YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Like all department heads, outgoing Youngstown police Chief Robin Lees clips newspaper articles from time to time and keeps them in a desk drawer.
They could be about anything, from a mention of one of his officers for a good deed or a daring arrest or quotes from a city council budget meeting.
But the one clip at the top of them all is close to a subject that touches a sore spot for the chief, who is leaving his post on Friday. It is a story about two men who have multiple convictions for having weapons under disability — the legal term for not being allowed to have a gun because of a prior felony conviction — who both received probation.
In fact, one of the most common complaints among city police officers, from the newest rookie to the crustiest detective, is that people who are convicted of weapons under disability offenses receive probation in too many cases. Most of them seem to think that more people receive probation for those convicted of the charge than those who are sent to prison.
To find out if that is true, WKBN decided to check Youngstown police, municipal court and Mahoning County Common Pleas Court records to see how the sentences played out.
Of the cases WKBN examined, less than half have been sentenced to prison in local courts.
Out of 264 cases of weapons under disability bound over from municipal court to common pleas court since 2011, 123 defendants were sentenced to prison, 76 received probation, and 49 cases were dismissed, most of them because the defendants were instead charged in federal court, where the sentences are harsher and parole is also harder to get.
There are also five cases pending from 2019 and 11 pending from 2020. The cases are up to date through the end of September.
Of those sentenced to probation, 28 violated their probation, according to court records.
In Ohio, weapons under disability is a third-degree felony punishable by a maximum sentence of three years in prison. But defendants are also eligible for probation, no matter how many times they have been convicted of the crime.
The “disability” is a prior criminal conviction, such as a violent crime, drug crime or other felony offense, that prohibits a person from legally owning or even being around a gun.
For purposes of the study, WKBN did not check records of people charged and/or convicted of manslaughter, murder or aggravated murder, which are all first-degree felonies, or robbery or aggravated robbery, which are second-degree felonies. WKBN only reviewed weapons under disability charges or other crimes in which a person who was not allowed to have a gun was charged with having one.
It is important to note that in almost every single case, plea deals are made between the prosecution and defense attorneys and then are upheld by a judge. Although judges are not legally bound by a plea agreement and they occasionally sentence above or below the sentence recommended by the attorneys, they mostly abide by the terms of the agreement for two reasons; they believe the lawyers know the case more intimately and thus are in a better position to know what is a just resolution, and also if judges balked at plea agreements routinely, it may discourage people from pleading guilty and taking responsibility.
That, in turn, could clog up the court system. People routinely say they are against plea bargains, but there are so many criminal cases that if they all went to trial without a plea resolution, court dockets would be clogged for years.
Lees is one of several big city police chiefs in Ohio who backed a proposed bill in the legislature that would create sentences greater than three years in prison and also do away with the option of probation.
Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains also said he supports the bill. He said if probation wasn’t an option for the offense, it might lead some people to stay away from guns because they would know if they get caught, they would most likely wind up in prison.
Gains called the figures on how many people were sent to prison or placed on probation “interesting.” He did say that it is his policy that firearms specifications attached to crimes, such as aggravated robbery or any kind of murder or manslaughter case, are never to be dropped when discussing pleas. Those specifications give a defendant extra prison time if a gun is used in the commission of a crime, and those sentences have to be served first before the sentence on the underlying charge begins. They also do not count toward any credit for early release.
“If they use a weapon, we do not dismiss the gun specs,” Gains said.
The specifications Lees was looking for were not approved by the legislature in 2020.
According to the “Ohio Capital Journal,” the bill never received a hearing in committee and would needed significant revisions before a hearing could be held.
Besides the proposals for toughening weapons under disability laws, the bill also called for increasing penalties for someone who gives a gun to a minor or knowingly gives a gun to someone who is not allowed to have one; begin a voluntary background check for private gun sales; and provide more information for background checks for weapons purchases.
The journal reported that one gun rights group, the Buckeye Firearms Association, opposes the bill and called the provision for tougher penalties for people who are convicted of repeat gun offenses “grossly inappropriate.”
One of the things police like about having a defendant charged federally for the same crime — which is termed “felon in possession of a firearm or ammunition” — is that there is no probation in the federal system for that offense. Anyone convicted of that crime in federal court must go to prison.
Lees said the crime deserves stiffer penalties because the defendant has already been convicted of a crime severe enough to allow the state to strip them of a constitutional right.
