Following a recent spike in violent crime — including 10 homicides in the last three weeks — the Mobile Police Department is ramping up its enforcement to tackle the access teenagers and young adults have to illegal guns in the Port City.
With a 10-year average homicide rate of around 30, Mobile has already exceeded its usual number of murders and accidental deaths this year. But more specifically, Mobile’s 33 homicides in 2016 have included 27 deaths by firearms and resulted in the death of 11 teenagers.
In an effort to address those and other concerns, Mobile Police Chief James Barber announced Thursday his department would be stepping up its enforcement in areas of high-crime and throughout the entire city as well using a litany different tactics.
Barber said MPD officers would soon begin conducting “directed patrol operations” and using intelligence-led tactics like warrant service, safety checkpoints, curfew enforcement and probation checks — all part of a new and focused operation the department has dubbed City H.E.A.T. (Heightened Enforcement and Apprehension Tactics).“We as a community cannot allow the senseless and indiscriminate violent gun crimes to continue,” Barber said in a prepared statement. “The Mobile Police Department is committed to removing guns that are in the hands of our youth and from others that are forbidden by law from carrying firearms.”
According to Barber, many of the firearms used in recent violent crimes in Mobile were acquired by breaking into the vehicles of legal gun owners. To date, the MPD reports 161 firearms have been acquired in this manner.
Earlier this week, Barber said a “gun culture” in the South means teenagers and felons “don’t have to pull on too many doors” before they stumble upon a weapon. Though Barber said he has no issue with legal and responsible gun owners, he asked that those who do keep firearms ensure they are secured and aren’t finding their way into the streets of Mobile.
According to a release from the MPD, statistics suggest 10 percent of any city’s geographical area can be responsible for 60 to 80 percent of all criminal activity. By utilizing intelligence-led police tactics, Barber said Operation City H.E.A.T. can “have a significant impact on the overall violent crime rate” in Mobile.
“We will rid our city of these illegal firearms and those that choose to carry them — street by street, block by block, and neighborhood by neighborhood — until our entire community is a safe place to live and work,” the Chief added.
However, that type of “hot spot” policing in Mobile has drawn criticism in the past. As recently as last year, repeated checkpoints in the Village Green area off Azalea Road created concerns about the racial demographics of the areas the MPD was targeting.
Already this week, the MPD has set up “safety checkpoints” in the RV Taylor Community, an area that has seen recent incidents of gun violence including a shooting a week ago that injured five.
In their first day, safety checkpoints conducted in the RV Taylor community on Oct. 20 resulted in numerous arrests and citations. According to the MPD, from 6 p.m. to 1. a.m., officers issued 15 citations and made arrests for 13 misdemeanors and 12 felonies.
The MPD also recovered three illegal firearms during the same time period.
So far, no public officials publicly addressed the return of these safety checkpoints, but during a recent meeting some members of the community did. One resident, Tim Hollis, suggested bringing back “roadblocks” before large public events like the Greater Gulf State Fair, claiming that “when roadblocks were around, anyone who had something to do had lots to worry about.”
“If they were going out to do anything mischievous, they thought twice,” Hollis said. “Everybody knows you don’t get around roadblocks, and if you turn around to avoid a roadblock, one comes after you.”However, others expressed concern over that approach, claiming that, in the past, roadblocks had “disproportionately targeted African Americans.” One woman said she found it “troublesome” that she could be stopped or pulled over by an officer at all when she “hadn’t done anything” to warrant being stopped.
In response, Barber said he wasn’t taking any tactic off the table, adding that any area where “violent crime or gun carrying” can be documented might be subjected to a roadblock. However, he also said any approach used by the MPD would be done strategically.
“What you have to weigh is public convenience versus public safety,” Barber said. “So, setting up roadblocks all over the city of Mobile does a great job of inconveniencing the public, but does that improve safety?”
Because of the increased focus on youth-driven gun violence, the MPD has also been in the process of developing some sort of smartphone application that students and teenagers would feel comfortable using to anonymously report firearms in the hands of their peers. However, Barber recently told Lagniappe that application is still being developed.
In the meantime, the MPD is encouraging citizens of any age to call 911 if they become aware of a juvenile with a gun. Area crimes can also be reported through the non-emergency MPD phone line at 251-208-7211.