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Chicago Police announces new team to get illegal guns off the street

The dedicated 50-person unit is separate from a federal strategy unveiled earlier by President Biden’s administration

David Brown superintendent chicago police

Chicago police Superintendent David Brown arrives to speak to the media at police headquarters in Chicago on July 13, 2021.

Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS

By Jeremy Gorner
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Chicago police Superintendent David Brown on Monday announced the department has expanded its firearm investigation efforts, separate from a federal strategy unveiled by President Joe Biden’s administration.

The Police Department announced that a dedicated 50-person unit, which started work over the weekend and consists of already-existing teams of cops, will go after illegal gun traffickers. This includes straw purchasers — those who buy guns for people not allowed to own them — and “unscrupulous” licensed firearm dealers, according to Brown.

The department will also focus on people who have guns even though their state-issued firearm owner’s identification cards have been revoked, he said. Brown said the new effort, first organized in the spring, will “complement” the federal gun-trafficking strike forces announced last month by the Biden administration, which will include groups of agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and will work in several cities including Chicago.

Brown is facing pressure from aldermen and other critics of the Chicago Police Department who want a quick reduction in shootings and homicides that have crippled parts of the city this year. The superintendent said he wanted a new firearm investigation effort that he can control without waiting for federal intervention.

“Chicago can’t wait for the strike force,” Brown said, deferring questions about the federal effort to the ATF. “We have to do everything we can from a law enforcement perspective to take guns off the street from violent people.”

Federal authorities did not provide any information Monday about the Chicago-based federal strike force.

CPD has fallen under scrutiny previously for failing to flag some city residents who should not be armed after being deemed mentally unfit.

A 2018 report from Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson noted the state FOID Card Act required the Police Department to notify Illinois State Police within 24 hours of determining a person posed “a clear and present danger.”

But Ferguson’s office’s review discovered that only once in a three-year period before the study’s release had Chicago police confiscated a gun from a person before transporting them to a mental health facility.

Ferguson’s office also identified only one other time during the study period when Chicago police notified state police about a FOID card holder considered to be dangerous. Its failure to comply with the law means CPD may have been returning firearms to individuals whose FOID cards would otherwise have been revoked by state police, Ferguson’s office concluded.

Brown didn’t specify what CPD has done since 2018 to prevent that scenario or how the new firearm investigation effort can be more effective in addressing revocations. But he said the unit that concentrates on that will be expanded as a result of the new strategy.

“In my opinion, they’ve been underresourced. But they have done a pretty decent job in the area of FOID revocations,” said Brown. “Is it perfect? No. Can we do more? Yes. So (what) we’ll be looking at is creating a capacity to deal with the volume of not only FOID card, but other types of (crimes) like … straw purchases, being able to debrief every gun offender that’s arrested to really focus on the high-risk gun offenders arrested.”

“All of the above, can we do better? Yes,” he said. “I believe the (firearms investigations team), with the resources they have had, has addressed some of the FOID card issues raised in that report.”

The newly expanded gun-investigation effort will focus on cases involving “midlevel and upper-level” illegal gun sellers, Brown said. The department said the 50 officers include cops from an ATF task force, and patrol officers will be trained on what questions to ask suspects arrested for illegal gun possession in order to strengthen firearm probes.

Brown also acknowledged the difficulties for authorities to bring charges in cases such as gunrunning and illegal transfers of a firearm, which the Police Department also hopes to improve. Such cases can be charged at the state or federal level.

“The challenge is the criminal has figured out how to buy small amounts of guns repetitively with third parties, who defeat the background checks,” Brown said. “Why we need the help from the public is, we need to emphasize, No. 1, whoever these third parties are, we’re coming for you to charge you.”

The announcement of the new effort comes after another violent weekend in Chicago, when at least 61 people were shot, 10 of them fatally. Through July 11, Chicago has seen about an 11% jump in shootings — incidents where at least one person was shot fatally or nonfatally — compared with the same time last year, according to city police statistics, which don’t count violence reported on expressways.

But shootings are up by about 60% compared with the same period in 2019.

There were five fewer homicides in Chicago through July 11 compared with the year-earlier period — 382, down from 387 — but this year’s homicide tally is up by about 48% from two years ago, the statistics show.

Monday’s announcement isn’t the first time Chicago police leaders have sought to emphasize crime-fighting strategies on gun trafficking. During Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, then-police Superintendent Garry McCarthy had detectives investigate suspects arrested with illegal guns to try to determine how and where they obtained those weapons. The results of that effort were unclear.

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