Sequoya’s legacy: A rallying cry in the battle against gun crime
The tragic death of a 9-year-old girl motivates collaboration at the I-95 Working Group conference to implement solutions to address gun crime
Interstate 95 threads its way along the eastern coast of the United States from the hardwood forests of the Maine-Canada border to the Rickenbacker Causeway in south Miami. Dozens, if not hundreds, of law enforcement jurisdictions along the route battle with local problems ranging from cattle straying into New England towns to illegal Cuban refugees arriving in the Florida Keys.
But one exit off that thoroughfare, one housing development, one incident, one indomitable young girl singularly resonate for Colonel Patrick Callahan, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police (NJSP). The moment is captured on bodycam footage that motivates Callahan every day. It depicts the aftermath of a shooting in Trenton when a stray bullet struck down Sequoya Bacon-Jones, not yet 10. The footage shows her covered in blood, loaded into an ambulance by EMT workers. Before the vehicle pulls off, Sequoya calmly asks, “Am I about to die?” The ambulance whisks off, the medical team desperately trying to save her. They can’t.
“It’s one of the hardest videos I’ve ever had to view,” Callahan tells senior law enforcement representatives from more than 150 police departments, sheriff’s offices, highway patrols and federal agencies in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in late January. They are members of the I-95 Working Group, there to share challenges, strategies, technologies, intelligence and thought leadership.
Throughout the two-day conference — filled with discussion of ballistics, gun tracing, crime-control initiatives and interdiction statistics — Callahan and others repeatedly come back to Sequoya to emphasize the human element of their work.
“Sequoya’s story helped me reset and focus on the ‘why’ of what we do,” Callahan says. “There’s no ‘why’ in data sets.”
Such piercingly human motivations inspired multiple organizations to cohost the event, including the New York Police Department, the New Jersey State Police, the Urban Area Security Initiative of New Jersey, and the Miller Center on Policing and Community Resilience at Rutgers University. Newly appointed Chief of Police of Washington, DC’s Metropolitan Police Department, Pamela Smith, made attendance and sponsorship of the conference a priority in just her first few months in office. Chief Smith has described her Arkansas upbringing as devoid of hopes and dreams. Safe schools, neighborhoods and places to play are critical to ensure that DC youth don’t suffer that same fate.
The event kicked off with an introduction from New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy. Governor Murphy set the tone by noting that annual shootings in his state fell below 1,000 for the first time in 15 years, the result of a coordinated effort involving crime gun intelligence, statutory changes, community dispute mediation and compassionate support for both victims and officers needing mental health support.
Lieutenant Colonel Joe Brennan of the New Jersey State Police (NJSP) Investigations Branch and Director Ray Guidetti of the Hackensack Police Department elaborated on the law enforcement aspect of that approach, punctuating their presentation with a video from the man they refer to as their “Yoda” of crime-gun intelligence: consultant Pete Gagliardi. Together, the three presented Gagliardi’s seven key principles of crime gun intelligence:
1. Establish a “why” you are doing this, for groups with their own missions and objectives:
- Forensics experts
- The public
Brennan said that the NJSP’s “why” is to reduce the number of innocent gunshot victims.
2. Collect comprehensive information, including the gun purchaser, fingerprints, ballistics, serial number, etc. Brennan said the NJSP amassed and collated various data sets, including the names of shooting victims (who were often involved in crimes themselves), to obtain pretrial incarceration orders from judges.
3. Balance the three-legged stool of people, processes and technology. To Guidetti and Brennan, people constitute the most important leg of the stool. “Our goal was to reduce the number of people shot in New Jersey,” Brennan said. “Not to increase gun apprehensions.”
4. Consider the regional perspective. Criminals operate across jurisdictions. It’s critical to forge cross-border relationships.
5. Ensure timely processing. New Jersey created a community of interest among NIBIN labs, adding drop-off sites throughout the state to get guns into lab analysis within 24 hours.
