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Providence streets used to crackle with gunfire. But police tactics changed and violence dropped. Here’s how.

The Providence Public Safety ComplexLane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — The streets used to crackle with gunfire.

More than a decade ago, it wasn’t uncommon for more than 100 people to be shot each year in Providence -- victims of street gangs or rival family feuds going back generations, domestic disputes, fights that broke out as the nightclubs closed.

Even as Providence police were seizing more than 130 or so guns off the streets, the wave of violence plagued neighborhoods and busied hospital emergency rooms.

And then, almost imperceptibly, the tide began to turn. The first sign was in 2014, which had been hot with gunfire through the summer, but ended with fewer than 100 shooting victims.


This wasn’t a fluke. The number of shootings had begun to fall. By the end of 2016, 68 people had been shot, including five killed — and the city had gone its first year in a long time without a gang-related homicide.

And now, Providence is on track to have its fewest shootings in recent memory.

There had been 32 people shot, including six homicides, as of Nov. 12, the most recent statistics kept by the Providence police. Overall, fewer than half of the 13 homicides this year were caused by shootings.

A man was shot and wounded on Thursday, marking the 33rd shooting this year. Until then, the city had gone more than a month without anyone shot.

Even so, there’s no shortage of guns on the street. As of Nov. 12, the Providence police had seized more than 100 illegal guns, getting a good number from drug raids.

Providence Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr. said “there’s no magic solution” to the decrease in gun violence.

“I think it’s because we continue to remain laser-focused on gun crimes -- on those carrying a gun and those more likely to pull a trigger. There’s a difference,” Clements said. “We hear who’s ‘hot’ right now, who is more likely to shoot. And we are holding people accountable.”


Nationally, violent crime has been decreasing, and Rhode Island is often ranked as one of the states with the lowest rate of gun-related deaths, including suicides. The cities of New Haven, Conn., Worcester and Springfield, Mass., have also seen a decrease in shootings, although not as consistent or steep as in Providence.

Those who are watching and evaluating the work in Providence say that its decline in shootings points to more than a national trend.

Inside the police department, officers from the specialized task forces to the cops working details outside nightclubs are sharing information about the main “players” and gangs in shootings and who’s likely to be carrying a gun. The investigators are “data-driven,” the chief said, using statistics and reports to strategize how they’ll go after the guns and prevent retaliation.

Outside the department, police work with partners in the justice system as well as community services, which Clements credits for helping quell violence in the city.

Then there’s Superior Court Judge Robert Krause, who leads the gun court and is known for issuing harsh sentences for shooters.

And there’s the state crime lab at the University of Rhode Island, which has worked through a backlog of cases and improved its turn-around in ballistics investigations, connecting guns and bullets to crime scenes.

There’s also the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which traces the guns and works with police and the crime lab to improve ballistics investigations.


“Over the last five years, we’ve put a lot of people in jail. And those who shoot and kill somebody get ‘double life,’” said Police Major David Lapatin, head of the investigative division. “We’ve heard talk on the street about most of the people sentenced. It gets back to the neighborhoods. Judge Krause is extremely tough, and they don’t want to go up in front of him.”

The police also credit their community partners, who can do the work that police can’t do, said Clements.

There’s the Nonviolence Institute, where street workers build relationships with those who are at-risk for violence and mediate conflicts, and where advocates support the families of murder victims and survivors of violence.

Social workers from Family Service of Rhode Island and The Providence Center respond to scenes with the police, bringing immediate social services help for victims and their families.

This is work that the police have been doing -- and building on -- for more than a decade, said Sean Varano, a criminal justice professor at Roger Williams University, who has worked as an evaluator with the Providence police on innovative programs to reduce youth violence and gangs.

The street workers and social workers “expand the capacity [of the police] and gives the police another tool with a person in crisis,” he said. “How do you work with the family of a person who is shot to make sure the younger brother doesn’t pick up a gun? It’s trauma-informed response.”


To Varano, the city of Providence is reaping its rewards of long investments. “A good part of this is leadership in the city and the police department, and a community that expects more and demands more,” he said. “There isn’t a bunch of really good luck. You don’t sustain low crime for 10 years out of chance alone. There’s something more dynamic here.”

The decrease in gun violence has been being noticed by emergency room physicians, who have long been on the frontlines, but often remain silent.

Early last year, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, an emergency room physician at Rhode Island Hospital took to Twitter to ask other doctors about their experiences with shootings. Dr. Megan Ranney was flooded with hundreds of stories from around the country from medical staff who shared their feelings of frustration.

Since then, Ranney said, health care providers have been more vocal about gun violence as a health issue. She is a research officer for the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction and was chosen by Governor Gina Raimondo to co-chair a state task force on reducing gun violence.

Their recommendations mirror the work in Providence. “Community-based programs like the Nonviolence Institute, which has done great work in interrupting conflicts and providing opportunities to youths, enforcing existing laws, closure of domestic violence loopholes, and improving enforcement of the law,” Ranney said.

Though the numbers are down, often the reasons for shootings remain the same. Retaliation. Innocents hit by bullets. Domestic violence leading to murder.


Most of this year’s shooting victims, 25 of the 32, are black or Hispanic, a statistic that has been consistent.

Slightly more than half of those shot, 17 of 32, are males under 30, including six teens and two children. The youngest victim was a 2 1/2 year old boy, wounded by a gunman as he rode in a vehicle with his father and another man. The oldest was a 59-year-old man shot in the street.

Five women and girls were shot this year, including a 4-year-old sleeping in her bed, who was hit and wounded by a slug as an upstairs neighbor cleaned his gun.

Police have made arrests in just six of the shootings, and the chief said that arrests remain a challenge. “So often time, we may have eliminated retaliation, but there’s still reluctance [for witnesses] to come forward,” Clements said. “Often, we see a shooting, and it’s targeted, but victims are uncooperative, never mind witnesses.

“But the phone never stops ringing,” he added. “That’s how we make a lot of cases. People call about shootings.”

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com