the Springfield Police Department would dispatch four units, including two supervisors and at least one detective, to provide sufficient personnel to deal with any ongoing public safety threats and to promptly and properly investigate all activations.6
Another successful community is Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Lieutenant Ryan Hepler of the Rocky Mount Police Department said an essential component to their success was having patrol officers hand-deliver informational letters to residents of addresses that had gunfire alerts from the previous New Year’s Eve. The outreach encouraged residents to come forward with any information early on.7
While celebratory gunfire is an unfortunate occurrence on New Year’s Eve and other holidays, law enforcement’s awareness of firearm activations and their locations can help save lives. Additionally, the information and data collected can show hotspots of activity so law enforcement will know where to target resources to catch perpetrators in action moving forward.
Using proactive strategies to combat New Year’s Eve celebratory gunfire can have a significant impact on making communities safer. As communities come to understand that celebratory bullets are not harmless—they come back down to Earth to fall on the ground, cars, buildings, and even people—cities can make smarter decisions on how to prepare residents for the dangers of falling bullets and, if possible, prevent them. Illegal celebratory gunfire is a real danger to bystanders, and it’s critical to spread the word about this potentially harmful and fatal activity. Prevention measures in every community help to make residents feel safer and focus on what’s important on New Year’s Eve—ringing in a happy, healthy, and safe New Year.
1 Rhonda Cook, “Boy Most Likely Shot by a Rifle Fired into the Air,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 4, 2010, http://www.ajc.com/news/local/boy-most-likely-shot-rifle-fired-into-the-air/FE5QFL3E66RIlKqqIndHbI.
2 Julian S. Hatcher, Hatcher’s Notebook (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1962).
3 Los Angeles Police Department, “New Year’s Eve Gunfire Reduction Program,” http://www.lapdonline.org/crime_prevention_tips/content_basic_view/23465.
4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “New Year’s Eve Injuries Caused by Celebratory Gunfire—Puerto Rico, 2003,” https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5350a2.htm.
5 ShotSpotter, “Illegal ‘Celebratory’ Gunfire Spikes on New Year’s Eve, According to ShotSpotter Data,” press release, December 29, 2015, http://www.shotspotter.com/press-releases/article/illegal-celebratory-gunfire-spikes-on-new-years-eve-according-to-shotspotte.