Gun violence is up in Suffolk County this year, driven in part by an increase in gang activity that has resulted in 23% more shootings through the summer, police department statistics show.
In response, the police department has created a new unit to focus on the problem.
As of Aug. 28, there were 52 shootings in the county, compared with 42 last year. There were 63 shooting victims this year, compared with 57 last year. The number of people killed in fatal shootings in Suffolk County in the first eight months of the year increased to 12 this year from eight in 2020.
Acting Suffolk Police Commissioner Stuart Cameron said the increase in shootings is the result of a number of factors, including gang-related shootings and resulting retaliation, a flood of illegal weapons in the county and fewer law enforcement gun seizures during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. The increase in gun violence in Suffolk County mirrors a trend in communities nationally and in New York City that the White House earlier this summer sought to reverse.
"It’s very serious that the shootings are up," Cameron said in an interview. "It’s a high priority for the department to the get the gun violence in check and I think the strategies that we implemented are already having an effect. We’re already starting to see the type of gun violence we’re talking about, we’re starting to see it decline."
Officials create a new gun unit to deal with shootings.
About two weeks ago, police officials created a Gun Crime Reduction Unit that is "very focused on the small number of people that are involved in shootings," Cameron said, adding: "Very often these individuals are responsible for multiple shootings."
The new unit is staffed with 10 detectives, a civilian crime analyst, a detective who is also a field intelligence officer and works with the resources of the departments’ Real Time Crime Center, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office and federal law enforcement. The group is supervised by two detective sergeants and a detective lieutenant.
Cameron declined to discuss the tactics of the unit, but said it would involve "working on these individuals to try to build cases on them so we can prevent the gun violence from occurring."
Cameron said that despite the overall increase in shootings this year, authorities were starting to see a reversal in the short-term, with shooting incidents down 20% in August and shooting victims down 33%. Overall violent crime is down 1.7% over last year. The NYPD also reported this week that the number of shootings in the city had begun to fall.
Nassau shooting numbers were not available as of late last week.
Joseph Giacalone, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired NYPD sergeant, said it’s not surprising that Suffolk’s gun violence has risen and fallen as New York City has experienced similar spikes.
"The violence is New York City has gone up so much that it’s making its way out to the Island, with the flow of guns, the flow of drugs, said Giacalone. "Things have changed dramatically in New York City and what happens there affects the Island."
Illegal guns, the pandemic and bail reform contribute to the violence.
Police are seeing more illegal guns in Suffolk County this year. Arrests for second-degree criminal possession of a weapon, which is possession of a loaded firearm, are up 78% this year, from 78 in 2020 to 139 this year. Cameron said the guns come to New York from southern states where guns are less regulated.
The coronavirus pandemic also had an impact, Cameron said. For example, the police department seized 38 handguns in all of 2020 while executing search warrants – fewer than in a typical year, Cameron said. So far this year, the department has already seized 50 illegal guns during the execution of search warrants.
"Although there’s a lot of illegal guns on the street, we know a lot of people who are doing these shootings are a very small subset of people -- people involved in multiple shooting incidents in the county. That’s where we can have the biggest effect is being able to take these people off the street."
Cameron also said the statewide bail reform, which made gun possession charges eligible for bail, "certainly is a factor" in the increase in gun violence.
"While I’m not going to say bail reform is a significant factor in the increase in shootings, it does create a bit of a headwinds for us," Cameron said. "Justice should be equitable, but people that are involved in gun violence and arrested for illegal guns, should not be bailed out immediately."
Police solve some cases but others are still pending.
When gunfire broke out in the parking lot of a Center Moriches grocery store on the afternoon of July 18, it was the result of warring gang members, said Cameron, who did not provide the name of the alleged gang but said it was not MS-13. Three men were arrested in the double shooting involving occupants of a Mercedes trading gunshots with each other, police have said.
"Many of the shootings that we’re seeing are gang-related, targeted shootings of gang members," Cameron said.
Five days later, Suffolk police were investigating the triple murder of three people whose bodies were found inside a Farmingville apartment. The victims were shot and police have said it was a targeted attack. No arrests have been announced.