(FRESNO, Calif.) — It’s 7:51 p.m. on a warm Friday night. Fresno, California, police officer Bret Hutchins and his two partners are checking on a burglary call. The 911 caller reported somebody broke into a garage and they can hear them banging around inside. The officers are having a hard time finding the burglary when their police radios come alive. Dispatch puts out the call of shots fired with a male victim down.
ABC News was riding along on this night. As the officers sprint back to their patrol SUVs, we ask, “What’s going on?” After advising dispatch that he is responding, Hutchins says, “Victim of shooting, let’s go.” We jump in, slamming the patrol doors as Hutchins hits his lights and sirens and we scream off to the growling sound of the Ford Police Interceptor giving what seems like all of its horsepower.
Speeding through the streets of Fresno, onlookers standing to get into clubs watch and take pictures as we zoom by with sirens blaring to the latest act of violence in the city. On the police radio, another responding officer asks, “Did anybody see him get shot?” Dispatch relays that the caller found the man down.
As we pull up to the scene, Hutchins says aloud to himself the license plate numbers of every car pulling out to memorize them in case they could be a suspect fleeing the area who they will need to track down.
We arrive to a victim down, shot multiple times. Medics are still minutes away, so Hutchins and his partners grab medical kits from the back of their patrol vehicles and sprint toward the man who is unconscious and badly bleeding.
“Okay, I have one entry wound right here,” Hutchins tells his partners as they begin CPR. “One, two, three, four, five, six … ” Hutchins counts as he begins doing chest compressions on what would become Fresno’s 42nd murder of 2021. Shell casings litter the area. Who shot the man is unclear in the moment, but a search for a killer would get underway. In the hours that followed, homicide detectives would canvass the area for any tiny amount of evidence.
Like many American cities, Fresno is dealing with a sharp surge in gun crime. Fresno has a population of 525,000. Its population is bigger than Kansas City, Missouri, Pittsburgh or Cleveland, but operates with a fraction of officers of some smaller cities.
“What we’re seeing, yes, is a peak in violent crime,” Paco Balderrama, the city’s new police chief, told ABC News. “And there’s a lot of factors in that.”
Balderrama became the chief of police in Fresno earlier this year after spending much of his career in Oklahoma and in Texas. Since arriving, he has been tasked with figuring out how to reduce the surging violence in his city. The vast majority of the gun violence is related to gangs and the guns are most often illegal.
“I’m talking about people who have been to prison who have no business carrying a gun. Active gang members. People who are intending to hurt somebody in 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 in that it is rapidly trying to hire more officers to battle the crime. The city council and community groups have given support to the idea of bringing on more officers. Fresno is looking to hire 120 new officers in the next 18 months. Part of that effort is making up for attrition but others are additional positions to increase lagging police ranks.
“I think (120 officers) is a goal we can reach. We asked the city council for $125,000 in the budget toward recruiting for a new recruiting video, for billboards, for wraps for some of the cars,” Balderrama said.
He knows the department needs to rapidly increase officer numbers in this time of high crime without lowering standards. Convincing people to become a police officer is a tough task right now due to a year of negative headlines, public perception, and pressure on police, he said.
In the meantime, Balderrama’s department is looking for unique ways to end the violence with current staffing. One of those ideas is a program called Advance Peace or AP. Advance Peace is less than a year old in Fresno, partially funded by the city. Its mission is to interrupt gun violence before it happens.
Members of Advance Peace are sometimes former gang members and are close to the gang community. They get to know young gang members, foster relationships with them and try to give them other ways to get out their anger.
The group focuses on mainly young men who are prone to violence. “Before he commits a gun crime, he’ll call us,” Aaron Foster, who works for Advance Peace, told ABC News. “We try to get out in front of it.”
Foster lost a son and a daughter to gang violence in Fresno in recent years. Now he works in the community to gain the trust of gang members.
“We know them mostly because we saw them grow up as a kid. When he was in junior high school, we knew this kid would be the next round of shooters,” Foster said.
