Fed up with headlines about shootings, armed robberies and aggravated assaults with firearms, law enforcement officials in Hillsborough County have taken what they say may be a significant step toward getting illegal guns off the streets.
The program, administered through Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay, is not a gun buy-back program, which has been done in the past. Rather, it pays for anonymous tips that lead to arrests of individuals in possession of illegal firearms.
“It’s a gun-bounty program,” said Lisa Haber, executive director of Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay. “It’s not totally new, but it’s different. Basically it’s one gun, one arrest, one grand.”
Boiled down, the program pays $1,000 to anyone who offers a tip about someone toting an illegal gun, if that person is arrested, she said. Tips remain anonymous.
Seed money for the program totaling $45,000 has been allocated by the Tampa Police Department, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the city of Tampa.
St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Gainesville and Miami have implemented similar bounty programs, Haber said, with certain levels of success. But when funding for those programs ran out, the program went a way, she said, “and gun violence again spiked.
“Here, we have found a sustainable source of funding,” Haber said.
Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober said he will assess a $40 fee to every defendant charged with a third-degree felony who enters a pretrial intervention program and that fee will go directly into the gun-bounty program.
Anonymous tips that come in about illegal firearms aren’t enough for police go nab someone, Ober said. Rather, the tip sparks an investigation, in which the information is corroborated before anyone is approached and arrested, he said.
“But the tip is a good starting point,” Ober said.
Felix Vega, an attorney with the prosecutor’s office, said that last year his office put 1,500 defendants into the pretrial intervention program. If that number stays the same this year, it will generate $60,000 for the gun-bounty program.
“That’s $60,000 of sustainable income,” Vega said. “It will go directly to Hillsborough County to get illegal guns off the street.”
He said no taxpayer money is going into the program, only money collected from criminal defendants.
Gun violence had spiked last year, claiming the lives of several teenagers in Tampa.
Tampa police investigated 820 offenses involving a firearm in 2015, including 24 homicides. Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies investigated 687 criminal offenses involving guns, including 18 homicides.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said last year’s statistics were troubling, particularly with the number of teenagers who were victims of gun violence. But the trend is not exclusive to Tampa, he said. “It’s an epidemic all across the country,” the mayor said. “I think everything we do here to make a difference is worth doing.”
In 2015, prosecutors in Hillsborough County charged 688 individuals with firearms offenses that fall into the 10-20-life guidelines, meaning a firearm was used in the course of a felony. Another 280 defendants were prosecuted on charges relating to the theft of firearms.
This past weekend, seven people were shot inside a Tampa strip club in a mass shooting. Two have died of their wounds and the shooter remained at large Tuesday.
“Every community in the city deserves to be safe,” said Tampa police Chief Eric Ward, “and this is the start of the process.”
“This gun bounty program is significant for us,” said sheriff’s Col. Donna Lusczynski. “Seventy percent of our homicides were gun related.”
Ober said those statistics are disturbing.
“We need to be able to walk in our communities,” he said, “and not fear death or bodily injury.”