Monday, May 27, 2024

Somerville police are helping investigate a March 21 gunfire incident. (Photo: Marc Levy)

As State Police investigate whether members of feuding gangs were behind a March 21 gunfire incident in Winter Hill, interim Somerville police chief Charles Femino told residents that budget cuts, staff reassignments and a disbanded gang unit were complicating progress and plans to stop gun violence.

There were sympathetic listeners among the more than 50 community members gathered Tuesday with city officials and staff from the Riverside Trauma Center.

“The Somerville police have their hands tied!” someone yelled, to applause.

It was a state police gang unit that responded to the incident and suggested Cambridge’s Port 44 gang was involved in a gun battle between speeding SUVs. Femino’s update Tuesday said detectives have identified one adult involved in the Winter Hill gunfire, seized one motor vehicle believed to be involved and recovered one firearm that was undergoing tests to determine whether it fired any of the rounds.

The Somerville Police Department gang unit was disbanded in the late 1990s, coinciding with the decline of the MS-13 gang presence in the Somerville-Cambridge area. “Based on staffing shortages, that gang head was reassigned,” Femino said.

Police didn’t get around $400,000 asked for staffing and body cameras, according to the amended budget for the 2023 fiscal year. Somerville police did not respond to a question emailed Wednesday about how the cuts affected gun violence prevention and response.

Somerville’s community policing unit has dwindled to seven officers from 17 in the past several years due to reassignments needed to fill shortages in other patrols. “That certainly doesn’t mean you can’t call,” Femino said. But the department’s automated operator does not list community policing, and while the department site has a general email contact form, it is unclear what the form is for or who gets the messages.

Assessing crime in Somerville

Giving minimal details, Femino said that “serious crime is up in Somerville” with people “out and about” since the end of a Covid crisis. According to a Friday email from the SPD, serious crimes were 12 percent higher in 2022 than 2021. “We have seen a trend where there are younger individuals, youth involved in the gun shooting incidents, and we’ve seen a rise in the automatic weapons that were being used in these incidents,” Femino said at the meeting, estimating that the department has recovered about 40 firearms. “Don’t hold me to that number,” he added.

“The good news is, even though Somerville has seen a rise in crime, our crime rate is lower than other jurisdictions,” he said.

Over the past five years, Somerville has had 49 confirmed shootings, injuring 12 people, one of whom died. Since Jan. 1, 2020, at least 30 people in Somerville have been arrested in relation to shootings, according to Somerville police. Still, shootings were trending downward overall, to two so far this year from 36 incidents between 2020 and 2021 and 11 in 2022. Similarly, the number of individuals struck by gunfire in the past three years has decreased, to none in the past year from seven in 2020.

Data and analysis

On a phone call Wednesday, crime analyst Meredith Willis said the department was working on a public crime database it hopes to release in about six months.

When SPD’s crime analysis unit identifies an area experiencing increased serious crime, the department deploys additional foot and car patrols to the area. Femino said. The Criminal Investigation Division is also in touch with cities such as Cambridge and Malden to share knowledge and cooperate “so that when something does happen, it’s more likely to be solved in a timely manner.”

Alongside patrolling and intelligence-sharing strategies, SPD runs youth programs and activities in collaboration with the city’s Department of Racial and Social Justice, created in 2020. “We collaborate a lot. In the last two years, we’ve included dialogue sessions in each of the wards, walk-and-talks with business owners and coffee-with-the-chief sessions,” Femino said. “We’re trying to put together some programs this summer,” a season that sees spikes in confrontations and crime. Femino did not provide data on enrollment in youth programs when asked by email Wednesday.

Unrest over initiatives 

After residents said incidents such as the Winter Hill gunfire and recent Nashville, Tennessee, school shooting made them worry about their children’s safety, MaryLou Carey-Sturniolo, a Winter Hill resident, garnered some applause when she decried the city’s decision to remove police officers from schools. “You cannot expect the police department to protect you then disrespect them by taking them out of schools,” she said.

Former mayoral candidate William Tauro asked Femino to explain how he would get guns off the streets. The acting chief mentioned a buyback program that he said has been successful. “It’s not enough,” Tauro said, drawing nods from a few people around Tauro.

Earlier in the meeting, a counselor from Riverside Trauma Center discussed self-help techniques in the wake of a shooting over the murmur of a clearly disinterested audience. One resident called the presentation “patronizing,” and the room applauded.

“​​We all had kids at soccer practice [March 21]. There were two kids walking home that were 15 feet away from the shooting. They ran behind a building,” one resident said.

Lackluster involvement

Most frustration was directed at the city and the Department of Racial and Social Justice.

Community members wanted faster and more widespread communication in the event of a shooting, “like a reverse 311,” one resident suggested. But Mayor Katjana Ballantyne said real-time communication was “very difficult.” Other residents pushed for more efforts to engage the community on gun violence issues and improve regular communications. “Why did it take four days to hold this meeting?” one resident asked.

Department of Racial and Social Justice director Denise Molina Capers had staff distribute flyers inviting community members to join an Anti-Violence Working Group, one of the department’s latest initiatives to stop violent crime. Capers expressed disappointment in application numbers for other police-related initiatives and task forces – even paid ones –despite advertising them through flyering, emails and other channels. Many community members looked at one another in confusion. “I didn’t receive anything,” one said, and murmurs broke out. Cambridge Day reached out to the RSJ over the phone Wednesday and Friday seeking clarification on community engagement.

“The attitude has been to ask the community to meet you where you are, not for you to meet us. All I hear are very defensive responses.” One resident said. “You are elected officials. Our tax dollars support your salary. If you can’t do it, maybe this is not the right job.”

This post was updated April 4, 2023, to clarify that the requested police budget was cut by around $400,000, though the budget saw an overall increase.