Also, people who carry guns even after they are not allowed to have them are more disposed to committing violent crimes again, including murder, Lees contends. He credited the city’s 2019 reduction in the homicide rate from 28 in both 2017 and 2018 to 20 in 2019 to combined city, state and federal patrols that targeted repeat gun offenders.
The effort, dubbed “Operation Steel Penguin,” resulted in 47 of the 91 charges for weapons under disability filed in municipal court in 2019.
Policing has changed because of the social distancing guidelines imposed on the department because of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning officers are not as proactive on patrol and are conducting fewer traffic stops, where guns are typically found. The pandemic has also curtailed search warrants by the vice squad, who also find a lot of weapons, and the state and federal agencies who usually take part in the special patrols to look for weapons are not taking part this year because of the pandemic.
But while some aspects of policing have changed because of the pandemic, there is still a job to do when answering gunfire calls and officers still go. Patrolman Carlos Eggleston Jr., the son of a city police officer who works a midnight shift on the South Side, handled several gunfire calls in 2020 an also had a hand in several gun arrests.
Eggleston said whenever a gunfire of gunshot sensor call goes out over the radio, at least two officers answer the call. On his way there, Eggleston said he will look for cars that might be going very fast in the opposite direction, like they are fleeing.
When a sensor picks up 20 or more rounds, often one of the north side cars is sent to St. Elizabeth Health Center in case a person shows up there with a gunshot wound, which happens often.
“The ShotSpotter [gunshot sensors] goes off a lot,” Eggleston said.
He said he has seen a difference, however, in the amount of ShotSpotter calls since the extra patrols have started. He said there have been fewer, although he noted that in the warm weather months, gunfire is a regular occurrence.
“In the summer, it seems like everyone is going outside letting off rounds or driving in a car letting rounds off,” Eggleston said.
Eggleston and his partner, Amir Khan, have made several gun arrests this year after they have pulled a car over for a traffic violation. Eggleson said the key to is be alert and watch out for your partner because he is watching out for you. The two work as a two-man car if there are enough officers working on the shift.
“I’m always on my toes, always looking around, making sure nothing is within reach,” Eggleston said. One myth is that women do not have guns. That, Eggleston said, is not true.
“We get a lot of guns off females,” Eggleston said.
Officers on the afternoon turn also answer a lot of gunfire calls. Luis Villaplana, Greg Tackett and Christopher Weibel, said when answering a gunfire sensor call, they are on the alert for any victims or evidence when they arrive.
The three also said that backup is important on any traffic stop, because no traffic stop is routine.
Lees makes the link between increased gun seizure and charges for gun offenders and less crime, but it is unclear if there is a correlation. In Chicago, for example, police seized more than 10,000 guns and arrested over 6,000 people on firearms related offenses in 2020.
However, Chicago saw 774 homicides in 2020, an increase from 2019, where they recorded 506 homicides. For years, law enforcement officials in Chicago have bemoaned the fact that sentences for gun crimes are far too lenient or sometimes non-existent, leaving those people on the street and for the chance to use a gun again to injure or kill someone.
Philadelphia saw 499 homicides in 2020, an increase from the 356 recorded in 2019. Police Chief Danielle Outlaw told NBC Philadelphia.com Oct. 7 that both victims and suspects in their homicides are often repeat weapons offenders.
Part of the problem is also that people who commit gun crimes not only are more like to reoffend than those who commit non-gun crimes, but they also reoffend at a higher rate, according to a study done in 2019 by the United States Sentencing Commission, part of the federal court system, examining data from 2015 to 2019.
The study said that 68.1 percent of firearm offenders sentenced in the federal system are rearrested for new crimes within eight years, compared to 46.3 percent of offenders who were rearrested in the same period of time.
The study also found that firearm offenders are rearrested for serious crimes more often that other offenders.
The study found that the average age of firearm offenders is 34 and prison time is almost a guarantee; 97.4 percent of firearm offenders convicted in federal court are sentenced to prison for an average sentence of 64 months for those sentenced for the charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The extra patrols, all on the South Side, seem to be working. After 19 people were wounded and three were killed in October, the city saw four people wounded in November, one of them fatally. In December, five people were wounded, one of them fatally.
In the second part of this series, WKBN will talk to a woman who was the victim of gun violence and look into why those found with illegal weapons say they have them.