Focus on guns works for police in Ind., Mo.

November 20, 1994|By New York Times News Service

INDIANAPOLIS -- Police departments here and in Kansas City, Mo., have tried something police departments have never done before to get illegal guns off the streets: They have focused on the guns in the way they long have focused on drugs and drunken drivers.

Elementary as it sounds, it works.

Night after night, teams of police officers here are being freed from answering routine calls and directed to patrol three high-crime neighborhoods, watching for any infraction of the law that will give them the legal basis to search a car or pedestrian for illegal guns.

Only three weeks into the experiments, which were devised by a criminology professor at the University of Maryland, the police here have seized an AK-47 rifle, a Mac 10 semi-automatic weapon, a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol and a number of other weapons.

In Kansas City, which completed its six-month gun-intercept experiment last year, police Chief Steven Bishop said, "I don't know why it didn't occur to us to really focus on guns. We usually focus on getting the bad guys after a crime. Maybe going after guns was too simplistic for us."

James D. Toler, Indianapolis' police chief, agreed. "We may have put the caboose on the front -- we should have gone after guns first," he said.

The Kansas City project, the results of which are expected to be released soon by the Justice Department, reduced gun-related crimes almost 50 percent in the area in which it was instituted, said Lawrence W. Sherman, the professor who developed the program.

The number of homicides and drive-by shootings also fell. And in terms of gun yield per hour of police patrol, the use of gun-intercept teams proved 10 times more cost-effective than regular police patrols.

"It is possible that in the short run we can reduce homicide simply through reduced gun carrying," said Mr. Sherman, who is on a leave of absence from the university this year to serve as chief criminologist to the Indianapolis Police Department.

He suggested that "this is also a way to bypass gun-control gridlock," since the programs essentially ignore the debate over gun-control legislation, and instead concentrate on vigorous enforcement of existing gun laws.

The premise of the experiments is simple. While experts generally agree that some 200 million guns are in circulation in the United States, they also believe that far fewer -- perhaps 100,000 or so -- are used to commit crimes.

So, by confiscating a relatively small number of weapons, the police may be able to cut back the incidence of violent crimes significantly.

And one way to confiscate these illegal weapons is to find their potential owners. Under Mr. Sherman's guidance, the police in Kansas City and now here have focused on carefully selected "hot spots," neighborhoods in which, according to records of 911 emergency calls, gun-related incidents are most likely to occur.

Then, a select group of police officers work the hot spots in patrol cars, looking exclusively for illegal firearms.

Traffic violations give them the wherewithal to stop suspects such as a driver who runs a stop sign, another driving with the high beams on or a third who, a quick computer check confirms, is driving a stolen car. The city's 11 p.m. curfew for youths age 16 and under gives them the authority to approach others.

In Indianapolis, Officer David Schutz got his first gun last week when he stopped a car with its bright lights on, a traffic violation that, police officers say, also signals that a car may have been stolen. The 16-year-old driver was nervous and appeared to push something under the seat.

That gave the patrolman an idea that the driver might have a gun and provided the legal basis for him to search the car. He found a loaded .380-caliber Bryco Arms semi-automatic pistol.

The patrol officers are not always this lucky. In a five-hour period last Thursday night, two teams pulled over more than 15 cars. They found open bottles of alcohol, drugs and large amounts of cash, but no guns.

Mr. Sherman, one of the nation's authorities on policing, was invited here by Mayor Steve Goldsmith, a conservative Republican and former district attorney, with an offer from the city to pay for the experiment.

Phillip Heyman, a professor at Harvard Law School and former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, said he believes that the local police have more power than they realize to go after illegal guns, authority that grows out of the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Terry vs. Ohio.

The majority in that case said that police could "frisk" pedestrians if they had a "reasonable belief" based on "specific and articulable facts" that an officer might be endangered by the presence of a gun.

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