Coming to consensus on gun ownership rights in this country is a useless exercise.
Whether it is in the halls of Congress or in the bars or streets of every city in America, there are clearly two, divided camps: pass the toughest gun regulations we can, or, don’t dare tamper with our 2nd Amendment rights.
What isn’t disputable, however, is no matter where you side on the issue of gun ownership rights, city, town, law, school, and every other person who has municipal responsibilities under their umbrella is spending more time thinking, and working, on how to keep their communities safe.
The spike in mass violence gun incidents across the world, the country, and in our very own small state of Connecticut, has forced the issue to the front burner.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred on December 14, 2012, in Newtown, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children aged between 6 and 7 years old as well as six adult staff members. Prior to driving to the school, Lanza shot and killed his mother at their Newtown home.
As first responders arrived at the scene, Lanza committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
The incident was the deadliest mass shooting at a high school or grade school in United States history.
Other mass shootings besides Sandy Hook include the 50 killed in an Orlando nightclub in June of this year, the 32 killed in Blacksburg, Virginia in 2007, 14 killed in San Bernardino, Calif. in 2015, and 12 killed in Aurora, Colo., in 2012 — among many others.
But those headline-grabbing killings are only a small portion of the day-to-day violence that is plaguing our country’s cities and towns — and Connecticut is not immune from that violence.
NEED TO BE PROACTIVE
One approach — the easy one — for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities — is to sit on the sidelines and let politicians battle back-and-forth on guns, or allow racial tensions between police and community continue to escalate.
Joe DeLong, executive director of CCM, said the association won’t take the easy way out.
“Gun violence at the local level is very real and sitting on the sidelines while our communities face this reality daily would be a dereliction of our responsibility to our members as well as our neighbors,” DeLong said.
“CCM cannot afford to get caught up in the politics of the issue; instead we must provide the gambit of information from first responders to community activists so that municipal leaders can do what they have always shown to do better than our friends at the nation’s and state’s capitols: bring their communities together to solve complex challenges,” DeLong added.
But what exactly can and should community leaders be doing to fight this nationwide plague?
Mary Ann Jacob was at Sandy Hook Elementary the day of the mass shooting and her actions as a clerk in the library played a role in helping save many more children from serious injury or death that horrific day.
Jacob is now the chairman of Newtown’s Legislative Council. She understands that the issue of gun violence is a complex one, with no easy answers.
“I come from a home with gun owners and believe the 2nd Amendment and gun violence prevention can live side by side in our communities as it does in my home,’’ Jacob said.
Jacob said school security, police communications, and mental health support for the community are all vital components of any strategy to protect citizens from gun violence. She pointed out, however, “For the last three years Newtown has been fortunate to receive generous support from the state and federal government in grants that have allowed us to build the infrastructure we need to support our community.”
Jacob continued: “But going forward, while those needs will continue the burden of cost will shift to the municipality. Our urban communities have had to deal with these issues for many, many years and our police forces know that effective peace-keeping starts with laws that gives them tools in their toolboxes to work with.”
TARGETING GUN VIOLENCE
One of those “urban” communities is New Haven, where city officials said they use a multi-pronged strategy to combat gun violence.
Mayor Toni N. Harp said: “There is irrefutable, nationwide evidence of too many guns available for too many who should not have them.”
Despite falling crimes rates nationwide, gun murders remain constant. In 2015, there were 12,000 gun deaths within the United States, 39 of which were the result of mass shootings.
CCM’s DeLong said: “As tragic as they are, an examination of all the issues, not only gun rights, needs to be part of the conversation. Unless there are effective legal, political, and cultural efforts to thwart the criminal class, even lower rates of gun ownership may not be enough to stop widespread violence.”
According to Mayor Harp, one approach being taken by New Haven includes “a comprehensive effort to combat this including expanded use of ShotSpotter technology, which provides remarkably accurate information about shots fired — how many, where, and often even what caliber — in short order to give responding officers and detectives instant momentum in their investigations.”
Harp added: “Nearly one-third of New Haven is now electronically patrolled by this gunshot detection system; the resulting head start for police helps them track down the guns used, and the people who fired them.”
And the effort to keep communities safe doesn’t end with the police.
