The 'Tinder' And The 'Spark': Analyzing Hartford's 2020 Spike In Gun Violence
Shootings are up in Hartford in 2020, including what the city’s mayor calls an “unusual and severe” spike into the fall. And while this problem isn’t unique to Hartford, there is a major effort underway to pinpoint the cause of the problem in Connecticut’s capital.
And Mayor Luke Bronin says it might be pandemic-related.
City officials say state officials have let some alleged criminals out of jail before their time. Specifically, Bronin suggests the state offered lower bonds to offenders so that jails won’t be crowded during the pandemic. He also believes that violent offenders released from prison weren’t initially watched as closely as they were before the pandemic.
And they point to the case of William Tisdol.
A day after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, a Hartford detective was out in the Asylum Hill neighborhood investigating a regional retail theft ring. Law enforcement approached a man and woman standing near the trunk of a car. The man started to flee. Police chased him, took him to the ground, and found an untraceable gun in his belt. That’s all according to an Hartford Police incident report.
The man was Tisdol, a 20-year-old from Hartford. He was arrested, and eventually released from custody. But two months later, police believe he committed another crime -- allegedly holding a man at gunpoint and forcing him to drive to an ATM. Tisdol got away, only to be involved in a third incident in September -- this time, he was shot, and now he’s in jail.
“He’s now incarcerated,” Hartford mayor Luke Bronin said in a recent Zoom meeting, one put on for city residents so Bronin could illustrate why he thought gun violence was up. “But not before becoming both a victim and a shooter.”
There have been 189 shootings in Hartford this year. That’s already more than 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015. Of the city’s 22 homicides in 2020, 16 were by shooting.
The mayor blames the explosion of gun violence in his city on COVID-19. He said it may be having a major impact on how the cases of violent offenders are adjudicated.
“There, we believe. are a number of cases in which individuals who might normally have been held in custody for their involvement in violent crime were released because of the concerns of COVID,” Bronin said, adding that he was also concerned about probation and parole supervision.
“There has not been – or have been very, very limited -- in-person supervision of individuals who are on probation or on parole,” Bronin said.
Not far away, the mayor of New Britain similarly attributed a rash of car break-ins in her city to a suspension of court proceedings amid the pandemic. Erin Stewart believes that the people responsible are repeat offenders that don’t think they’ll get in serious trouble.
“We’ve been told, ‘The courts are opening back up, they’re opening back up -- don’t worry, we’re getting back to business as normal.’” she said. “Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of victims that have suffered in the meantime.”
But the executive director of a unit that supports Connecticut judges said the New Britain courthouse never closed during the pandemic.
“The courts never stopped operating in New Britain and we haven’t changed how we approach individuals that are arrested and are brought before the court for arraignment,” said Gary Roberge, the executive director of the state judicial branch’s Court Support Services Division.
Roberge said he hasn’t seen any data to connect the release of violent offenders since March to spikes in gun violence. He said that, if violent offenders are on the street, it’s likely because they posted bond.
“They have the right to do that and that’s the mechanism for their release,” Roberge said.
For Roberge, the biggest impact COVID-19 had on the judicial branch was probation services. Roberge said the state expanded the office’s remote operations like conducting meetings virtually to limit in-office visits.
“I don’t know that there’s any data to say that because we changed how we conduct our business that it’s led to an increase in violence,” he said.
But Bronin has a different view. He said in his Zoom powerpoint that Hartford Police picked up at least six people on gun charges while they were out on parole or probation.
Once the state parole board releases an inmate, the Connecticut Department of Correction’s Parole and Community Services division is responsible for supervision. Karen Martucci, the DOC’s Director of External Affairs, said the unit started to do some virtual check-ins based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.
“When concerns were raised by Mayor Bronin related to an uptick in gun violence in the city of Hartford, the Department of Correction immediately responded,” Martucci said. “The Parole and Community Services Division extended in-person contact to high risk individuals under supervision in Hartford, as well as all other districts across the state of Connecticut.”
While there were some changes, Martucci said that the DOC unit “never completely suspended” in-person supervision. And some parolees did get a face-to-face meeting during the pandemic, she said . Those with a “high-risk gun history” who are on parole would’ve been tracked using GPS technology.
City officials say they’re “grateful” for these efforts -- but that they wish it would’ve happened sooner.
