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​Will New York City’s New ‘Gun Court’ Help Reduce Shootings?

New York City seems safer and richer than ever, but gang violence continues to stump local law enforcement.
January 13, 2016, 4:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Tony Webster

Last week, when President Barack Obama announced his new executive orders to expand federal background checks, he paused, teary-eyed, after reflecting on what had happened to the first graders of Sandy Hook Elementary School. "And, by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day," Obama said, to much applause.

It was a subtle reminder: Don't forget the cities. Mass killings in suburbia may grip the headlines, but the shootings that happen almost every Friday and Saturday night in the high-crime, low-income neighborhoods of our urban centers largely define gun violence in America. In Chicago alone, three times as many people were shot in the first few days of 2016 as during the same time last year.

It's a plague that even the safest cities in America can't seem to shake. On Tuesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced Project Fast Track, a new gun safety initiative program that will immediately empower a Brooklyn court and a new division of 200 NYPD officers—both solely dedicated to gun cases. It will reassign funds and officers the city already has, while kicking in $2 million extra next year for the medical examiner's office to expand DNA testing. "New Yorkers in every neighborhood in this city are united in their desire for safe streets," de Blasio told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday. "To the few individuals responsible for New York City's remaining gun violence, our message is clear: You will be found and you will be quickly prosecuted to the full extent of the law." The program comes at a strange time in the city's self-perception. This past year was the safest in the Big Apple's recent history, with overall crime dropping 1.7 percent. Yet according to a Quinnipiac poll from August, 46 percent of the city's voters said crime is a "very serious" problem. The daily newspapers' front pages are constantly covered with stories that lament a return to the bad old days of New York City grit, even though the city also seems richer and glossier than ever. But with guns, there is real reason to be concerned. While New York City saw a 3 percent drop in shootings last year homicides actually rose from 333 to 350. Gang-related shootings—which, law enforcement experts and officials say, are the strongest drivers of local gun violence—were up 18 percent. Also, earlier this year, two NYPD officers was separately shot and killed by perps with illegal guns imported from down South, where laws remain lax. Now the gun court, as it's being called, will seek to stem this flow of guns from out of state. Two rooms in Brooklyn's State Supreme Court will focus on illegal firearms possession charges; not cases in which these guns are fired on the streets—a problem saved for the already clogged criminal courts. Police officials have expressed frustration with the fact that those who are caught having—but not using—an illegal gun are often released on lower bail or transferred to alternative programs, only to be nabbed again later for the same crime. Under Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson's office, the gun court will be tasked with closing most cases in six months or less. According to city officials at the press conference on Tuesday, there are 203 defendants waiting in detention for illegal gun cases over six months old. The new measure, they argue, will lessen the daily detained population by 98 inmates—a welcome decrease, if they can make it happen. In addition—and for the first time in the city's history, remarkably—an individual officer from what will be known as the Gun Violence Suppression Division will be assigned to oversee each case from start to finish. There will also be feedback exchanged between both teams after each case, to ensure that illegal gun prosecutions are successful. The only problem is the city tried this before, and it didn't exactly work out. Nearly a decade ago, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has since devoted a lot of his energy to gun control, created his own gun court in Brooklyn. But his administration's overuse of controversial stop-and-frisk tactics helped overwhelm the court with cases, and the legality of busts began to blur. Since it was not clear then how the cops were getting their hands on certain weapons, judges eventually banned guns from being used as evidence. As a result, cases were often dismissed, and the dragnet forced the court to close down. It's unclear how this time around will be any different—although the number of busts in New York City is drastically down, with 48,000 fewer arrests last year. And the deployment of stop-and-frisk tactics has also seen a precipitous plummet, with a greater focus on respecting legal boundaries. Officers are now required to hand out "receipts" to those frisked, and trained to use the method as a last resort. In an interview, Brooklyn community activist Tony Herbert, who has recently been vocal on the issue, applauded the city's efforts. "Anything that helps champion stopping the proliferation of guns is always a good thing," he told me. "Hopefully, it will properly go after the people who are bringing guns into our community." Compared to Bloomberg's effort, this time "should go a lot smoother," Herbert predicted. "People on the street might get wise to what's happening, and think, 'I'm not carrying this around anymore.'" (In fact, another part of the initiative is that cops will promote their gun busts on social media.) Still, Herbert argued state legislators in Albany need to supplement this initiative with "real legislation that has teeth." In light of the presidential election, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has taken to the national airwaves, lambasting Congress for failing to act on gun violence, and thereby letting illegal guns flood into New York. But, on the local level, activists like Herbert say not much has been done. "I'm not asking for a dime," he continued. "What we're asking for is to use existing resources to put funding behind volunteers who are willing to get out on the streets. We have 10,000 volunteers waiting to be activated, so we can get these young men to listen to us." Coupled with Project Fast Track, the de Blasio administration has also concentrated its efforts on this ground support. Numerous "violence interrupter" models across the city, including the SOS Crown Heights chapter VICE recently profiled, have received major funding from City Hall. These groups focus on mediation in gun-ridden communities, specifically with a select group of young men who are privy to violence, and exploring the deeper economic conditions that land them with a gun in the first place. Taken together, the measures represent an all-out assault on gun violence. If successful, gun courts could expand to the rest of the city, but residents of Brooklyn, which has often been labeled the "bloodiest borough," are surely anxious to see how this plays out in their neighborhoods. Follow John Surico on Twitter.