Police crack down on illegal guns


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A new Savannah-Chatham metro police investigative team devoted to firearms enforcement is cracking down on all things illegal when it comes to guns.

Rather than leave the investigation of a suspicious gun to a patrol officer, a team of two metro officers and one civilian is now handed information about the gun, said Lt. Mike Wilkins, who is also partly responsible for the department's online intelligence information management system known as the Savannah Area Regional Intelligence Center.

"A patrol officer may do a background check at the scene, but not all the information always comes up," Wilkins said. "But then that officer will inform us."

In many cases, Wilkins said, he has seen false information provided by the FBI-maintained National Crime Information Center database or the Georgia Bureau of Investigation-maintained Georgia Crime Information Center.

"An officer will run someone through NCIC or GCIC, whether it be through dispatch or their own MDT (computers installed in cruisers), and it will come back as negative," he said. "Now we've stepped in and found that was false."

Savannah-Chatham Advanced Police Officer David Lee joined the team in September. Along with Officer Sylvester Brown, the two are responsible for researching cases brought to the team. Civilian employee Ronda Barefoot is a firearms evidence custodian.

Lee said the team also has strengthened a relationship with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Savannah and has closed some of the loopholes suspects have used to get out of federal charges.

"It's an eye opener when they realize they're facing federal charges," Lee said. "That's when you get the deer in the headlight look."

Edmund A. Booth Jr., U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, said assistance provided by the metro police unit has streamlined prosecution.

"They seem to be providing us with what they believe to be the best suitable cases for federal prosecution," Booth said, adding that the unit has also been successful in bringing charges against those who are already arrested.

The investigative team is also now responsible for the department's 3-year-old participation in the ATF's nationwide eTrace system. The system traces a gun through a serial number back to the owner who purchased it. The system can also reveal when the legality of the weapon was compromised.

"It's a lot of work, but if we can find out where the gun came from, that can lead to additional arrests or charges," Lee said.

Wilkins added that the eTrace system can also hold responsible those who pass a background check to purchase a gun in place of someone who can't, also known as "straw purchasers." The unit focuses on those offenders as well.

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