It’s 7:51 PM on a warm Friday night. Fresno, California, police officer Brett Hutchins and his associates check a burglary call. The 911 caller reported that someone broke into a garage and they could hear it banging inside. The officers have a firm time finding the burglary when their police radios come back to life. Dispatch cancels the call of shots fired with a male casualty.
ABC News was going along tonight. As the officers run back to their SUVs, we ask, “What’s going on?” After notifying dispatch that he’s responding, Hutchins said, “Shooting victim, let’s go.” We jump inside, lock the patrol doors as the Hutchins ring his lights and sirens and roar out from the Ford Police Interceptor giving what seems to be all his horsepower.
Rushing through the streets of Fresno, spectators stand to get into the clubs and watch and take pictures as we zoom in with the sirens blaring of the city’s latest violence. On the police radio, another respondent officer asked, “Has anyone seen him get shot?” Dispatch reports that the caller found the man down.
As we drive to the scene, Hutchins says aloud to himself the license plate numbers of every car that goes out to remind them in case there could be a suspect fleeing the area and would need to be tracked down.
We got to fall victim several times. Paramedics are still minutes away, so Hutchins and his accomplices take medical kits from the back of their patrol cars and race toward the unconscious, heavily bleeding man.
“Well, I have one wound here,” Hutchins tells his associates as they begin CPR. “One, two, three, four, five, six…” Hutchins reckons as he begins chest-pressing on what will become the 42nd Fresno murder in 2021. Shell cases are strewn across the area. It is unclear who shot the man at the moment, but the search for a killer will begin. In the hours that followed, homicide detectives were scouring the area looking for any trace of evidence.
Like many American cities, Fresno is dealing with a sharp increase in gun crime. Fresno has a population of 525,000. It has a larger population than Kansas City, Missouri, Pittsburgh, or Cleveland, but it operates with a little part of officers in some of the smaller cities.
“What we’re seeing, yes, is the peak of violent crime,” Paco Balderrama, the city’s unused police chief, told ABC News. “And there are a lot of factors in that.”
Balderrama became the chief of police in Fresno earlier this year following spending most of his career in Oklahoma and Texas. Since his arrival, he has been tasked with figuring out how to stem the escalation of violence in his city. The vast majority of gun violence is gang related and guns are often illegal.
“I’m talking about people who went to prison and had nothing to do with taking up arms. Active gang members. People who intend to harm someone for a crime,” Balderrama said.
At a time when many cities have seen their police budgets cut, and amid calls to defund the police, Fresno is in a unique position as it is quickly trying to recruit more officers to fight crime. City council and community groups supported the idea of bringing in more officers. Fresno is looking to hire 120 unused officers in the next 18 months. Part of that effort is to offset the attrition but others are additional positions to increase lagging police ranks.
“I think (120 officers) is a target we can reach,” Balderrama said. “We asked the city council for $125,000 in the budget to recruit for unused recruiting video, billboards, and wraps for some cars.”
He knows the department needs to rapidly increase its officer numbers at this time of rising crime rates without lowering standards. He said that persuading people to become a police officer is a firm task at the moment due to a year of negative headlines, public perceptions and pressure on the police.
Meanwhile, Balderrama’s department is looking for unique ways to end violence with current employees. One such idea is a program called Advance Peace, or AP. Advance Peace is less than a year old in Fresno, partly funded by the city. Its mission is to quit armed violence prior it occurs.
Sometimes Advance Peace members are previous gang members and are close to the gang community. They get acquainted with young gang members, strengthen relations with them and try to donate them other ways to get rid of their anger.
The group mainly focuses on youth exposed to violence. “Before he commits the shooting, he’ll call us,” Aaron Foster, who works for Advance Peace, told ABC News. “We’re trying to get out in fore of him.”
Foster has lost a son and daughter in gang violence in Fresno in recent years. He now works in the community to acquire the trust of the gang members.
“We know them mostly because we saw them grow up as a kid,” Foster said. “When he was in middle school, we knew this kid was going to be the next round of bowlers.”
