As police and EMS personnel worked feverishly to save the nine-year old girl struck by a stray bullet as she played outside with her friends, she spoke her last words when they lifted her into the waiting ambulance: “Am, I going to die…”
You could hear a pin drop when Colonel Patrick Callahan of the New Jersey State Police told the story of Sequoya in a room full of veteran investigators. The image he painted of this 9-year-old girl transported me back to my own childhood playing “manhunt” with my neighborhood friends. But where my memories were filled with fun and games, this one ended in horror. You see, Sequoya Bacon-Jones was shot and killed in Trenton, New Jersey, after a stray bullet pierced her young body instantly turning her playful game into a desperate fight for her life.
Colonel Callahan’s opening remarks last week at the Multi-State Crime Gun Intelligence Summit held at the Meadowlands reminded the audience as to why they get up every morning to go and do what they do to fight the scourge of gun violence regardless of the trials, tribulations, and heartbreaks they face each day.
Callahan spoke about a young life snuffed out, the endless pain and anguish felt by Sequoya’s mother, and the impact this child left in her community. His words kicked off a summit that included: state police agencies from the Northeast, the NYPD, the Jersey City Police, the Atlantic City Police, the Northern New Jersey UASI, the ATF, the DEA, the New York Division of Criminal Justice, and the New Jersey Division Criminal Justice. His words reminded the audience that regardless of the organization one may hail from the common vision that brings them all together begins with justice for the victims, resolution for their families, and peace to the communities affected by gun violence.
The summit’s agenda included remarks from New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and Acting Attorney General Mathew Platkin. They both highlighted the importance of partnership, communication, and information sharing. Other speakers highlighted the current violent crime threat environment and efforts under way to prevent crime, identify criminal targets, and investigate shootings and gun trafficking. While the audience included seasoned law enforcement personnel from a sundry of local, state, and federal agencies, it was acknowledged that each agency may be at a different phase in their growth compared to others. That was clear when Captain Mike Smith provided a comprehensive brief into New Jersey’s Crime Analysis Precision Policing and Precision Prosecution Program (CAP5).
This cutting-edge statewide information sharing initiative has enabled all stakeholders responsible for addressing gun violence in New Jersey to share information needed to better understand the criminal environment. Commanders, detectives, analysts, forensic technicians, ballistic examiners, and prosecutors often have their own sources of information and data sets based on their specialties. So often, these law enforcement informational sources are created and then further used within silos. The cross-jurisdictional nature of gun crime only complicates matters as these silos multiply. For example, one law enforcement organization in one part of the state may use one records management system while another experiencing gun crime may use another. And in most states there are numerous records management systems available for agencies to utilize. At the same time, forensic technicians and prosecutors rely on a different set of systems to manage their own information and data.
New Jersey’s journey into better data collection and information sharing aimed at gun crime started 15 years ago with the introduction of NJ POP (“pins on paper”) when the then Governor turned to his Attorney General who turned to the then State Police Colonel and asked the question of how many shootings had occurred in Camden, New Jersey for that year. No one in the State Police ranks could answer that question because the FBI UCR program could not differentiate the different types of aggravated assault with weapons charges. If a victim was shot with a gun, or hit over the head with a gun, the charge was the same.
At that time, the State Police, through their newly minted fusion center, set out to build a better mousetrap to capture information needed to better understand the shooting environment within the state. The journey started with three cities plagued by shootings: Camden, Paterson, and Newark. Every few months the number of cities grew, and today the analytic capacity of the state’s fusion center bolstered by its three satellite regional Real Time Crime Centers account for every shooting event that takes place throughout the state. This fundamental aspect of understanding the shooting environment across the entire state is what originally set New Jersey apart from other areas across the country where analysis and programmatic initiatives were focused mainly on the urban areas where shootings occurred. Instead, New Jersey understood the nature of gun crime is cross-jurisdictional, and the people responsible for shootings in Trenton would likely frequent other cities or towns across the state or may even be arrested for another offense on a local byway on the way to Atlantic City or the Jersey Shore.
