U.S. Attorney's Office's Approach To Gun Violence: Support Community-Based Prevention Programs And Focus Prosecutions On Those Driving The Violence
GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN – Speaking on the subject of gun violence, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, Andrew Birge, explained that his office employs an evidence-based, two-pronged approach to violent crime reduction, focusing on prosecuting the most dangerous offenders where there is federal jurisdiction while funding and encouraging law enforcement partnerships with community stakeholders to achieve sustainable and community driven reductions in violent crime.
U.S. Attorney Birge explained that: “Through grant funding, the Department supports violence prevention programs. Through focused federal prosecutions, my office looks to hold the trigger-pullers and most dangerous offenders accountable to federal law. Ideally, community members and law enforcement officers support each other and even work together to sustainably reduce violence and reduce the need for either state or federal charges.”
In 2020, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Western Michigan oversaw the granting of almost $200,000 in Department of Justice funds to support community organizations and law enforcement partners in efforts to reduce violent crime throughout Western Michigan. Those funds came through DOJ’s Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) program, which was first launched in 2001. DOJ funds support both community organizations and local law enforcement in Battle Creek, Benton Harbor, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, and Muskegon/Muskegon Heights. This past year, more than ten community organizations and six local police departments received a total of $192,000 in PSN grant funds to support community-based violence prevention programs. The PSN-funded programs focused on the communities with the highest rates of violence and, more specifically, those community members most at-risk of committing or suffering from violent crime. All PSN-funded organizations work in conjunction with local law enforcement to ensure a
sustainable and holistic approach to violent crime reduction.
- For example, the Muskegon and Muskegon Heights Police Departments received funding to support basketball games between at-risk youth and community police officers, back-to-school haircuts for kids, and an outreach program where former felons mentor at-risk individuals in an effort to deter them from committing, or becoming victims of, violent crime.
- The Lansing Police Department received PSN grant funds to support a faith-based mobile outreach organization operating in areas that suffer from the highest rates of violence and poverty. One of the goals of this organization is to promote community trust in local law enforcement by helping to build bridges between police officers and community member. Working alongside Lansing Police, this community group used the grant money to fund summer barbeques, a mobile food pantry, and care packages for impoverished community members.
- In Benton Harbor, the PSN grant funds supported a new initiative at the Boys & Girls Club called Project Learn. Project Learn is an after-school program which provides academic support and mentoring to young people. The Boys & Girls Club specifically implemented the Project in a neighborhood which had 124 calls to police for services in a three-month period, including 14 calls reporting shots fired.
- In Kalamazoo, PSN grant funds help support a Group Violence Intervention program (GVI), where police and community members, including ex-offenders, personally reach out to at-risk youth and group members to interrupt cycles of violence.
While these community-based interventions address conditions that can raise the risk of violence, the U.S. Attorney’s Office works with local and federal law enforcement as well as county prosecutors to identify and prosecute federally the individuals who are causing the violence. “Prosecuting the small number of people committing violent acts has a significant and immediate impact on communities suffering from gun violence,” explained Erin Lane, an Assistant U.S. Attorney who handles many of these cases and oversees the grant funding program. “Often a county prosecutor will have the better charge for jurisdictional or other reasons and our county prosecutors do a great job. But we have seen that a federal charge can have a positive impact,” explained U.S. Attorney Birge.
- For example, at the end of this summer, the Grand Rapids Police Department, ATF and the U.S. Attorney’s office charged Antwine Chamberlain-Fields with being a felon in possession of a firearm. GRPD referred his case to federal prosecutors with the concurrence of the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office because officers suspected Chamberlain-Fields was involved in, as well as the target of, multiple shootings in the Grand Rapids area during this past summer, including a drive-by shooting on the city’s west side resulting in the injury of a teenage girl. After Chamberlain-Fields was indicted and placed in federal pretrial detention, shootings on the west side of Grand Rapids stopped for almost three weeks. In September, Chamberlain-Fields pled guilty and faces up to ten years’ incarceration for this crime.