Rick Fontana, deputy director of the City of New Haven’s Office of Emergency Management,said: “We must be prepared to respond to workplace violence and active shooter situations — unpredictable events without logic or patterns — further complicating the immense responsibility of first responders.”
Fontana said, “In terms of emergency preparedness, New Haven is working to ensure that all public safety personnel are now vigilant with what we call ‘situational awareness’ — constantly reviewing and strengthening evacuation plans and security enhancement of high-risk areas, including all government facilities, in the event of random or premeditated violence, and deciding how to fit first responders in terms of protective gear and other equipment.”
BALANCING IDEOLOGY AND PUBLIC SAFETY
Response to the threat guns can have on a community’s safety requires both reactive and proactive strategies.
Newtown’s Jacob said: “Tackling the broader issue of gun violence prevention can protect our communities from the suffering, trauma, and costs associated with gun violence. We need to look at this from a public safety point of view, just like we would other issues that face our communities.
“Here in Newtown we recognize and respect our citizens’ rights to own firearms and use them,’’ Jacob said. “We also recognize and accept with that right comes a tremendous responsibility to see that the use of those firearms is governed fairly to protect both those using them and those not using them. Often we are asked as leaders of our communities to tackle difficult issues. It’s our responsibility to have those discussions and take that responsibility seriously.”
From police hiring and training to providing resources for police and promoting community relations, there needs to be a broader vision and model of communication that weaves a stronger fabric throughout neighborhoods that alert and identify problems sooner.
In Hamden, the town has put an enhanced focus on community police efforts and outreach, opened two police substations, increased bike patrols, and implemented walking beats for the first time in four decades.
Mayor Curt Leng said: “This approach, where residents don’t just see officers as people from afar to be intimidated by, but as people that are relatable, that you can cultivate a relationship with and then have the comfort level to talk to in real terms about what is happening in your neighborhood has been and can be invaluable with changing the culture of neighborhoods.”
Leng, who is a member of the nationwide group “Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” said Hamden is also engaged in having local discussions and forums and gun buy-back programs. “These are positive programs that will continue the discussion and bring neighbors together to talk to other neighbors about their positions on things like police activity, criminal activity, and gun control — just to name a few.”
Leng continued that while it is difficult, if not impossible, to peel back the rhetoric over the political fight over gun ownership rights, there are proactive steps that can be taken to protect citizens.
He said: “We need to consider implementing local action . . . we are considering some rules similar to those approved in Boston, that require all firearm vendors and retailers who respond to bids for the purchase of department firearms to complete a survey about responsible gun vendor practices.”
RE-EXAMINING CURRENT PRACTICES
The challenge to create change is breaking through the decades of mistrust that sometimes exists between segments of the population and police. Throw in the added issue of racial tension that often exists in bigger communities and the mistrust grows deeper.
“You need to make sure there is a strong, continuous dialogue ongoing between the cops and the community they serve,” retired Branford Police Chief John DeCarlo said.
DeCarlo, an associate professor at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven, is a well-respected expert and author on policing methodologies and their effects on crime.
“There is a need for an increased civility in dealings between citizens and their police departments,” DeCarlo said.
In Hamden, an enhanced effort has been made by police to recognize and alter responses to traffic violations in order to reduce the disproportionately higher rate of minority drivers that are pulled over by police. This recognition and change in approach by law enforcement in Hamden is being recognized statewide as a model for others to consider.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT GUNS
Bridgeport Police Chief Armando “AJ” Perez said policing gun safety is a particular challenge in Connecticut’s large cities.
“The population density, challenging socio-economic conditions, and lack of education all contribute to an increased crime rate,” Perez said. “Illegal firearms are attractive to young, urban men who view them as a status symbol. This contributes to a marked increase in homicides and aggravated assaults. We have seen may tragic examples of this in Bridgeport.”
Police reform can’t fix an economy that is tougher on people with lower incomes.
Perez said to address the problems of guns and violence “we dedicate a large number of personnel and physical resources to track and seize firearms, through lengthy and sometimes costly investigations. We form collaborations with state and federal agencies to enforce firearm laws.”
