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What caused the dramatic tipping point in deadly shootings?

August 4, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
Why has there been a dramatic spike in homicides this year? Judy Woodruff speaks to Col. Sam Dotson, chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, and Edward Flynn, chief of the Milwaukee Police Department, two cities that have seen a substantial rise in murders, about the wide availability of guns, scrutiny of the criminal justice system, an increase in heroin use and systemic poverty.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to two police chiefs dealing with this every day, Chief Edward Flynn from Milwaukee and Chief Samuel Dotson, the police chief of Saint Louis.

Gentlemen, we welcome you both to the program.

Chief Flynn, to you first. Milwaukee, an 88 percent — in homicides just since last year. What is going on?

EDWARD FLYNN, Chief, Mailwaukee Police Department: Well, we’re seeing a number of different dynamics playing out.

Certainly, one of the things we have seen is a dramatic increase in the use of firearms, particularly semiautomatic pistols, in our violent deaths. We have seen that our shootings are up significantly, our homicides are up dramatically. Over 85 percent of our homicides are committed with firearms, and, of those, over 85 percent are committed with semiautomatic pistols.

We have recently passed a ludicrously weak gun law that allowed basically concealed carry permits to be granted to people who meet the statutory definition of career criminals. We have also got a situation where no matter how many times you are arrested for carrying a gun illegally, it remains a misdemeanor, even though a second offense for carrying marijuana can be prosecuted as a felony.

So very weak and relatively recent gun laws are certainly a major contributor to our dramatic spike in firearms-related violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chief Dotson, what about in Saint Louis, a 64 percent increase over last year? Is it all about guns?

COL. SAM DOTSON, Chief, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department: I’m seeing exactly the same thing that they’re seeing in Milwaukee, the availability of guns.

We have a constitutional amendment in our state that was passed within the last year that makes it an inalienable right to have a gun. We have had courts that have declined to prosecute convicted felons that we arrest with guns. I’m seeing exactly the same thing, high-capacity magazines, a willingness to use the guns, and a judiciary that sometimes doesn’t follow through on the prosecution.

We had research done from a university here. Of about 250 cases of unlawful use of a weapon, over 61 percent of those cases got probation. That means those people are right back out on the street committing crimes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Chief Flynn, is this different in Milwaukee from the situation last year and the year before? There was a drop in the homicide rate up until a year or two ago. Now it has shot back up.

Is there such a difference in people’s — accessibility people have with guns?

EDWARD FLYNN: I think the consensus among the chiefs at the discussion was a desire to learn just what are the components of what appears to be a tipping point? What are the series of small changes that taken together have created a dramatic spike across the country in our central cities?

Certainly, our firearms law went into effect in November of 2011. And almost immediately, we started to see an increase in the use of pistols. The tie-in to crime in Milwaukee through the use of a pistol in a crime, the biggest single number is under three months. Our firearms are easily bought legally. Ninety percent of the crime guns we seize at the scene of a crime were bought legally and sold legally, because secondary sales don’t require background checks.

It’s not the only variable. It’s significant components to our violence problem here and in other similarly situated cities. But certainly the easy availability of firearms, of large-capacity magazines is resulting in many more bullets being used at our crime scenes and many more guns being used at our crime scenes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, both of you have been — have talked to the news media about this, and you have also attributed other factors.

Chief Dotson, last November, this was a few months after the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, you told — you said — quoting, you said, “Police officers had been drawing back from everyday enforcement due the fears they could be charged.” And as a result, you said the criminal element is feeling empowered.

Is that still the case there in Saint Louis?

COL. SAM DOTSON: I think it’s part of a conversation that has to happen nationally.

We talked about it yesterday when we were in Washington, D.C., about the Ferguson effect, and about how some departments may see officers that have a little bit of trepidation when they go into an enforcement situation. We see criminals that have a little feeling of empowerment around the movement that’s going on.

So I think when you layer that in with the availability of guns, the trepidation of police officers and in Saint Louis a little bit now an uptick in the use of heroin, crack cocaine, difficult to find. Heroin is the drug of choice. I think we’re seeing a lot of street-level disputes that are solved with firearms because of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Chief Flynn, you said — in an interview with a reporter not long ago, you said society over the last 25 years has delegated its social problems to the criminal justice system, and the criminal justice system, you said, is insufficient to the task. What did you mean by that?

EDWARD FLYNN: Well, our most challenged neighborhoods are populated by folks who are suffering from generations of poverty and unemployment.

If you draw an ellipse over our highest-crime neighborhoods, you’re going to find that those capture the highest percentage of abandoned and foreclosed house, the highest poverty rates, the highest unemployment rates and so on. Public space violent crime is one of the many symptoms of endemic intergenerational poverty.

And the problem that, for the last 30 to 40 years, we have disinvested in mental health services, disinvested in social service, disinvested in virtually everything that folks in these conditions need, except the police. Eighty percent of our work, even in our highest-crime neighborhoods, is fundamentally social work.

And I need to add something else as well. Obviously, the criminal justice system is coming under a lot of scrutiny right now, as well as it should in a free society. But I would simply ask that, as we cover the needs for possible changes in the criminal justice system, we stop ignoring the fact that the biggest disparity in the criminal justice system is criminal victimization.

In my city, if you’re an African-American, you are 18 times more likely to get shot than if you are if you are white. You’re nine times more likely to get murdered. The levels of crime within these challenged neighborhoods are extraordinary. And it’s that disparate victimization to which the police respond and sadly too often are criticized because they’re there in the first place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chief Dotson, who do you — I don’t want to ask you flat out if you agree with what he said, but what is your perspective on that, on the role that these social problems, that the fact that the police have been asked to solve social challenges in our country?

COL. SAM DOTSON: I think he’s absolutely right.

Police officers have become the face of government in a lot of communities. And as we have seen school systems fail, as we have seen cutbacks in mental health services, in health services overall, when you dial 911, the police officers are the ones that respond first and most quickly. And we’re asked to solve a lot of those systematic social problems that have happened over generations.

Crime has been trending down as a country for the last 20 years. But now we’re at a point where, as Ed Flynn said, the disinvestment into those neighborhoods, we’re starting to see the outcome or the results of that. We have to get back to focusing resources into those neighborhoods. And by resources, I don’t mean police officers. We need to make sure that there are quality education opportunities, economic opportunities, jobs, substance abuse programs.

All of those are outside of law enforcement, but those are exactly the issues that law enforcement deals with in the community every day, because we’re the only face of government in some neighborhoods.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just very quick final question to both of you.

In Baltimore, they are embedding 10 federal agents to work with the city police department, to help them solve, address some of their violence issues. Is that the kind of thing that would make a difference, to both of you quickly, Chief Flynn?

EDWARD FLYNN: Well, we use FBI agents on a couple of our anti-gang task forces. And we also have a partnership with the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms administration in a separate gang task force.

So, certainly, forming effective partnerships with other law enforcement agencies is useful, and working with the feds gets you into federal court, where the sanctions can be significant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Chief Dotson?

COL. SAM DOTSON: We’re taking many cases to the federal authorities, U.S. attorney here.

And we have done it just the opposite. We have taken police officers from the city and the county and embedded them with federal agents on a task force to focus on the violence and the rapid-response force, so not just the homicides, but the violence, because a precursor to the homicides are the shootings that Ed talked about that are happening far too frequently, high-capacity magazines, lots of victims.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chief Samuel Dotson of Saint Louis, Chief Edward Flynn of Milwaukee, we thank you both.

EDWARD FLYNN: Thank you.

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