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‘Get them off the street before they shoot somebody’: AG launches new crime-fighting initiative

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – For the past year Attorney General Peter Neronha has been quietly rolling out a new initiative aimed at getting criminals and guns off the street before a shooting occurs.

“If we’re picking up the shell casings after somebody has been shot and we’re trying to solve that homicide, we have failed,” Neronha told Target 12 in a wide-ranging interview. “We are going to be proactive at identifying people who drive violent crime and try to arrest them and get them off the street before they shoot somebody.”

The new effort included earlier this year deputizing eight police officers — from Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls — as investigators with the attorney general’s office to broaden their jurisdiction in conducting investigations.

That gave those officers the ability to seek a court-authorized search warrant in every city and town across the state. Normally, officers must work with departments in other municipalities if their investigation brings them over the town line.

“We don’t have to wait to brief-in another department in-depth,” he said. “We can simply get that warrant, get it sworn out in front of a judge, and get there quickly to recover that gun or prevent that act of violence. That’s really critical to moving quickly.”

The trickier part of the plan, he said, was getting the departments to sit around the table and share evidence and intelligence — something law enforcement agencies have traditionally been reluctant to do.

“Everybody buys in, everybody sets ground rules. We set ground rules on what is going to be shared and what isn’t,” Neronha said. “We limited it to a small group of talented investigators that can take the time to work together in this environment.”

The new initiative comes as law enforcement officials are struggling with a surge of violence in Rhode Island’s urban core. Providence has seen nearly two dozen homicides so far this year, the most in the capital city since 2009.

In a news release, Pawtucket Police Chief Tina Goncalves said the group convened by the attorney general has “been able to effectively use the strategy and communication of the task force to reduce any barriers that may have been present in addressing violent crime.”

Neronha’s office also used a federal grant to fund a full-time data analyst who will “draw connections between different crime scenes and weave together police reports and other records to help identify suspects and witnesses,” according to spokesperson Kristy dosReis.

The state will also be purchasing a second machine that can analyze shell casings to determine if there are any matches with other crimes across the state and country. Called the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network – or a NIBIN – the technology will cost about $500,000, which Neronha is paying for with money seized from criminal cases in the state criminal forfeiture fund.

Right now Rhode Island’s only other NIBIN machine is at the state crime lab on the University of Rhode Island campus.

“We’ll be able to take those casings and turn them around in under 24 hours,” Neronha said.

“Leads don’t get better as time goes by,” he said. “The sooner we’ll be able to turn those around the more likely we’ll be able to draw those connections and solve some of the shootings.”

Neronha said the new initiative has already resulted in several arrests, including defendants accused of straw-purchases. That’s where one person legally buys a gun and then sells it to someone who can’t buy one due to a criminal history.

“This initiative will be determined by how many people that we know are violent criminals — because of their history and what they’re doing — that we can arrest and charge and successfully prosecute before they can shoot somebody,” he said.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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