Another example Bronin used of someone involved in gun violence when they could've instead been in jail was 19 year-old Junny Lara-Velazquez. Bronin called him “Example 2” and police later confirmed his identity. According to a Hartford Police incident report, Lara-Velazquez was arrested in April for a shooting that happened two months earlier. And he was also booked as part of an ATV sting operation. After that arrest, Bronin said he was involved in three more shootings. The last one was July 6.
“There was a daytime homicide on Capitol Avenue where the shooters chased the victim and shot and killed him. The person that was shot and killed was this individual,” Bronin said.
Bronin believes Lara-Velazquez should still be alive -- and that his death traces back to a “very specific disruption” COVID-19 has levied on judicial proceedings in Connecticut.
Attempts to reach family members for both Lara-Vazquez and Tisdol were unsuccessful.
Attorney John O’Brien said he’s working on Tisdol’s behalf to get bail in the robbery and kidnapping case reduced.
O’Brien said that Tisdol is nursing injuries from a September shooting while incarcerated and that he “would like to convalesce from his injuries on home arrest instead of jail.”
He also said that Tisdol denies the allegations against him.
A Deadly Disagreement
Another of the 16 people shot and killed in Hartford this year was Marquis Treadwell. City councilman Nick Lebron and Treadwell were tight, so much so that they shared a lot of good times together in Lebron’s living room.
“He didn’t like to pay for pay-per-views. I’m the older cousin so I would pay for pay-per-view and he would come over to my house to watch the boxing,” Lebron said. “We had some great times watching boxing matches.”
Last December, they watched on as Teofimo Lopez only needed two rounds to beat Richard Commey. Two months later, Treadwell was gone. He was only 28.
“He was at a bar and he had a disagreement with somebody and somebody felt it was that important to take his life over that disagreement and it’s sad,” Lebron said.
Lebron doesn’t have to look further than his work desk to see his little cousin.
“I have a picture of myself and him hugging on the day of my wedding and it’s a constant reminder for me – and a promise that I made at his funeral to him -- that I’m going to continue to work on this effort to the point where gun violence will be nonexistent,” Lebron said.
Lebron, a lifelong Hartford resident, attributes this year of gun violence to the so-called “iron pipeline.” That’s a gun making its way into the hands of someone who shouldn’t have it.
“Guns are looked at as currency,” Lebron said. “When they’re looked at as currency or the opportunity to profit off of them by providing means and motive and opportunity for folks who engage in violence to use these guns is the problem.”
Hartford police say they’ve recovered 196 “unlawfully possessed” firearms so far this year. That’s more than all of 2019.
The ‘Tinder’ And The ‘Spark’
There may not be a one-size-fits-all answer for this spike in gun violence.
One factor that can’t be discounted is the toll the pandemic is taking on mental health. Bronin said as much in a recent interview.
“Many people and many communities are dealing with an extraordinarily heightened level of anxiety and stress – when you have deep, underlying trauma that’s below that, that can be dangerous,” Bronin said.
Hartford city councilman Josh Michtom doesn’t agree with Bronin’s assessment of the spike in gun violence -- at least as it pertains to violent offenders out on bond. He believes only a small percentage of people reoffend after being released. But he agrees that the stress of COVID-19 and the pandemic have provoked a response.
“We have widespread poverty and a lack of adequate social services. that’s like the dry tinder that’s been there for generations,” Michtom said. “I tend to agree with the mayor that the pandemic is the spark.”
One way the problem of gun violence is being addressed in Hartford is through collaboration with the Connecticut State Police. Michtom says it’s not enough.
“I would like to see a surge in social work,” Michtom said. “I would like to see a surge in recreational services that can be outdoors because I think we’ve been more police forever and we always see some spikes that come and go and we can’t control them.”
But Michtom doesn’t think that the path to a resolution involves more policing.
In response, the mayor’s office characterized law enforcement as an “absolutely necessary piece of the puzzle” in tackling gun violence. Beyond that, his staff said Bronin believes that the city’s investment in the creation of a crisis first responders’ team to respond to calls for service in lieu of the police is another part of the solution.
The mayor’s office also said that it’s seeing a significant decrease over the last three weeks in shootings. But, one that happened Sunday was a grim reminder that gun violence hasn’t gone away: the 22nd homicide of 2020. Guillermo Rivera was killed Sunday. He was 38.