YBOR CITY — Maybe the pandemic is to blame for a decline in conflict resolution skills. Or maybe society has become more violent. It could be the rising population in Hillsborough County. Maybe an increase in gun ownership.
Sheriff Chad Chronister admits no one really knows why 2021 has seen a troubling increase in the number of shootings, in Hillsborough County and across the nation.
The Sheriff’s Office investigated 72 non-fatal shootings in 2020 compared to 44 in 2019. And as of July 1, six months into the year, the number was 34 — putting Hillsborough on pace for 68 this year in the unincorporated areas of the county that the sheriff patrols.
Nationwide, the number of shootings that have killed or injured people have surpassed last year’s record-breaking pace six months into the year, according to data collected by the national Gun Violence Archives. 2020 saw more gun deaths than any year in the past two decades.
On Monday, Chronister said he’s putting a new focus on non-fatal shootings with the creation of a Gunfire Response Investigations Team or GRIT.
Homicide investigators will continue to handle fatal shootings. The new unit’s four deputies, four detectives and a supervisor will focus on investigating, identifying and apprehending those involved in the others.
“This is unique, as typically detective squads are responsible for investigating various types of crimes and this squad will solely focus on shootings,” Chronister said. “This will greatly increase our probability of these crimes being solved.”
The GRIT squad, launched June 28, works closely with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to quickly link weapons used in non-fatal shootings to those involved in other crimes and drug-related violence. Among the federal agency’s resources is the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network.
The unit also hopes to build relationships within communities plagued by gun violence, working with surviving victims to identify and prosecute those responsible.
The unit needed only four hours to identify the shooter and obtain an arrest warrant after a man and woman were shot during an argument July 1 at a Mobil gas station on North Florida Avenue, Chronister said. Both victims survived their injuries and worked with detectives and the store’s owner to quickly identify a suspect from a surveillance video.
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On its first day in operation, the GRIT unit managed to put a shooter behind bars within 24 hours, Chronister said. Called to investigate a drive-by shooting during a drug deal in the Clair-Mel area, the unit worked with the victim to identify and arrest Carlos Diaz, 39, accused of firing shots at a house as he drove away from a drug deal gone bad. The victim was hit in the neck and back.
Ultimately, though, it will take more than the GRIT unit to reduce shootings in Hillsborough County, Chronister said. He called on gun owners Monday to take care in securing their weapons — storing them safely in firearms stores, for example, and never leaving them in an unlocked vehicle.
During the first six months of 2021, 170 guns have been stolen from cars in Hillsborough County, he said.
“These are crimes of opportunity that have significant consequences, and these criminals are using your firearms to commit violent crimes in our community,” Chronister said. “Please, let’s make it hard on thieves. Simply lock your car.”
He also pleaded for people with mental health challenges and those who know them to seek help through the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay at 211 as an alternative to turning toward guns. And he pointed to the Crime Stoppers at 800-873-TIPS (8477) as a place to report potential gun crimes.
Still, it’s hard to pinpoint what drives the increase in gun crime, Chronister said.
Even as the population has continued to increase in Hillsborough County, he said, the overall crime rate has declined in the past three years — by 10.2 percent, 10.8 percent and 19 percent.
“The red flags and alarm bells start going off that we needed to be doing more,” Chronister said. “We’re going to curb gun violence and we’re going to save lives.”