Profile No. 15

Consent to Search and Seize Firearms -- St. Louis, MO

Program Type or Federal Program Source:
Program to deter illegal gun possession.

Program Goal:
To reduce juvenile possession and carrying of guns.

Specific Groups Targeted by the Strategy:
Juveniles engaged in gun violence.

Geographical Area Targeted by the Strategy:
St. Louis, MO.

Evaluated by:
Department of Criminology
University of Missouri
St. Louis, MO 63103
Phone: 314­516­5031

Contact Information:
Sergeant Robert Heimberger
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department
1200 Clark Boulevard
St. Louis, MO 63103
Phone: 314­444­5681

Years of Operation:

Through the late 1980's and early 1990's, St. Louis experienced a greater increase in homicides and other violent crimes than most other U.S. cities of comparable demographics. Homicides increased dramatically (68 percent) from 1988 to 1989, rising from 130 murders to 219. The percentage of homicide suspects who were juveniles also increased from 4.9 percent in the early 1980's to 15.1 percent in the early 1990's. A profile of victims and suspects revealed that the vast majority of both offenders and victims were young black males and, in nearly all cases, homicides involved the use of a handgun.

Firearm Suppression Program (FSP)

The St. Louis Police Department implemented FSP in 1994 in an effort to reduce the level of gun violence in the community. The overall goal of this initiative was to develop a community-based, problem-solving approach that would encourage greater community input and assistance in addressing gun violence and that would involve community residents in a process of identifying and confiscating illegal guns. The specific strategy was to remove firearms from juveniles by obtaining parents' consent to search for and seize firearms from their children and others living with them.

FSP was initiated by the St. Louis Mobile Reserve Unit, a police squad that responds to pockets of crime and violence throughout the city. The search of a home by the FSP can be initiated by citizen requests for police service, reports from other police units, or by information gained from other investigations. Once the unit receives a report, two officers visit the residence in question, speak with an adult resident, and request permission to search the home for illegal weapons. An innovative feature of this program is the use of a "Consent to Search and Seize" form to secure legal access to the residence. Officers inform the adult resident (typically a mother) that the purpose of the program is to confiscate illegal firearms, particularly those belonging to juveniles, without seeking criminal prosecution. Residents are informed that they will not be charged with the illegal possession of a firearm if they sign the consent form. By agreeing not to file criminal charges, the police can focus their attention on getting guns out of the hands of juveniles and send a clear message that juvenile firearm possession is not tolerated by police or the community.

The program has been criticized as depriving citizens of the right to protect themselves against crime. Furthermore, some senior police officers have stated that they prefer to use legal search warrants as they allow them both to arrest juvenile suspects and other persons engaged in criminal activity and to seize the guns.

Despite this criticism, however, evaluation of the program indicated a favorable response by families of juveniles who had guns confiscated and by the broader community. According to anecdotal reports, one parent even wanted to presign consent forms so that the officers could return any time. Another parent wanted to give officers a key to her house so that they could come in while she was at work.

According to the officers of the Mobile Reserve Unit, the program's success depended on their scrupulous adherence to the promise not to arrest the consenting adult. Several officers reported that they were willing to ignore evidence of all but the most serious crimes in return for access to homes of juveniles with firearms. This reflected the officers' view that the community was better served by removing guns from juvenile hands than by using evidence discovered in the search as a basis for making an arrest.

Over the 3-year demonstration period from 1994 to 1997, a total of more than 1,300 guns were seized. FSP officers reported that they conducted approximately 260 searches per year, finding guns in about half the houses. An outcome evaluation of the program is being considered.

Cease Fire program

In 1997, FSP was incorporated into a broader law enforcement initiative called Cease Fire (modeled after Operation Ceasefire in Boston -- see profile 21), which is a coordinated effort across several law enforcement agencies to reduce youth violence. This program is being spearheaded by the U.S. Attorney's Offices in the Eastern District of Missouri and the Southern District of Illinois, but includes partners from the FBI; DEA; ATF; St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department; St. Louis City Sheriff's Department; St. Louis County Police Department; Missouri Highway Patrol; St. Louis County Prosecutor's Office; Illinois State Police; U.S. Marshals' Office; Jefferson County Sheriff's Office; Regional Anti-Violence Initiative; OJJDP SafeFutures program; St. Louis Family Court; Missouri Probation and Parole; St. Louis Public Schools; University of Missouri, St. Louis; and St. Louis City Neighborhood Stabilization Team.

Cease Fire's three-part strategy includes a crackdown on illicit gun trafficking through ATF's gun-tracing program; a swift response to acts of gang violence through intensive surveillance, youth outreach streetworkers, and social service interventions (a Ten-Point Coalition of religious leaders is taking a key role in gang intervention efforts -- see profile 46); and Operation Night Light which sends police and probation teams out together on nightly visits to the homes of youth on probation to ensure compliance with the terms of their probation.

Gang Outreach

One Cease Fire component, the Gang Outreach program, was launched in 1998 by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and targets youth from neighborhoods that have either a high level of gang violence or few social service resources. When a gang-involved youth is shot, police contact a team of counseling professionals from Central Baptist Family Services, who meet with the youth. The goal of this counseling is to prevent victims or their friends from retaliating and to encourage them to leave gangs. While the counselor is working with the victim, police make contact with the parent and, using the "consent to search and seize" protocols, obtain permission to search the youth's home for weapons and other contraband.

These initiatives have resulted in youth moving their weapons from their family homes to abandoned buildings in the neighborhood. In response, police initiated the Demolition Project. Under this program, when police identify high-profile houses that are linked to gang activity, they have the authority to secure them (board them up) or raze them. Police now find that 40 percent of the abandoned buildings they search contain firearms or other contraband.

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Promising Strategies to Reduce Gun Violence OJJDP Report