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Law Enforcement's Limits To Stopping Shooters


And here's a reality of law enforcement - sometimes the police know someone is dangerous but there's not much they can do about it. That's what happened in Northern California last week. Where a man went on a shooting rampage. The gunman had been arrested once before, and a court said he wasn't supposed to have any guns. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: After the shootings last week, the Tehama County district attorney, Gregg Cohen, released a video partially to address the question of why the shooter was out on bail. Simply put, he had a right to be.


GREGG COHEN: No matter how frustrating it is for our office, whether it's this case or many others, defendants and their victims are often dissatisfied with the fact that people are admitted to bail.

KASTE: That frustration is widely felt. Eric Siddall is vice president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys in Los Angeles.

ERIC SIDDALL: The current bail system does not protect people who are being threatened by people who have the means to bail out.

KASTE: He says being able to afford bail should not be what determines whether someone can get out of jail before trial.

SIDDALL: I mean, ideally, I think what you would do is you would change the state constitution to something that is a pure risk-assessment model and would go away from the bail system.

KASTE: But if he got rid of bail, that might mean keeping more people in pretrial detention for months or even years just because a court thinks they're dangerous. That could be a tough sell legally and politically. So it raises the other question, what about the guns?

DAN SATTERBERG: There's no guarantee that they're not hiding weapons or that they're not able to go out and get guns. I mean, guns have always been easy to get, particularly out here in the West.

KASTE: That's Dan Satterberg, the King County prosecuting attorney in Seattle. When people are required to give up guns because they're out on bail or subject to a court order, they're often trusted to comply. That's what happened in California. The shooter gave up one gun, but he kept his others secret. Satterberg wants law enforcement to do more to make sure that people are complying, but it is a delicate task.

SATTERBERG: Trying to give effect to a judicial order to take guns out of someone's home, you know, that's new territory for us. And so - because knocking on someone's doors and saying we're coming for your guns, that's the worst way to do this.

KASTE: So the county's putting together a specialized team of law enforcement personnel from various agencies that will do this kind of work full-time. They'll have expertise in how to get someone to give up all his guns. When there's no search warrant, that's not easy.

DOROTHY KIM: Because legally, we can't go into somebody's house and check.

KASTE: Seattle Police Sergeant Dorothy Kim will be part of this gun removal team. She already has experience getting guns away from people under domestic protective orders. She says it's often a matter of convincing people to cooperate.

KIM: What my detectives do right now, they'll just call them and say, hey, we know you have a gun. I can, you know, come get it from you. But again, even in those cases - right? - they turn in one gun. What's to prevent them from not having five other guns?

KASTE: This is a major hurdle for her team, the fact that they often have no data about how many guns someone has. And that strikes Andrew Ferguson as especially ironic. A law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, he's written about how much law enforcement now relies on data analysis - except when it comes to guns.

ANDREW FERGUSON: If you step back and think about it, the one place where we have chosen not to use the technologies is with gun violence, right? We've chosen not to track the very items we know are causing the killings. It's a political choice.

KASTE: It is a political choice. Gun rights groups say the limits on firearms tracking is a matter of personal liberty, even if it means making law enforcement work harder to find and take the guns of people that the courts have recognized as threats. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMAR RODRIGUEZ-LOPEZ'S "COMA PONY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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