Sacramento Police have taken a page from 2017 to combat gun violence now, with this simple logic: Get guns off the streets, gun crimes will drop.
Five years ago, an undercover investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tracked a trafficking pipeline flooding Sacramento streets with firearms and a treasure trove of guns.
An undercover operation was the beginning of what would become a federal and local joint investigation aimed at quelling an ongoing feud between two street gangs in Sacramento.
Investigators wanted to stop further bloodshed.
So they went after the guns. On what was called “Takedown Day,” they seized the weapons.
Fast forward to now. Sacramento police said this seizure has provided them the 2022 blueprint for how they’re responding to escalating gun violence now, targeting those responsible and taking as many illegal guns off the street as they can.
The department has laid out a strategy to combat the rising number of shootings, and gun seizures are part of it.
After the deadly downtown shooting on April 3, police subsequently arrested three. They were charged with murder.
But the twin of the police efforts that followed was to continue to find ways to eliminate the illegal weapons – summarized by Sgt. Zach Eaton, who was a Sacramento police gang enforcement detective in 2017, as “following up on gang shootings, disrupting an illegal pipeline... feeding illegal guns.”
After the downtown Sacramento shootout
Eaton started investigating gang-related criminal cases in 2013 and has witnessed the evolving nature of law enforcement and prevention.
“As we move forward as a department,” Eaton said, “we’re really focusing on using that information to guide our actions instead of casting that wide net.”
Police followed this approach after the April shooting on 10th and K streets in downtown Sacramento. The gang-related shootouts killed six people and wounded 12 others. The streets were littered with shell casings.
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Officers have continued to find and confiscate illegal guns in the months following the deadly shooting. This is part of Sacramento Police Chief Kathy Lester’s plan.
Lester, who became Sacramento’s new police chief in January, said she wants to take measures to prevent the shootings.
Lester also wants to implement “focused deterrence” to change the long-term behavior of high-risk offenders through a combination of community interventions, providing alternatives to violence and enforcement. The strategy involves law enforcement, social services and community efforts.
“Focus deterrence is really a proactive model where, with the help of our community partners, we can do more than just enforce,” Lester said in June. “The police department can be active partners in engagement, prevention and interruption.”
On the prevention front, on a weekend in late April, officers made multiple “proactive” traffic stops and found six firearms and arrested six people on weapons violations.
Police have made larger gun seizures, too.
Gang enforcement officers and a SWAT team on May 3 served a search warrant at a Las Palmas Avenue home in North Sacramento. Police found at the home 16 guns, including two AR-15-style rifles and nine privately manufactured guns, commonly known as ghost guns.
On June 14, Lester unveiled her strategy to combat the rising trend of gun violence. Through analyzing the crime data and gathering intelligence, she said, the department has identified “hot spots” where most violent crime occurs in about seven square-miles of the city.
The perils and rise of ghost guns
Officers in 2020 seized about 1,200 illegal guns in Sacramento. Last year, police pulled 1,600 guns off the streets. In both those years, the city’s number of homicides also had increased.
In a report in June to the City Council, Lester said her officers have confiscated a growing number of ghost guns over the past three years: 73 in 2019; 196 in 2020 and 410 last year. Officers have seized 110 ghost guns through mid-June this year.
The untraceable guns without serial numbers are built from purchased kits and don’t require registration with federal authorities until they’ve been put together. And they’re easy to get.
“Anyone can purchase these kits and we don’t need a background check, because they are not considered guns until they’re actually assembled,” Lester told the City Council in June. “Last year, (ghost guns) represented about a quarter of (the total guns) our department seized.”
Eaton remembered he first learned about ghost guns during that 2017 gun trafficking investigation. In May this year, some lower portions of ghost gun kits turned in at a gun buyback event by the Police Department.
“Right at the very end of 2017, we started purchasing firearms (in undercover operations) to get them off the streets and building criminal cases against the individuals who were selling these firearms,” Eaton said.
Gun seizures on ‘Takedown Day,’ 2017
The 2017 investigation proved effective in deterring gang violence and finding traffickers illegally selling guns on the street, Eaton said. The local and federal investigations started separately and ran parallel to each other before they combined for a common goal.
“So we started off on two fronts in that investigation to identify and solve cases of gang members involved in shootings,” Eaton said, “and then also approach it from cutting off gun supplies to not allow these shootings to continue, or at least try to suppress some of the shootings that were occurring.”
The local investigation was triggered by an August 2017 drive-by shooting during an afternoon rap video shoot at Meadowview Park. Ernie Jessey Cadena, 49, was killed in the shooting; four others were wounded.
