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Worcester police detail obstacles in addressing gun violence

August 02, 2015



WORCESTER - University Park is busy and pretty, a 13-acre stretch of open space, basketball and volleyball courts, and a heart-shaped pond. It probably got its unofficial name, Crystal Park, from the aforementioned Crystal Pond, or Crystal Street, or whichever came first. It definitely got its reputation as a rough spot in a rough neighborhood from incidents like last Monday afternoon's, when gunshots rang out.

Minutes before, people walked their dogs. Kids gathered down the hill from the basketball courts for a summer program. Minutes after, police swarmed the park, interviewing witnesses and using the ShotSpotter gunshot detection system, to locate the exact spot where the 10 rounds were fired. As police dropped folded evidence markers over shell casings in the street, the Rev. Clyde D. Talley of Belmont A.M.E. Zion Church paced the sidewalk, talking on his cell phone. He considered opening up the church, which overlooks the park, the next day for the summer program. "I was looking at all the little kids," Rev. Talley said. "They could have been hit."

Police Chief Gary J. Gemme said the city is on pace to have another record year of gun violence. If the current pace keeps up, 2015 will close with around 36 non-fatal shootings. Several of those shootings have come over the summer, including the city's fourth homicide, a broad-daylight fatal shooting in Hope Cemetery June 25.

In an interview at police headquarters last week along with Deputy Chief Mark Roche, Capt. Paul B. Saucier, who commands the department's investigative divisions, and Sgt. Stephen Roche of the Gang Unit, Chief Gemme noted that the ages of the victims today are getting younger. Victims often go on to become perpetrators, and vice versa. Ammunition is more readily available. The rise of gang violence in the city has brought with it cultural stigmas against "snitching," and a fearlessness about doing jail time. The chief said he feels like the court system - judges in particular - are not doing the city any favors in certain areas.

Add it all up, and it has been a long summer. The most recent numbers had non-fatal shootings at 19 for 2015, with 27 victims. That was before the University Park shooting Monday and two that followed later that day. Shots were fired that hit two cars at Newbury and Austin streets, and a man who suffered a gunshot wound walked into a local emergency room later in the evening.

"We have seen an increase in violence," the chief said. "It's very much a concern for police, and I'm sure the community." The chief said judges should find anyone charged with gun-related offenses dangerous at dangerousness hearings, which can keep defendants in custody for up to 90 days. "Those people have to stay off the streets," the chief said. "It has to take place. We can't be dealing with the same people over and over again."

The chief said another challenge police encounter with the court system is that judges often do not recognize the expertise of members of the police Gang Unit. He said cases often get thrown out because judges do not recognize that the unit's experience and knowledge is enough to prompt them to, say, pull a car over with known gang members when a shooting has taken place nearby.

The chief also said it might be time to revisit the sentencing structure for gun-related offenses. Illegal gun possession charges carry a minimum 18-month jail sentence. If the firearm is used in the commission of a felony, additional jail time can be tacked on, but for the newer generation of offenders, that kind of time is not a big deal, particularly when it might get reduced anyways, Sgt. Roche and Capt. Saucier said. "I don't see these guys doing eight years for a gun," Capt. Saucier said. The chief said that in the city, many victims of gun violence end up as perpetrators, and vice versa. And light sentencing can quicken that transition.

Sgt. Roche used the victim of the Newbury Street shooting Monday as an example. The victim had been out of jail just over a month when his car was shot at. The sergeant said he did his time for firearms, drugs, and assault charges stemming from a drug-related shooting in Fitchburg, a firearms and drug arrest in Worcester, and an assault charge at the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction. Despite those serious charges, the man did "exactly two years" of prison time and was back on the streets, he said.

"There are a lot of these violent offenders out on the street," Chief Gemme said. "These suburban judges need to come into the city, live in these neighborhoods, see what these people are dealing with. It's not some abstract theory we're dealing with on a neighborhood level. This is the reality of gun violence that's taken place."

Plus, whether it's someone facing serious gun charges out on bail quickly before trial, or someone returning to the neighborhood after a brief prison term, either scenario is not going to encourage people to come forward when it comes time to help police solve crimes. "You just fingered a guy who had a gun, and he just got back out," Capt. Saucier said.

Asked to respond to Chief Gemme's points, the state Supreme Judicial Court, which superintends the judiciary, released the following statement:

"Judges are sworn to uphold Constitutional principles. Each case is decided based on the facts of the individual case and the relevant law. Under current law, the decision whether to conduct a dangerousness hearing, including firearm related charges, is made upon the filing of a motion by a prosecutor."

Regarding the gang unit expertise, the statement continued:

"Judges are bound by the rules of evidence and the precedent of appellate court decisions when deciding issues related to the admissibility of evidence, including evidence of so-called gang activity of affiliation."

Chief Gemme's other big concern is a more delicate issue. The level of cooperation police need from residents and victims is just not where it needs to be, he said.

ShotSpotter gives police data on where gunshots are coming from in the six square miles of the city it covers, but it also provides information police never really had access to. For example, shootings in the city these days typically involve more rounds discharged per incident. The ten rounds fired off at University Park last week is not an unusual total, Deputy Chief Roche said.

Another jarring statistic ShotSpotter revealed is the small number of gunshot detections that accompanied 911 calls. Capt. Saucier said that of 193 incidents that have been caught on ShotSpotter, only 49 were accompanied by people calling in. He said that if it wasn't for video, a lot of gun cases would never be solved.

There are a lot of reasons people don't come forward to give police information. Sgt. Roche said people think it's fear of retaliation that prevents witnesses from coming forward. He said the department doesn't typically see that sort of retaliation taking place, but the perception persists.

The chief said many victims choose to retaliate on their own rather than help police to solve the case. Sgt. Roche said just recently a man was shot in the leg and refused, with colorful language, to give them information. It can torpedo a case right from the start. "What do you do with a guy like that?" Sgt. Roche said.

Anyone arrested has the right to remain silent, but Sgt. Roche said the mentality of not cooperating with police is entrenched among gang members and others. The sergeant said people stopped by the Gang Unit, many of them between 15 and 20 years old, often don't feel like they have to be compliant with lawful police orders.

Despite his concerns about the uptick in violence and his calls for more cooperation from the courts, residents, and victims, the chief was optimistic last week that the violence would not spiral out of control. He said he feels like Worcester is still a livable city. He said 95 percent of the city's residents are good people who are just looking to get a good night's sleep in their neighborhoods. And he said his department has the resources to address the issues.  "If I thought the problem was resources, I would be out there saying it," the chief said.

Rev. Talley, who saw his church doors open up to a crime scene Monday, said the recent shootings have people feeling uneasy. But he was optimistic to see that the next day, the park was full again. "If the park was empty, that would be a real concern," he said.

The church itself has youth leadership programs to try to show kids there is a better way, and Rev. Talley said he supports other programs across the city. Speaking to the chief's concerns about neighborhood cooperation, he said people who choose not to say anything when a crime is committed are choosing to be part of the problem. "The next death could be someone you know that could have been prevented," Rev. Talley said. "You can't say let them figure it out. We have to step up."

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