Following the Firearms: For gun offenders, police want sentences to send tough message

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Listen: Following the Firearms, Gun Violence in Minneapolis, pt. 2 of 4
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MPR News presents the series "Following the Firearms: Gun Violence in Minneapolis," which looks at where guns are coming from, and the impact of gun violence in Minnesota's largest city. In this report, MPR’s Brandt Williams talks to a gun offender now serving time, and explains what law enforcement officials are doing to try to reduce gun violence and keep guns out of the hands of convicted felons.

This is the second in a four-part series.

Click links below for other reports in series:

part 1: https://archive.mpr.org/stories/2011/03/22/following-the-firearms-gun-violence-in-minneapolis-gun-sources

part 3: https://archive.mpr.org/stories/2011/03/24/following-the-firearms-emotional-scars-run-deep-for-those-affected-by-gun-violence

part 4: https://archive.mpr.org/stories/2011/03/25/following-the-firearms-rules-behind-tracing-guns-a-political-football-in-washington

Awarded:

2012 RTDNA Murrow Award, Radio - Large Market, Region 4 / Audio: News Series category

2012 National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Exellence Award, RADIO - Investigative category

2011 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Series - Large Market Radio category

2011 Minnesota AP Award, first place in Series/Special - Radio Division, Class Three category

2012 MNSPJ Page One Award, first place in Online - Best use of Multimedia category

Transcripts

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BRANDT WILLIAMS: One night a year ago, 19-year-old Jiyaad Copeland was hanging out with some of his buddies at a friend's house. Before heading out to cruise around North Minneapolis, Copeland smoked some weed and grabbed a .44 Magnum revolver, like the gun made famous by Clint Eastwood's movie character Dirty Harry. What happened next led him here to Lino Lakes prison.

JIYAAD COPELAND: I was like, well, I can't go over north without a gun. I mean, I feel like I get shaky. So before we left that mutual friend house, I asked one of my guys, where's your gun at? Let me hold it.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Copeland says he took the .44 Magnum with him on that night last year for protection. And as he and his friends pulled into a gas station on West Broadway Avenue, Copeland saw some people he didn't get along with. They exchanged words, and then Copeland says, he saw one of the guys start to come after him.

JIYAAD COPELAND: I assume it was a gun that he had. I'm not sure. But I assume it was a gun because it was shiny and I don't think he would be running across the street if-- and I pulled my gun out.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Copeland fired and missed. Copeland also missed seeing a Minneapolis police officer patrolling nearby in his squad car. The officer wrote in his report that he was close enough to actually see Copeland fire the gun. After the shooting, Copeland and his friends drove away. But the officer stopped them and found the revolver next to Copeland on the seat of the car. Copeland later pleaded guilty to being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm, which is a felony. He received a 40-month prison sentence.

A prohibited person is someone who meets one of the many restrictions on gun possession set by federal and state law. Copeland's path to prison began at an early age. When he was 15, Copeland pleaded guilty to two counts of second degree burglary and got four years probation. He says he was also gang-affiliated, meaning he wasn't formally in the gang, but had friends who were. That also meant he made enemies in rival gangs. When Copeland was 18, somebody shot him as he was walking home from school. The bullet passed right through his belly and exited out his back.

JIYAAD COPELAND: After that, I felt it's either I'm going to get somebody before they get me. I can't go. So at that moment, I started carrying guns.

JIYAAD COPELAND: Copeland says it wasn't hard to get a gun. He knew a go-to guy in the neighborhood who could get one in a couple of days. A pistol costs around $300. Copeland also says some guys, mostly the younger ones, would get guns by stealing them from somebody's house. The Minneapolis Police officer who arrested Copeland last March was out on what is called a directed patrol.

Minneapolis police officers routinely conduct these patrols in areas where gang and gun violence is most prevalent. They do traffic stops and check on offenders who are on probation, and they often find guns. Last fall, I rode along with Lieutenant Brett Lindback on a directed patrol in North Minneapolis. Lindback joined other officers at a traffic stop on James Avenue. So what do we have here?

LIEUTENANT BRETT LINDBECK: I haven't-- they stopped his car, and they found a gun in it. I have got beyond that.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: The officers told lindback that one of the people in the car said there was a loaded, short nosed revolver and a backpack in the trunk.

LIEUTENANT BRETT LINDBECK: This is one of the 300 plus handguns we've recovered so far this year.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: By the end of the year, police would recover 424 guns from the north side. A majority of the 759 firearms recovered across the city in 2010. During the MPR News investigation, we discovered that some of the felons caught with guns in Minneapolis last year had done time for multiple violent crimes. For example, last April, a man with five prior felony convictions, including attempted murder, punched and raped a woman at gunpoint. He's now serving a 15-year prison sentence.

However, not all gun crimes are committed by felons. There's the man who accidentally shot his girlfriend in the head as he twirled his gun around his finger while sitting in his Dodge Durango. She received a non-life threatening wound. The man was sentenced to four-years probation and two months in the workhouse. Still, 2010 was not an unusually violent year in Minneapolis overall.

While homicides doubled from 2009 to 2010, the number of aggravated assaults, which include shootings, decreased by 7% And so far, 2011 is following the same trend. Deputy Police Chief Rob Allen says violent crime in Minneapolis is at its lowest level since the early 1960s. He says that's due in part to an aggressive policing strategy adopted just more than a decade ago. Officers searched for illegally obtained guns even when the suspected crime is a minor one.

ROB ALLEN: The way we prevent serious crimes, typically, is to make arrests for minor crimes, and in the process of making an arrest for a minor crime, you may discover a gun.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Typically, the guns are confiscated and destroyed. Nearly all gun offenders spend time in jail or the workhouse. The most serious offenders go to prison. But once they get back on the streets, many offenders just find another gun. Allen says he and other law enforcement officials have asked Hennepin County judges to give gun offenders the toughest allowable sentences.

ROB ALLEN: If people are carrying guns, they are far more likely to either perpetrate or be the victims of a gun-related crime. So let's make sure that that doesn't happen. By really sending a message as to how bad an idea it is to carry a gun illegally in the city.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Allen says police officials meet regularly with state and federal prosecutors to compare notes on gun cases. He says, they want to find which court will give them the best chance to get a lengthy sentence. The most punitive gun sentences are handed down in federal court. Under a program called Project Exile Minneapolis, accused gun offenders who qualify as so-called armed career criminals face minimum sentences of 15 years in federal prison. Since Project Exile started last summer, the US Attorney's office has indicted 18 men, three have been convicted.

However, the majority of gun cases are handled in state court. And according to the most recent data from the Minnesota sentencing guidelines commission, Hennepin County judges tend to give longer, not shorter, sentences, to gun offenders. However, in a little more than a third of cases, judges impose sentences of time in the workhouse or probation instead of prison. According to case records, Jiyaad Copeland, the 19-year-old inmate at Lino lakes, received a lighter sentence because a judge said he accepted responsibility for his crime. With credit for time served, he'll be out next year.

From inside prison walls, Copeland sounds like a guy who's determined to change his life around. But the reality is, Copeland will be going back to a community where there are guys with guns who don't like him and maybe want to kill him. Copeland insists that when he gets out, he'll try to settle his disputes with words, not with guns.

JIYAAD COPELAND: But I do fear someone might still hold resentments. And without communication or forgiveness, it will never be peace.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio News.

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