6. Conduct relentless follow-up. New Jersey’s Regional Operations Center & Intelligence works with the state corrections department, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the state parole board, and other groups, holding all team members accountable.
7. Perform continuous review. Figure out what’s working and what’s not. For New Jersey, the focus has not only been on lowering the number of gun victims but also on reducing car thefts and fentanyl overdoses.
Other jurisdictions presented gun-violence-reduction strategies in their own sessions, including New York, Toronto, Washington, DC, and Richmond, Virginia. DC Metropolitan Police Department Asst. Chief Ramsey Kyle discussed an array of initiatives in the nation’s capital, including efforts to fight the proliferation of Glock switches — attachable devices that convert pistols into machine guns.
Among the most intriguing initiatives:
- Social media/virtual observation posts: Identifying people posting videos of themselves in real-time on Instagram, then using environmental cues or other methods to interdict the person as soon as possible.
- Peaceful Neighborhoods Initiative: Identifying “trap houses” — places where narcotics are used unbeknownst to the exploited and vulnerable property owner.
- Operation ATLAS: Identifying live crime areas and saturating them with highly visible officers, traffic stops, and community engagement. Kyle said that the initiative has decreased violent crime by 22%.
The @ijisinstitute is pleased to be in attendance at the I-95 Working Group Meeting, taking place this week in Atlantic City, NJ. IJIS Executive Director Maria Cardiellos and Director Ashwini Jarral (@JarralA1) will be there. pic.twitter.com/WG46uBf7H6— IJIS Institute (@ijisinstitute) January 29, 2024
In his presentation, Major Donald Davenport of the Richmond Police Department showed how violent crime began to fall in 2023 after peaking the previous year. The city of about 260,000 typically ranks among the most violent small cities in the country. Davenport explained how Richmond is plagued by firearm thefts from motor vehicles. In 2023, 2700 car break-ins yielded criminals a whopping 644 guns.
The city undertook a multipronged strategy to reverse the tide. Analysis revealed that gun violence occurs in 29,000 distinct micro-areas (one to three blocks in size), and staff came up with the 40 hottest of these hot spots. Davenport detailed a few of these locations, including an empty field used for drug sales and use, and how law enforcement reduced the threat.
Additionally, the program featured an interactive brainstorming session led by MPD Chief of Staff Marvin (Ben) Haiman. Attendees were grouped into more than a dozen tables and asked to take on several tasks. First, each table discussed the current state of efforts to fight gun crime, then chose aspects of their programs to stop, initiate, or increase. For example, some chiefs would eliminate gun buyback programs, add gunshot detection technology, and participate more in NIBIN (National Integrated Ballistic Information Network) forensics efforts.
Next, table members performed a SWOT analysis of their current initiatives. Commonly cited strengths included close collaboration and information sharing with other law enforcement agencies, while several noted as a weakness that their programs were too cumbersome. Opportunities included closer engagement with the public and education of lawmakers, with multiple participants mentioning the threat of the outsized effect of social media on impressionable youth.
After that, table members identified a common challenge, explained how they got to where they are, and developed best and worst outcomes. Finally, each table produced a newspaper headline depicting where we are today on gun crime efforts and what ideal headlines would be one and two years from now.
“It was rewarding being able to facilitate a dynamic discussion among many esteemed leaders,” Haiman said. “They shared innovative and collaborative practices that will help cities and communities all throughout the corridor.”
Informative presentations also covered various models of crime gun intelligence, a Canadian law enforcement perspective on gun crime, a legislative update, ATF initiatives, and federal funding for gun violence-reduction programs.
Overall, the event was an extraordinary representation of how law enforcement, nongovernmental agencies, and academia can share information and collaborate on solutions in a world in which criminals operate without borders. As Colonel Callahan put it, the conference exemplified how the I-95 Working Group “is operationalizing real-time information sharing against a wide range of threats. It’s not just abstract numbers but saving lives of real people. Sequoya is our North Star.”