POLICE: GUARDIANS, NOT WARRIORS
No longer are police officers being asked to only enforce the law. Along with traditional duties, police are responsible to now serve in variety of other roles to that will promote better living conditions and enhance community relations.
To enhance the relationships between police and residents, community policing is an approach being advanced in many police departments.
Community policing is the concept that trust and mutual respect between police and the communities are crucial to public safety. It emphasizes the systemic use of community engagement, partnerships, problem-solving, and proactively addressing conditions that cultivate crime and social disorder.
New Haven has embraced this approach through the New Haven Community and Public Relations Task Force established in March 2015. While only in its infant stage, results are paying off.
From New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman: “Among many beneficial byproducts of community policing in New Haven, mutually protective relationships grow among residents and police officers, in which each looks out for the safety and well-being of the other.”
Esserman added: “This dynamic, in which police are an extension of the community rather than a foreign presence layered over it, complements the department’s extremely well-disciplined officers and routine de-escalation training they receive to try and make violence and the use of force far less frequent.”
The change in operations can include the adoption of new technology, such as body cameras, which can promote and enhance trust and safety between the police and the community.
During his tenure as police chief in Branford, DeCarlo was one of the first top cops in the state to have his department wear body cameras.
“I always thought body cameras were a good idea,” DeCarlo said. “It increases civility on both the cops’ side and the side of citizens when you are both being watched. Everyone tends to be on their best behavior.’’
CONNECTICUT’S SMALLER TOWNS REACHING OUT, ALSO
Outreach and community policing aren’t limited to Connecticut’s biggest cities.
Small towns that utilize resident state troopers are not immune from the need to engage and promote community relations. These troopers need to be aware of the philosophy of the community, and ensure that other troopers that may not be in the town every day, but do respond, are also aware.
In the small town of Litchfield, with a population slightly more than 8,300, First Selectman Leo Paul Jr. said: “While we don’t have the day-to-day issues with gun violence that the bigger cities in Connecticut do, it doesn’t mean we aren’t thinking about how to keep our community safe.
“Nobody is immune to the dangers,” Paul said.
Litchfield, a town of close to 57 square miles, is policed by a resident state trooper, plus two full-time police officers.
“We’re fortunate that we are a small enough town that everybody in town knows our officers and vice versa,” Paul said. “That goes a long way in making sure the dialogue goes back-and-forth between both sides.” That dialogue, Paul said, is important to preventing any potentially volatile issues from impacting community safety.
DEALING WITH SOCIAL MEDIA
Often promoting, sometimes hindering positive change, is the reality of 24-hour news coverage, social media, the internet, and cellphone cameras.
The new wave of media has allowed marginalized communities to bypass traditional media in order to speak for themselves with no filter. Meanwhile, we are bombarded with constant images or video of alleged bad public and/or police behavior, both on regular and social media.
“Guns have gotten much, much more prevalent in recent years,” DeCarlo said. “Despite that, we still have relatively few shootings in this country. It’s just that the ones we do are on our Facebook and Twitter feeds all day long. We can’t escape it.”
NO EASY ANSWERS
As was stated in the beginning, consensus on gun ownership rights in this country isn’t likely.
However, productive conversations may lead to actions that will help us evolve. In particular, at the local level, where action is more prevalent and important than rhetoric.
Community policing success will come with time. The implementation of new approaches and policies will take police and residents time for adjustments to be made. It may be years until seamless implementation can occur. The changes will build a foundation where community forums will turn from confrontational, one side verse another, to one where they stand up together.
PUBLIC SAFETY PRIORITY
What is not disputable is the municipal responsibility to ensure communities are safe.
Going forward, those who are working to make our communities safer reiterate there are no easy answers — just more hard work.
Said CCM’s DeLong: “Issues surrounding guns and gun violence are very polarizing. Unfortunately, the discussion inevitably leads to a debate over gun control versus a strict interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.
“The issue of guns leads to a partisan divide and seemingly little to nothing gets accomplished on our streets. The safe play,” DeLong said, “for nonpartisan municipal associations like CCM is to leave the discussion up to others. However, our job is to provide our members with educational materials and all the resources available to meet the individual governance needs of their communities. As the elected voices of their city or town they must determine what approach is appropriate for their community.”