The staff at Advance Peace say they often get calls from young gang members they are mentoring who say they have just shot somebody and need advice on what to do next. The group will counsel them but, in order to keep their trust and credibility, does not turn them into police. Advance Peace lets police do their investigations without being a source of intelligence. Yet, when members believe there is a gang shooting coming they may tell police they should have units in a certain area beforehand to prevent violence.
Balderrama said he supports Advance Peace as one idea that might help reduce the violence in his city.
“When you build relationships you have influence. If you have no relationships you have no influence,” Balderrama said. “Advance Peace gives us the ability to communicate and give people resources.”
Advance Peace staff member Marcel Woodruff becomes emotional as he shows a shelf of pictures and funeral programs for those victims of gun violence the group has worked with in the past year. The list of names is long.
“There’s nobody else actively seeking shooters who say ‘Hey, I wanna take you to get some Popeye’s Chicken,"” Woodruff said. “It is unique in that we are the only group saying we want those who have been deemed to be the most lethal in our city and want to build a relationship with them because we inherently know they’ve been the most unloved.”
Leaders of Advance Peace say they are constantly defending themselves against critics of the program who believe the city is simply paying gang members to reduce violence. The organization works to justify its existence and relies on its own fundraising to keep much of the program up and running.
Across the country there is a long list of ideas on how to best reduce gun violence during this nationwide surge. California Assemblymember Marc Levine, a Democrat, is working on a bill that would place a 10% tax on guns and 11% tax on ammunition sales in California.
The money from the higher taxes would go toward gun violence prevention programs and is designed, like taxes on cigarettes, to maybe also deter some from buying guns and ammunition if they cost more money.
Levine said the amount of money raised through the gun tax would be substantial and would be put to good use. “These are proven programs to reduce gun violence in our communities. It would raise $100 million annually.”
But critics of Levine’s bill say it would not stop street crime in California cities because much of it is being done with stolen or so-called ghost guns that have been manufactured by an individual rather than a commercial gun manufacturer. Or, critics say, if somebody does want to buy a gun through a store or dealer they will just go to Nevada or Arizona to buy what they want through dealers that are willing to sell.
Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, believes 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 just not going to work. That horse has left the barn.”
Police point out most of the guns they come in contact with are illegally obtained and harsher gun laws likely would not impact how they are bought and sold on the streets. Paredes argues the crime surge the U.S. is experiencing is a result of not enough police on the streets, lenient prosecutors and courts, and mental health issues.
“As long as they continue to look for solutions by controlling guns through laws only affecting law-abiding citizens, because they are the only ones who obey the laws, we are going to see an increase in the violent crime rate and use of firearms in commission of crimes,” Paredes said.
Police say the increasing problem is homemade ghost guns, which are made using parts that can be purchased online or in stores and assembled in a home. They are primarily unregulated, unregistered and untraceable by typical means, police said.
Paredes counters that ghost guns aren’t the problem police and the media make them seem to be and that ghost guns arguments are a way to ignore the bigger mental health problem suffered by those committing violence. “The whole issue of ghost guns are a red herring,” Paredes said. “I believe it’s elected officials deflecting.”
Officer Hutchins in Fresno feels differently, though, as he is racing from call to call. “Lately, it’s been the ghost guns that are the problem,” said Hutchins.
Limiting access to guns being made in secret or illegal guns being passed around under the radar has proven to be tough to fix. Few seem to agree on the problem, let alone a solid solution. Marcel Woodruff at Advance Peace said gun laws won’t fix the street crime problem. He believes it has to be a longer term solution by showing gang members how to live more fulfilling lives so they don’t turn toward shootings to get what they want.
“So if we deal with the violence at the systemic and structural levels that are denying people access to things they need to move through life healthy, then we consequently reduce them using a firearm to make a way for themselves,” said Woodruff.
For now Fresno police remain busy moving from shooting call to shooting call.
This story is part of the series Gun Violence in America by ABC News Radio. Each day this week we’re exploring a different topic, from what we mean when we say “gun violence” – it’s not just mass shootings – to what can be done about it. You can hear an extended version of each report as an episode of the ABC News Radio Specials podcast.
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