After a crime surge, LBPD flooded the zone on gun enforcement. Is it working?

As gun violence spiked at the end of last year and the crime wave continued into 2021, Long Beach implemented a quick shift in priorities.

In 2020, all of the department’s officers had gone through expansive training focused on dealing with massive protests and the fear of civil unrest—brought on by the pandemic, presidential politics and the killing of George Floyd.

But by the beginning of this year, the department had to pivot again, adding to their priorities a familiar list of targets: guns, gangs and violent crime.

Records show the LBPD poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into upping its presence on the streets, something the department says has helped drive down gun violence even though the number of shootings over the first three months of 2021 was still up 145% compared to the previous year.

Police say they’re working with other city departments to craft a long-term violence-prevention plan, something that will be the subject of a City Council meeting Tuesday night. But in the meantime, “There’s also an immediate need to address gun violence that’s occurring in our neighborhoods,” LBPD Assistant Chief Wally Hebeish said.

To that end, between November and March, the department started half a dozen operations across the city focused on squelching gun violence, seizing illegal firearms or driving down gang and drug activity in known hotspots for shootings, robberies, auto thefts and other crimes.

In North Long Beach, for instance, the department focused officers on a portion of the Carmelitos housing community where there’d been five shootings and two robberies over about 10 months. They also sent more patrols into areas with frequent robberies like Houghton Park and a stretch of Long Beach Boulevard near the 710 Freeway, which saw six robberies—three at a single gas station—over that same 10-month span.

In West Long Beach, the department tried to make its presence known through “high visibility” patrols and neighborhood walks. Officers were also mandated to respond to any calls they got about gangs or people gathering in groups.

A written plan for that operation instructs officers to “provide a visual presence” in certain areas while they chat with neighbors about any problems, identify and interview gang members, search parolees, pull over drivers violating traffic laws and otherwise make themselves known.

Operations targeted in other parts of the city followed mostly the same themes—albeit with different hotspots for crimes ranging from auto thefts to assaults. The Long Beach Post obtained copies of the operational plans through public records requests.

It’s unclear how many officers were—and still are—dedicated to the operations because the LBPD doesn’t reveal deployment numbers, but the documents show the department has so far allocated at least $335,000 to cover overtime and other expenses.

Hebeish said he and other department leaders have asked officers to take on those extra duties on top of remaining prepared for the possibility of continued protests as trial comes to a close in the case of a former Minneapolis police officer accused of murdering George Floyd.

What does gun enforcement look like?

The department has also pulled a number of officers and support employees away from their normal duties to form a citywide team focused specifically on seizing illegal weapons and confiscating guns from people banned from owning them.

Police have touted the success of the program and posted pictures on social media of some of the dozens of guns the team has seized, including an incident where a traffic stop eventually led them to a small cache of weapons.

In practice, that discovery started with a minor vehicle infraction that officers turned into a weapons bust, details from court documents show.

In November, members of the gun team pulled over a man for driving too slowly and having something obstructing his windshield or window near Seventh Street and Alamitos Avenue, which is in one of the hotspots for firearm assaults that analysts identified in departmental documents.

Police allege the man admitted he owned drug paraphernalia, so officers searched his car and found baggies of ammunition before they let him go, only to follow up in April with a search of his nearby apartment where police say they found about half a dozen guns and many rounds of ammo—including an assault rifle, high-capacity magazines and an untraceable “ghost gun” with no serial number.

It’s unclear if there was more evidence that prompted police to believe the man had illegal weapons beyond what they found during the traffic stop and the fact that he had legal firearms registered in his name. A judge has sealed four pages of the search warrant detailing police’s justification for the raid.

The driver has pleaded not guilty to possession of an assault weapon, carrying concealed weapons and criminal storage of a firearm.

Police said the gun team has also been tasked with talking at community meetings and engaging with neighbors to explain what they’re doing to combat the surge in violent crime and get input on what could help in the future.

Is it working?

What’s the overall effect of these operations? Compared to the first month and a half of 2021, police said gun violence sank 81% after they convened the team focused on seizing illegal guns in February.

Broadly speaking, though, shootings are still far outpacing last year.

The 81% decline police cited came between Feb. 20 and March 17, which was on the heels of January, when Long Beach recorded more shootings than any other month in the past five years. There were 57 shootings in January, including 24 where someone was wounded.

Shootings have indeed dropped since then, with 34 in February and 39 in March, but they’re still happening at a higher rate than 2020 when Long Beach saw only 19 in February and 20 in March.

Overall, there were 130 shootings, including 54 where someone was wounded, during the first quarter of 2021. That’s compared to 53 total shootings in the first quarter of 2020, including 27 where someone was wounded.

Numbers for the first two weeks of April weren’t immediately available.

There’s no concrete data on what exactly is driving the surge, but Long Beach is not alone.

Other major cities have seen spikes in the number of shootings as well. In Los Angeles, for instance, the number of people wounded by gunfire increased 141% over the first two months of the year, according to an analysis by Crosstown, a publication run by the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

Police officials have pointed to a mix of factors they say are to blame, including the pandemic, early releases from jail and prison to stem the spread of the coronavirus behind bars, the rise of ghost guns, and the soaring legal gun sales.

Staff writers Alena Maschke and Brandon Richardson contributed to this report.

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Jeremiah Dobruck is the breaking news editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram. He lives in Torrance with his wife, Lindsey, and their two young children.
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