Staff at Advance Peace say they often get calls from young gang members directing them saying they have shot someone and need advice on what to do next. The group will advise them, but in order to maintain their trust and credibility, do not turn them into the police. Advance Peace allows the police to conduct their investigations without being a source of intelligence. However, when members believe there is a gang shooting coming, they may tell the police that they must have units in a positive area in advance to forbid violence.
Balderrama said he supports Advanced Peace as an idea that might aid decrease violence in his city.
“When you build relationships, you have an impact,” Balderrama said. “If you don’t have relationships, you don’t have any influence.” “The advancement of peace gives us the aptitude to join and donate people resources.”
Advance Peace employee Marcel Woodruff becomes emotional when he displays a shelf of photos and funerals programs for victims of gun violence the group has worked with in the former year. The list of names is lengthy.
“No one else is actively looking for shooters who say ‘Hey, I want to take you to get some Popeye chicken,’” Woodruff said. Build a relationship with them because we know by nature that they were the most disadvantaged.”
Advance Peace leaders say they are always defending themselves against critics of the program who believe the city is simply paying gang members to decrease violence. The organization works to justify its existence and raises its own funds to preserve much of the program up and running.
Across the country there is a lengthy list of ideas about how best to decrease gun violence during this nationwide surge. California Assemblyman Mark Levine, a Democrat, is working on a bill that would impose a 10% tax on guns and 11% on ammunition sales in California.
Money from higher taxes will go toward gun violence prevention programs and are designed, like taxes on cigarettes, to also hinder some from buying guns and ammunition if they cost more money.
The money raised through the arms tax would be substantial and put to pleasing use, Levin said. “These are proven programs to decrease gun violence in our communities. They will hoist $100 million annually.”
But critics of Levine’s bill say it won’t quit street crime in California cities because most of it is done using stolen or so-called ghost guns made by an individual rather than a commercial gun manufacturer. Or, critics say, if someone wanted to purchase a gun from a shop or dealer, they would just go to Nevada or Arizona to purchase whatever they wanted through the dealers they wanted to sell.
Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, believes that such taxes and other laws punish legal gun owners.
“We have 400 million guns in private possession in America,” Paredes said. “Any focus you put on reducing the number of guns in public is not going to work. This horse has left the barn.”
Police say most of the guns they handle were obtained illegally and stricter gun laws likely won’t affect how they are bought and sold on the streets. Paredes argues that the increase in crime in the United States is the result of not enough police on the streets, lax prosecutors and courts, and mental health issues.
“As lengthy as they persevere to look for solutions through gun control through laws that only affect law-abiding citizens, because they are the only ones who abide by the laws, we will see an increase in the rate of violent crime and the use of firearms in our country,” Paredes said.
Police say a growing problem is homemade ghost guns, which are made with parts that can be bought online or in stores and assembled at home. The police said it was essentially unorganized, unregistered, and untraceable by the usual means.
Ghost guns aren’t a police problem, Paredes says, and the media makes them appear, and that ghost gun arguments are a way of ignoring the larger mental health problem of those who commit violence. “The whole issue of ghost guns is a red halo,” Paredes said. “I think elected officials are turning away.”
But Officer Hutchins in Fresno feels differently, as he races from one call to the next. “Recently, the problem with ghost guns has been,” Hutchins said.
Restricting access to guns made into clandestine or illegal under-the-radar guns has proven firm to repair. Few seem to agree on the problem, let alone a solid solution. Gun laws will not solve the problem of street crime, said Marcel Woodruff of Advance Peace. He thinks it should be a lengthy-term solution by teaching the gang members how to live a more fulfilling life so they don’t turn to shootings to get what they want.
“If we deal with violence on both a systemic and structural level that denies people access to the things they need to move on with their lives in pleasing health, then we decrease their use of firearms to find a way for themselves,” Woodruff said.
For now, Fresno police are keeping active going from phone call to phone call.