By Chris Teale (File photo)
At last week’s community meeting at the Charles Houston Recreation Center after the homicide of Shakkan Elliot-Tibbs on July 2, Alexandria Deputy Police Chief David Huchler told those present that while so-called “shots fired” calls are being reported to the public more, instances of shots being fired during the commission of a felony are down overall in the city.
After a Freedom of Information Act request by the Times, the police department’s rhetoric holds true: the number of felony investigations that involve shots being fired were down from the beginning of the year to the end of June 2015, compared to the same time period in 2014. As of June 30, 2015, the data shows there were 70 calls related to “shots fired” of a felonious nature, while as of June 30, 2014, there were 92.
Chris Wemple III, the police department’s commander of the patrol support division, explained there is no standard way for the police to report shots being fired in their incident logs; rather, an incident can be logged under many different call types used to sort and respond to potential crimes. Police respond to reports of “shots fired” and sometimes find that a gunshot-like noise can be due to fireworks, cars backfiring or any number of other incidents not related to a firearms crime.
With that caveat, the call types examined took into account incidents where shots have been fired in a felonious way or in the commission of a felony. Those call types are: weapons violations, throw/shoot missiles, assaults and trouble unknown, which are the most likely call types to reflect a felonious incident involving only gunfire.
While this data does not take into account the shooting of Elliot-Tibbs earlier this month, it supports officials’ assertions that shots fired calls are down, and that their public information campaign stems from a desire to encourage people to come forward as witnesses to crimes and work with the police to bring those responsible to justice.
“I think it really goes to putting out more notifications,” Huchler said in an interview. “In years past, we probably were not as engaged with the community through social media as we are today, and we’re continuing to expand our use of social media, eNews through the City of Alexandria, to make sure that the community is informed about activity that is occurring in their neighborhood for two reasons: one is to make sure they are informed so they can be aware and have good situational awareness of their surroundings, and also we feel like it’s a good way to get the community informed so that they can help us.
“The more they know about what we’re investigating, the more we feel like they’ll engage us in providing us information to help us resolve these issues.”
Huchler said investigators have identified a number of connections between those responsible for the firing of shots, and that as such, the department has deployed strategies to try and keep the community safe and reassure them through police presence.
“First and foremost, our front line is our uniform patrol officers,” Huchler said. “We make sure they’re aware of intelligence in terms of what we’re looking for, how to go about investigating and responding to these types of incidents. We’ve increased the number of patrol officers in that area, not only to help us investigatively but also as a deterrent. We feel like a higher level of presence may alleviate some of the issues, but not totally.
“In that regard, we believe through investigations is going to be the best way to resolve this on a long-term basis. We’ve committed a number of investigative resources to this — we have a detective that is looking at all of these cases and the other resources in our investigation section. We’ve collected a number of pieces of evidence that we are evaluating, and we’re confident that’s also going to lead us into tying together some of the incidents with individuals.”
Judy Noritake, president of the Braddock Metro Citizens Coalition, believes the police are doing a good job, and agrees that help from the community will be crucial in helping them solve these crimes. She added that building relationships between community members, the police and city officials is the best way to help make the neighborhood safer for all.
“It’s one thing to wait until shots are fired in the neighborhood and call them in, because everybody does that,” she said. “But to sort of have a more realistic view about what exactly is going on, the police can’t say publicly what they’re doing that’s unseen and they have a lot of undercover tactics in our neighborhood. They don’t necessarily say who they’re looking for, if they’ve found them.
“Eventually they’ll say an arrest was made, but for people in my neighborhood to feel safer about where they live, to understand exactly what’s going on, we do have conversations pretty regularly and particularly with the mayor, who’s a neighbor, people like [City Councilor] John Chapman who come to the neighborhood frequently. I have the cell phone numbers of some of the police, and sometimes I’ll ask questions directly. We need to be eyes on the street. We are starting to form a community; people know each other on the street.”
Not everyone believes the police response has been adequate, however. Leslie Zupan, president of the nearby West Old Town Citizens Association, believes that the budget cuts of recent years and a change in how policing is done has made neighborhoods more susceptible to crime. She added that the police are perhaps not as engaged with members of the community as they were in the past.
“We love our community cop, but we just don’t feel the community policing is what it was in years past,” she said. “Having lived in the neighborhood for 35 years, I remember the days when the community cops would go door-to-door, they would ride their bicycles, they were not always in patrol cars.
“They’d slip surveys under your doors because they wanted feedback, it was very much more soaking into the community and pulling out information, knowing people, knowing the climate. There really seemed to be a strategy behind it. There are differences in police management philosophies, and along the way I think some of that has been weakened. The budget cuts don’t help either, but they have taken them at the expense of community policing.”
From the police department’s point of view, officials say they are doing everything they can and have enough resources at their disposal to carry out effective investigations. The department is still on the lookout for witnesses, and want to reassure those in the community they are working hard to bring incidents of shots being fired down.
“We obviously want to bring this to a close because we understand the seriousness of shots fired,” Huchler said. “At a minimum, it has the potential to cause serious property damage and at its worst it’s going to seriously injure someone or worse. To alleviate their concerns, we want to say that our effort in providing this information is to create awareness. We’re providing this information so that [residents] can help us for the investigation.
“We have the resources down there that we feel are going to provide safety for the community, to provide reassurance to the community, but we also tell people that we have to remember that we live in an urban setting. While we are seeing a trend here with the shots fired, it’s not unusual in an urban environment to see that. We just want to make people aware that they should be aware of their surroundings; they should call suspicious activity in to us for further investigation. We’re going to continue to do that long after we make arrests and bring these investigations to a close.”