Duluth has already seen more shootings and gunfire incidents this year than in all of 2019, Police Chief Mike Tusken confirmed Thursday.
In just over eight months, police have investigated 24 such incidents — surpassing the 22 reported in the last calendar year — the chief said at a news conference called in response to a recent spate of gun violence in the city.
"We come from a country that has 330-340 million people, and we've got over 400 million guns," Tusken said. "At any given time, there are thousands of them that have been stolen and are in the hands of people who shouldn't have them, who are convicted felons, who have been violent felons, and who are remorseless in how they operate, in that they will use guns to resolve conflict."
Tusken said police have investigated five shootings or shots-fired calls in July, eight in August and one already in September. Only a handful of incidents have resulted in injuries, and no homicides have been reported in the city so far in 2020.
Police have made three arrests related to the incidents and recovered three firearms — two of which were stolen — according to Tusken.
He said the department's Violent Crimes Unit continues to conduct interviews, analyze physical evidence and canvass neighborhoods where incidents have occurred. But, in many cases, officers are not finding cooperative victims or witnesses.
"Our investigations and our evidence over periods of time historically have shown that there are often other illegal activities going on," Tusken said. "For me to make a blanket statement that they all are, that would be irresponsible. But I would say that is, of course, one of the trends and patterns that we look at."
Tusken did say there is evidence that at least some of the recent incidents are connected and retaliatory, noting that investigators do not believe any to be random.
For instance, a 32-year-old was arrested in connection with a shots-fired incident on the 2100 block of West Third Street on Aug. 12. But a second-degree assault charge was declined and he was released "due to inconsistent and changing witness statements," according to police reports.
The same man, Deontate Leatherberry, was then arrested again Aug. 27 after a police officer reportedly witnessed gunfire from two vehicles in an alley off Second Avenue East in downtown Duluth. Leatherberry was charged with obstructing and fleeing on foot.
While Tusken described the recent incidents as "targeted," he acknowledged that gunfire places innocent bystanders in danger.
"Any time we see gunshots ring out in our neighborhoods, that is cause for concern," the chief said. "Without question, it shakes us to our core. We expect that we will have a neighborhood where we are safe, where our kids are safe.
"One of the concerns I have is that, while they are people who are known to each other who are choosing to use firearms to resolve conflict, they also are shooting weapons, multiple times, into neighborhoods where missed shots and errant shots can hurt other people."
Tusken said the department relies on crime analysts to create "hotspot maps" and other reports to track areas and times where violence is most likely to occur. He said that can help police deploy resources.
"That helps us to have a much better response than the days of random policing," Tusken said. "Now we do much more directed activity in the areas we consider to be hotspots."
Mayor Emily Larson said she's confident that investigators are "working tirelessly to get to the bottom of everything that's happening" and "bring conclusion to as many cases as we possibly can."
"Whenever we have shootings in our community, they are unfortunate, they are scary, and these are incidents that often have a ripple effect," she said.
"Whether you live in the neighborhood where it happened, whether it's a place that you go to often, whether it's a place you haven't yet been — we can all relate and understand how important it is to feel safe in our neighborhood, in our home, where we shop, where we work, where we play."