Officials in Tuscaloosa fear 2018 could be one of the most violent years in recent memory judging from an increase in gun crimes during the first three months.

Gun-related crimes within the city limits of Tuscaloosa nearly doubled during the first three months of this year compared to last.

The Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit investigated 39 incidents involving guns during January, February and March, up from 20 during the first three months of 2017.

The number of incidents the unit investigated within the city of Tuscaloosa during the first quarter has almost doubled since last year, from 58 in 2017 to 113 in 2018. Those numbers include all cases, including shootings, stabbings, assaults, sexual assaults and death investigations including suicides and overdoses.

The biggest increase so far is in the number of shootings.

“What is of concern is almost an almost 300 percent increase in attempted murder cases,” said TPD Capt. Kip Hart, assistant commander of the Violent Crimes Unit. “All eight we’ve had during the first quarter of the year have involved firearms. Granted, eight may not seem like a lot, but the flip side of that is that if the bullet had traveled in a different direction, we could be looking at eight more murders.”

The number of felony assaults involving guns has doubled, from four during the first quarter of 2017 to eight this year. The number of shootings into occupied homes and vehicles has increased 80 percent, from 10 to 18.

“Even though these are not murders, they had the potential to become one,” Hart said. “All it takes if for the path of a bullet to change just a little bit.”

The increase in gun violence seems to be reversing a trend of decreasing crime in the city since a spike in 2015. Hart said looking at first quarter numbers is generally a good indicator of the rest of the year.

“Looking back to 2015, that was probably our busiest year I can remember in the 17 years I’ve been up here,” he said. “That said, the murder rate that year was in line with previous years, it was the overall number of violent firearm-related cases that was significant. And that’s currently a trend we’re seeing so far this year.”

Gun-related crimes Jan. 1 - March 31
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The rising crime rate has concerned more than just law enforcement. On March 30, Tuscaloosa City Councilwoman Sonya McKinstry assembled a group of more than 20 state, city, law enforcement, and community leaders and called for 100 days of nonviolence on the steps of City Hall. There haven't been any shootings since the initiative began.

“The people who we’re preaching to are not the people committing the crimes,” she said. “This is a message to wake up the community, to get them to stop saying they’re tired of what’s going on and work towards finding solutions.”

When responding to The Tuscaloosa News’ request for violent crimes numbers in the city, Hart divided gun-related crimes into five categories: murders, attempted murders, felony assaults, shooting into an occupied home or vehicle. The numbers don’t include incidents such as shooting into an unoccupied home or vehicle or robberies where a gun was shown but not used.

So far this year, two of the three murders within the city limits were shootings. All eight attempted murders and eight of the 19 felony assaults involved guns. There have been three accidental shootings -- two involving teenagers.

As part of the 100 Days of Nonviolence initiative, community leaders have asked people to take a pledge to refrain from violence and to be vigilant in attempts to prevent and report crime. McKinstry said the goal is to have at least 1,000 take the online pledge or turn in pledge cards that have been circulated.

She hopes people will volunteer to canvass neighborhoods across the city to spread the message, especially one of “if you see something, say something.”

“If we don’t start doing something, people are going to start getting used to the violence,” she said. “People will get used to going in before it gets dark, of being scared to sit on their front porch.

“We need people to not just take the pledge cards and toss them in their car or their dining room table. We need them to act upon it. We need everybody that says ‘we’re tired of seeing this crime’ to show they’ve taken he commitment and the pledge.”

The group is planning an event called “Sons Off Guns” that will involve mothers and their sons and other events over the remaining days.

Most of the violent incidents this year haven’t been as high-profile as some that occurred last year, when shootouts at places like a downtown parking deck and Snow Hinton Park alarmed the community. The year 2018 actually started off slow for law enforcement, the first few weeks of January were quiet until three shootings occurred within hours on the afternoon of Jan. 24.

On that day, a man was pulling out of Lenox Square apartments when someone shot into his car. An hour later, a man was shot in the parking lot of a car wash on 15th Street. Just more than an hour after that, someone was shot in the back at Creekwood Village Apartments.

Gun crimes in Tuscaloosa
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Shootings have been reported every few days since then. On March 4, a man was shot in the foot. The following day a man was shot at a birthday party about 30 minutes after a teenager across town accidentally injured himself firing a gun.

A week later, a man was shot during a fight over a woman Broadmoore Gardens apartments, a few days before another man was shot at a dice game a few blocks away.

The incident most felt by the community as a whole this year was the shooting death of Holt High School student Jalen Merriweather. Police say he was trying to protect his sister from her ex-boyfriend, who pistol-whipped her and fired a gun when Merriweather tried to intervene.

“Some of the gun crimes this year have been related, but nothing compared to what we’ve seen in the past where it’s been an ongoing gang war or two groups not getting along and retaliating towards one another,” Hart said.

In an effort to keep violent people out of the community, the Violent Crimes Unit has been filing charges against shooting suspects who have previous felony convictions and can’t legally carry guns. Investigators have filed charges against six felons for possessing guns during the first three months of the year.

“Another thing we’re doing is working with the ATF to see if the federal courts can pick up some of these cases,” Hart said. Convictions in federal court usually means a defendant will serve a longer prison sentence. “We’re hoping that between the court systems, we may see an increase in the time of punishment.”

Tuscaloosa County District Attorney Hays Webb last year began an initiative he calls the “gun-present policy” that requires mandatory jail time for anyone who commits a crime while in possession of a firearm, even if it’s not a gun-related crime.

“We’re asking for jail time in every one of these cases,” he said. “The idea is to create a disincentive for bad guys to possess, to carry guns or have them period, and certainly when they’re committing other crimes.”

Webb said his office has also started offering longer sentences when making plea deal offers. They’re also asking judges to require defendants convicted of multiple crimes to serve consecutive rather than concurrent sentences, he said.

“This has the effect of stacking their time to serve,” he said. “We’re trying to be thoughtful about what tools we do have to maximize the time bad guys are off the street and a threat to our community.”

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Reach Stephanie Taylor at stephanie.taylor@tuscaloosanews.com or 205-722-0210.