NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City will establish special courts for gun possession cases and create a police unit dedicated to gun-related investigations as part of an effort to cut gun crime, officials said on Tuesday.
Project Fast Track, unveiled at a City Hall press conference, is an attempt to ensure gun cases are prosecuted quickly and efficiently at all levels of the criminal justice system.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, joined by state and federal law enforcement chiefs, court officials and anti-crime advocates, made the announcement just a week after President Barack Obama said he would take several executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence nationwide.
Under New York’s initiative, people charged with illegally possessing firearms in Brooklyn, which has the highest rate of such cases among the city’s five boroughs, would be processed through two “gun courts” starting this week.
The police department’s new Gun Violence Suppression Division, with nearly 200 assigned detectives, will handle gun-related investigations in the city of about 8.5 million, the largest in the United States.
The unit’s mandate includes gang cases and shootings, and a database to track illegal gun sales. De Blasio vowed that police would work closely with federal agencies to enhance investigations into interstate gun trafficking.
New York State has some of the country’s toughest gun laws, but police have struggled to stem the so-called “Iron Pipeline,” in which illegal firearms flow in from Southern states with looser restrictions.
De Blasio emphasized that a small number of people, numbering in the thousands, are responsible for the vast majority of gun violence. He said the new initiative would help ensure “the most dangerous individuals in this city are behind bars.”
Two assigned state judges will oversee the “gun courts” to try and streamline the adjudication of cases. Court officials said cases would be resolved within six months of arrest, far faster than typical prosecutions.
If successful, similar courts could be set up throughout the city, including Manhattan, officials said.
The gun courts recall a similar effort in 2003, when a court was established dedicated to gun cases in Brooklyn.
While the court had initial successes, it eventually became overloaded with a backlog of cases, partly because of a new law increasing the minimum prison sentence for gun possession, making plea deals less likely. Court officials suspended the court in 2009.
Officials said the new courts would have greater resources, including retired judges to oversee pretrial hearings.
Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Grant McCool