- In Kalamazoo, police arrested Fharis Smith and Dontrell Walker after officers received information that they had been involved in a shooting incident with a rival gang. Officers also understood that the rival gang planned a retaliatory shooting against Smith and Walker. Police arrested Smith and Walker on outstanding criminal warrants. When arrested, Walker had a sawed-off rifle and Smith had a loaded gun and methamphetamine on him. Both were charged with federal crimes and placed in federal custody. Removing Smith and Walker from the street interrupted the cycle of shootings in Kalamazoo between the rival groups and prevented further violence. A federal jury convicted Smith of being a felon in possession of a firearm, drug distribution, and possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking. He faces up to fifteen years in prison. Walker pled guilty to possessing a short-barreled rifle and was sentenced to eight and a half years’ incarceration.
- Likewise, in August of this year, Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS) arrested Robert Love, Jr. for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Love had been involved in, and the target of, multiple shootings in the Kalamazoo area during this past summer. After Love was injured in a drive-by shooting, police officers and community members making up the Kalamazoo GVI contacted Love and warned him that he was going to end up dead or in prison if he did not stop his violent behavior. Two days after this attempted intervention, Love’s car was shot up by unknown individuals on the streets of Kalamazoo. Police arrested Love on an outstanding warrant and discovered that he had a firearm. The U.S. Attorney’s office charged Love federally and the court held him in federal custody. Love eventually pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and now faces up to ten years in prison. Like Smith and Walker, Love’s arrest curbed the cycle of retaliatory and criminal group-involved shootings in the Kalamazoo area. KDPS Assistant Chief David Boysen explained, “federally charging individuals that are the most violent offenders and removing them from the street has an immediate impact on reducing the cycle of violence in the city. It is an invaluable resource for KDPS and community partners committed to violence prevention work.”
- Police in Lansing arrested an active shooter, Narrion Caston, for being a felon in possession of ammunition. At the time Caston was arrested, he was only one month into a three-year term of federal supervision for a previous conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Caston pled guilty to the charge and at his sentencing hearing, a detective from the Lansing Police Department testified that the ammunition Caston illegally possessed was found in a car after Caston shot into another vehicle, hitting a Lansing area resident in the leg. Caston was sentenced to serve 10 years in the Federal Bureau of Prisons for illegal possession of ammunition, and 14 months for violations of his federal supervised release.
- In addition to prosecuting the most dangerous offenders for illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, the U.S. Attorney’s Office prioritizes the prosecution of thefts from licensed firearm dealers, in order to disrupt the flow of illegal firearms into the hands of violent offenders. For example, Charles Skipp was sentenced to 42 years in prison after being convicted of 10 felony offenses, which included stealing 89 firearms from a licensed firearm dealer. He attempted to cover his tracks by intimidating and retaliating against a witness to the theft, by shooting at the witnesses’ house and later setting it on fire. Skipp also used one of the stolen guns to rob and shoot a drug dealer.
“There are no quick fixes; it will take long-term commitment to not only prosecuting those who are driving the violence but also to crime prevention,” acknowledged U.S. Attorney Birge. This past year, the coronavirus made it difficult to implement community prevention programs. “The pandemic brought into sharp focus the critical role that these programs play in violence reduction and neighborhood safety and stability,” added Assistant U.S. Attorney Lane.
Looking forward to 2021, there are again over $192,000 of PSN grant funds available to nonprofit organizations, community groups, and local law enforcement working on violence prevention in Battle Creek, Benton Harbor, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, and Muskegon/Muskegon Heights. With the ongoing challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. Attorney Birge encourages communities and law enforcement organizations to submit PSN project proposals that are aimed at sustainable, community-based violence prevention programming, which can be implemented during or after the pandemic. For more information about the PSN grant request for proposals or an application, please call Annette Chapman, PSN Fiscal Agent and Senior Vice President at the Battle Creek Community Foundation, at (269) 962-
2181 or email email@example.com. For other federal grant opportunities, please see www.grants.gov.