Providence police saw big spike in street gun seizures in ’16

One of the guns recovered by Providence police.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – On a chilly afternoon in January 2016, a Providence police detective received a tip that a man wanted in connection with a large drug sting and a separate kidnapping case the previous year was hiding out in an apartment in the city’s North End. The suspect, 24-year-old Irvin Sanchez, was believed to be in possession of one or multiple firearms.

The informant was right.

Shortly after 7:30 that night, detectives monitoring the apartment on West Drive noticed two men enter the residence. Soon after, one of the men, 30-year-old Charles Flores, left the home carrying a black backpack and hopped in a cab. The detectives stopped the taxi and Flores fled on foot. Other officers stormed the home.

When all was said and done, police had recovered a Glock 19 handgun, Keltec rifle and Colt AR-15 rifle along with several loaded magazines, according to an incident report. There were two children in the house. Sanchez and Flores both landed in jail.

The successful bust was the first major gun haul for Providence police in 2016, but it wouldn’t be the last. A Target 12 review of gun recovery data shows police seized 171 firearms last year, a 26% increase from 2014. All told, Rhode Island’s largest police department recovered 571 guns between 2013 and 2016, a figure officials attribute to smarter policing, better internal communication and a spike in judge-approved search warrants.

“They’re out there, they’re talking to a lot of people, bringing a lot of information back,” Maj. David Lapatin told Target 12, referring to the department’s new gun control unit. “Which allows us to locate weapons and make arrests.”

Lapatin said the city’s narcotics, organized crime and gun units have made firearms a top priority in recent years. The gun control unit, established in 2014, tracks every gun recovered in Providence and tries to learn how the weapons made their way into the hands of drug dealers and gang members across the city.

The department’s laser-focus on guns is as necessary as ever. While violent crime – including homicides – in Providence has fallen dramatically over the last 25 years and shootings have dipped in recent years, officials say they believe 2016 was a record year for gun recoveries.

“I remember when I was a patrolman years ago, you made a gun arrest, that was a big deal,” Lapatin, who joined the police department in 1982, said. “There weren’t many guns on the street. And today you go out there and you can make one any night.”

Police say they can’t pinpoint exactly why they’re recovering more guns, but the number of firearms manufactured in the United States grew from 2.9 million in 2001 to 10.8 million in 2013, according to a report issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Lapatin said Providence has concentrated on suspects committing burglaries because that’s how police believe many guns end up on the streets.

Records show the vast majority of guns Providence police recovered between 2013 and 2016 were pistols (353), followed by revolvers (123). Detective also seized 30 shotguns and 27 rifles, including three AK-47s during the time period. In one 2013 case, police found an AK-47 and numerous rounds of ammunition inside a trash barrel.

“Only ones they can get their hands on,” Lapatin said, referring to which guns criminals prefer.

The arrests of Sanchez and Flores marked the first of at least 24 incidents last year where police seized multiple firearms. In November, eight guns were seized from two Providence firefighters in large marijuana bust.

Once the guns are recovered, the tracking begins.

Detective Joseph Hanley’s job is to “follow the gun the best I can,” monitoring every report of a gun seized and tracing the story of how it ended up in a criminal’s hands.

“It could be guns used in crimes, robberies, shootings. It could be, unfortunately, sudden deaths,” Hanley said. “But the gun has to come from somewhere. So my job is to monitor all the reports, find out where those guns are coming from, how they came into our building, and then go from there.”

Because there is no gun registry, Hanley said he must rely heavily on cooperation from witnesses and gun owners in order to successfully track the weapons. He said one particular problem he runs into involves people who fail to report their gun stolen. While state law requires individuals to report a gun stolen within 24 hours, the $100 civil penalty for failing to report is insignificant, Hanley said.

“We know a lot of these guns are taken in breaks and we know we have a gut feeling that they are stolen, but it’s sometimes through error or omission we can’t track these guns,” he explained.

“You know, the times have changed and these young people out here, young and old, are more brazen.” – Detective Joseph Hanley

Lapatin said earlier this month a car was broken into on the East Side and thieves made off with an AR-15 rifle. The gun was legally owned, but Lapatin said the owner shouldn’t have kept it in a parked car.

“That’s crazy,” he said. “That’s on the street now.”

Like Lapatin, Hanley said it’s difficult to point to one specific reason why more guns are on the street, but he suggested there is a clear reason why police are finding more of them: search warrants. Hanley said the narcotics and organized crime units secured record numbers of search warrants in 2015 and 2016.

While search warrants require a judge’s permission, Hanley said the warrants allow officers to take all the information they learn on the streets and uncover drugs and guns in homes and vehicles.

“I think that has a lot to do with it,” Hanle said. “You know, the times have changed and these young people out here, young and old, are more brazen. They’re out there doing their criminal activity and I think it was a conscious decision from the command staff to go out and try to execute these search warrants. Get as many guns off the street as we can.”

Still, both Lapatin and Hanley acknowledge Providence faces an uphill battle. While the goal is to keep every gun out of criminals’ hands, the weapons keep emerging.

“For every gun you get, there’s probably 10 driving right by you that you don’t get,” Hanley said. “That’s unfortunate.”

CORRECTION: This report has been updated to reflect that police found numerous rounds of ammunition with an AK-47, not 762 rounds.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook