Report: ‘Amnesty’ policy, outreach could help rid city of street guns

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza signed an executive order to reduce gun violence on 11/3/15. (WPRI photo by photographer Scott Delsole)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – If Providence wants to keep illegal guns off the streets, city officials should implement a “no questions asked” policy for turning in firearms and improve community outreach to limit gun thefts in homes, according to a just-released report from a council advising the mayor on gun violence.

The 11-member group, comprised of community leaders, policymakers and members of the police department, was created by Mayor Jorge Elorza’s first executive order after he took office in 2015.  In addition to reducing illegal guns, the group offered a slew of recommendations on handling shootings and working with youth.

“We’ve been focused for a long time in the police department, but Mayor Elorza is absolutely centered on reducing violence and reducing gun violence in the city,” Police Chief Col. Hugh Clements, a member of the council, said. “We know that only with partners, law enforcement partners, community partners, partners with other departments in the city, we would be able to do that in a really successful way.”

The 21-page report was released a day after Target 12 reported the number of guns seized by Providence police grew 26% between 2014 and 2016, a spike officials attribute to improved law enforcement strategies and an increase in judge-approved search warrants in recent years. All told, police recovered 571 guns between 2013 and 2016, records show.

During the council’s first six meetings, it learned that while Providence police have had gun buyback programs in the past, the department doesn’t have a formal policy when it comes to individuals seeking to turn in unwanted firearms. The council recommended creating an amnesty program that allows anyone to turn over guns to the police.

“Best practices in limiting access to illegal firearms tell us that the fear of prosecution is a major barrier that prevents individuals from coming forward with unwanted guns,” the report states. “Anecdotal evidence among the group suggests that it is not uncommon for parents to find a child’s gun and have to make the decision of how to proceed without making them culpable.”

Clements said “amnesty” programs have been “moderately successful,” but he acknowledged firearms people willingly turn in aren’t necessarily the ones that would otherwise be used in crimes.

Clements said many street guns are coming from home break-ins or people losing track of the weapons they own. The committee also recommended the city implement “an education and community engagement strategy surrounding the tracking and safe storage of firearms.”

“You know, people think there’s a pipeline of firearms coming from down south by a coordinated group into Providence, Rhode Island or Newark or Detroit,” Clements said. “We’re not seeing that.”

In addition to Clements and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare, the mayor’s council also included Sol Rodriguez, PJ Fox, Pilar McCloud, Dr. Toby Ayers, Eugene Monteiro, Jordan Seaberry, Anthony Roberson, police Capt. Oscar Perez and Courtney Hawkins.

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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