Community activists and police have said the drive-by shooting was the result of an online feud between Sacramento rappers and the gangs that follow them. The street gangs feud dated back to 2015 and had resulted in many shootings, murders and attempted murders, according to police.
Eaton said one of the rappers in the feud was at the park that day shooting his video. In February 2018, three men were arrested in connection with the shooting.
The enforcement effort after the Meadowview Park shooting forced Sacramento cops to step back, look at the gun violence and take a more “holistic” approach instead of just focusing on the people firing the guns, Eaton said.
He said Sacramento police and ATF agents worked together on the parallel investigations.
That brought them to Kenneth Bryant.
Bryant arrived at a shopping center parking lot on the southeast corner of Mack Road and Franklin Boulevard in south Sacramento to sell a .45 caliber handgun.
Bryant didn’t know the person buying the gun was one of two confidential informants working on behalf of the ATF. The informant gave Bryant $850 for the Taurus PT145 handgun and asked him if he could get more guns.
“I’m like the gun man out here,” Bryant told the informant, according to an ATF affidavit in support of an arrest warrant. “...If I don’t got it...then my folks got it. So, just call my phone and I’ll hit you up as soon as they come to me,”
The ATF focused on Bryant and his co-conspirators.
Bryant met with an undercover ATF agent and confidential informants on 10 occasions from September through December 2017. Bryant was selling pistols modified to function as fully automatic machine guns, according to the ATF affidavit filed Feb. 21, 2018, in U.S. District Court Eastern District of California.
Federal prosecutors said Bryant, who was a felon at the time and not licensed to sell guns, sold 30 guns to the agent and the confidential source.
The illegal gun sales included an AR-15-type rifle, a pistol and various semi-automatic handguns, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento. At least two of the sold guns did not have a serial number or other identifying markings.
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office and the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office also participated in the investigation. Federal and local investigators shared information as they worked toward “Takedown Day” on Dec. 14, 2017.
Eaton said investigators served more than 30 search warrants simultaneously; some in Southern California but most were in the Sacramento area. The result: 29 felony arrests and the seizure of 211 firearms.
Many of the firearms confiscated that day were illegally altered or prohibited to possess in California, such as assault weapons and fully automatic machine guns.
Bryant was convicted and sentenced in May 2020 to more than four years in federal prison.
Prevalence of Illegal firearms
Officers on patrol and those conducting shooting investigations now are confiscating illegal guns almost on a nightly basis. They find them stashed in a variety of places, especially in vehicles, to conceal the firearms from law enforcement.
Eaton said officers find guns hidden below gear shifts, inside the center console of the vehicle.
“We’re talking about if you go to the back of your center console and you pull the back of the center console off, we’re seeing guns tucked in those spots,” Eaton said. “We’re seeing them tucked under the steering wheel where you have to manipulate the dash just to get in to pull these guns out.”
Eaton said the consoles may give access to the weapon while driving, but officers also find the car offers other places to hide firearms – they can be stowed under the hood, as well tucked into vents, and around the engine.
The officers who find the stashed guns learn where to look through experience on patrol or in investigations.
“It’s an art,” Sacramento Police Officer Chad Lewis said about learning where to look for hidden guns. “You have guys who are dedicated to this stuff.”
And guns are stashed in homes, known on the street as a “trap house.” Eaton said officers find guns hidden in cereal boxes, rolled in blankets in a closet, children’s toy boxes or in a child’s room.
A ‘treasure chest’ of weapons
Lewis was part of a team of officers tasked with getting guns away from gang members who could be seeking retaliation after 19-year-old Syncere Dixon was shot and killed in September 2019 in Del Paso Heights.
This part of the department’s usual response to gang-related killings.
The officers searched social media to identify a “trap house,” Lewis said. Images on social media showed guns inside the house. With investigative work, officers found the home.
The officers obtained a search warrant for the house and entered with the help of a SWAT team, Lewis said. Police found an AR-style rifle in a baby’s crib and a pistol on the floor.
Lewis said they knew more guns were in the house.
“We searched the whole house, and we were kind of dumbstruck,” Lewis said. “Like two guns, that’s not enough. And finally we see a little bit of residual drywall on the ground. And I look, and there’s a little tiny hole in the wall that had been kind of bent in the drywall. We bend it forward, and I put a flashlight on it. And all of those handguns were all stuffed in a hole in the drywall in the house.”
Lewis said they found six handguns in the drywall “that we were pulling out like it was a treasure chest.”
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