Today, New Jersey’s unblinking focus on the cross-jurisdictional nature of gun crime is complimented by the NJ CAP5 initiative, which aggregates other law enforcement data sets common across New Jersey. If there is one key point that the New Jersey experience can provide other jurisdictions seeking to address gun violence is to never be satisfied with one’s own current capabilities. It is one thing to recognize and be proud of the capabilities your agency currently possesses. Yet, it is that much more difficult to fully recognize and comprehend those capabilities that your agency is missing. For example, today there is a compulsion by many organizations to connect their systems. This is great if their systems are capturing the right data needed to better execute their missions. However, as agencies look to connect systems, they must make sure that what is being connected actually has what that agency needs. Challenging the status quo in terms of your own technology capabilities does not always come easy in a law enforcement agency that is used to the way things were.
New Jersey acknowledged this early on when they needed to better understand the state’s shooting environment before they could develop strategies and operations to target gun violence. Despite their successes throughout the years, they kept challenging the status quo by tinkering and innovating with existing capabilities that some agencies may have settled on. The New Jersey experience also underscores why public safety customers should continually demand innovation from their current technology providers or move on to others. Moreover, it taught all involved that while the Federal government is not the panacea for law enforcement information - as was described above with trying to use UCR to understand a jurisdiction’s shooting environment - the myriad of Federal data and information sources can greatly assist state and local missions. When it comes to investigating crimes involving firearms, the ATF has information systems that all law enforcement agencies can find great value in.
New Jersey’s CAP5 statewide information sharing initiative is a culmination of a long term effort to persistently identify disparate crime related data sets and then collate them in a usable manner regardless of their source so the police, the prosecutors, and forensic personnel can share actionable information individually but benefit collectively. Nowhere is this more pronounced than when investigators and prosecutors find themselves addressing NIBIN leads. Frequent and retaliatory shootings are common in jurisdictions experiencing gun violence. That said, it does not take much time before the number of NIBIN leads that come into a single jurisdiction can quickly overwhelm its investigative capacity. This makes it crucial for investigators and prosecutors to have an abundance of contextual information to make better sense of individual and groups of NIBIN leads. Not only does this contextual information help triage leads but better prioritize them so they can see to it that leads are pursued to conclusion.
To underscore this point, it is worth considering NIBIN leads at their most fundamental level. There are only two types of NIBIN associations: shooting event to shooting event or shooting event to recovered crime gun. It is the latter that investigators favor because so often a recovered crime gun is associated with a suspect that possessed that crime gun in their waistbands. Having a suspect to speak with exponentially increases a lead’s odds that it will be followed up to its completion. Yet, this type of NIBIN lead, the shooting event to crime gun association are less common than NIBIN leads that depict the association between shooting event and shooting event. Without having a suspect to talk to about the crime gun that type of lead, although that much more common, makes it more difficult to pursue. Bringing justice to victims and their assailants starts with following through on investigative leads.
This is where the CAP5 initiative shines. By aggregating disparate law enforcement data sets, analysts, investigators, and prosecutors are afforded contextual information that offer much more promise when assessing, prioritizing, and following up on those shooting event to shooting event NIBIN leads that are much more numerous than those involving a recovered crime gun. While the gun that killed Sequoya has yet to be recovered, the CAP5 initiative continues to provide contextual information that will inevitably narrow that investigation. Because the CAP5 initiative is centered on all criminal activity throughout the state odds are that the aggregation of these law enforcement data sets will yield positive results in this case to bring resolution to the Sequoya’s family.
What became demonstrably clear for those present at the Multi-State Crime Gun Intelligence Summit was the number of dedicated professionals that were present and engaged. Regardless of the challenges that violent crime brings to a community there will always be those in law enforcement that will push the envelope, try new things, and at the very least try harder to ensure that they are doing everything they can to bring peace to those communities impacted by violence. While Major Joe Brennan of the NJSP, the final speaker, was able to rattle off the statistics to show how the collective efforts of those in the room were positively impacting violent crime in New Jersey, he concluded by saying that none of that really matters if one more Sequoya is caught in the crossfire. That stark reminder left all in the room knowing they have to always dig deeper for the communities they serve.