A surge in violent crime in Mesa has prompted a federal agency to team up with the Mesa Police Department to target the city’s most dangerous criminals.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives selected Mesa as one of
four more cities nationwide it will assist in investigating firearms-related crimes. The initiative, called VCIT. or Violent Crime Impact Teams, already exists in 25 cities. The other cities that will benefit from the program beginning July 1 include Orlando, Fla., San Bernardino, Calif., and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“Each of these cities has seen an unacceptable increase in homicides or other violent crimes,” U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told ATF employees in Washington, D.C.
The partnership follows the release of crime statistics showing that Mesa’s crime rate exceeds that of major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and cities of comparable size, such as Virginia Beach, Va.
Mesa averages 50.9 violent crimes and property crimes per 1,000 residents, according to the Mesa Police Department. The number of murders jumped from nine in 2005 to 20 in 2006, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Statistics.
ATF will devote eight agents to Mesa, who’ll work with police officers on the street, as well as about $500,000 for operating expenses.
The funds will pay for fuel, equipment, evidence processing, undercover operation expenses and officers’ overtime.
VCIT also enables local police to access national firearms and ballistics databases and to consult federal tactical and intelligence experts.
“Every gun has its story,” said Mesa police Chief George Gascón. “We hope to, with ATF, follow the trail of guns.” Guns and gangs are the operation’s main target, he said.
Gascón said Mesa is attracting more criminals because of its proximity to California and Mexico. Drug and human trafficking across the border has brought criminals to and through Mesa, and gang members affected by Los Angeles’ crackdown on crime and California’s three-strikes felony law have found their way to the East Valley. Increasingly, ex-cons recently released from state prisons are finding their way to Mesa as well, he said.
Gascón also pointed to population growth as a cause for the rise in violent crime. Growth brings not just good people with it, but also criminals, he said. Ten percent of criminals commit 50 percent to 55 percent of crimes, he added.
VCIT agents and officers will target the “worst of the worst” by using better intelligence, which will help them be more “surgical” about their arrests, he said.
Not all Mesans will notice a difference in police operations, Gascón said, except for those who live in the targeted neighborhoods: for now, west and central Mesa.
Officers hope to make a dent in the crime in those areas with arrests and relocate the criminals to federal prisons. Because firearms trafficking is a violation of federal law, officers expect some of those they catch to be prosecuted and punished in the federal system.
That’s why VCIT organizers asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Arizona to sign on to the initiative, too.
Gascón said sending gang members to federal prisons works better to break up criminal networks. It separates coconspirators who would contact with each other in state prisons and then easily meet up when released.
ATF special agent Bill Newell said that since VCIT began in 2004, agents nationwide have seized 5,000 guns, arrested 2,400 gang members and apprehended 650 criminals identified as the “worst of the worst.”
“Mesa is going through an evolution,” Gascón said. “We need new ways to fight dangerous crimes. (VCIT) is a great opportunity for the region.”
Violent crimes and property crimes per 1,000 residents
Mesa: 50.9 (Pop: 442,445)
Scottsdale: 37.1 (Pop: 215,933)
Gilbert: 28.3 (Pop: 178,539)
Chandler: 40.2 (Pop: 225,725)
Tempe: 82.9* (Pop: 166,171)
Phoenix: 64.7 (Pop: 1,377,980)
Atlanta: 88.5 (Pop: 394,929)
Los Angeles: 32.2 (Pop: 3,731,437)
Virginia Beach, Va.: 32.5 (Pop: 430,856)
*Property crimes on Arizona State University’s campus compose a large portion of this statistic.
SOURCE: Mesa Police Department, U.S. Census 2005 population estimates
The Associated Press contributed to this report.