National News

Shooting of Agent Shines Light on a Federal Fight Against Chicago Gun Crime

Posted May 10, 2018 4:02 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — At 3:18 a.m. last Friday, a federal agent undercover on a task force was quietly switching out a tracking device planted on a vehicle on a dark street on Chicago’s South Side.

It was a routine maneuver for the agent, who was less than a year out of the training academy of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He had been sent to Chicago as part of a Trump administration push to tackle the city’s gun crisis.

But with a burst of gunshots, that Friday morning turned catastrophic. The agent was shot in the head, then thrown into a car by a fellow agent and rushed to a hospital. “I’m coming in — just take me to the hospital,” the driving agent yelled over the police scanner. “Officer hit; we need escort to a hospital now!”

The shooting of the undercover agent, who is expected to fully recover, has drawn attention to the group he was assigned to, the Crime Gun Strike Force. Established by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June to combat gun trafficking and violence in Chicago, the task force is one of the most concrete examples of his efforts to fight gun violence. Twenty ATF agents were assigned to it.

Chicago, which has long struggled with trafficking and illegal guns, has served as a larger symbol of violent crime for President Donald Trump, who routinely mentions the city when speaking about gun violence. If effective, the task force could serve as a model as he seeks to fulfill his promises to tackle violent crime.

“The Chicago Gun Strike Force, sending 20 more permanent ATF agents and adding more federal prosecutors, has contributed significantly to the effort” of making Chicago safer, Sessions said in a statement. “If we support and affirm our police and proven enforcement policies, Chicago can recover.”

Sessions criticized the Chicago Police Department for a 2015 agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union that overhauled the department’s use of stop-and-frisk tactics, which involved stopping residents for what officers viewed as suspicious behavior. Sessions called that agreement “a huge mistake” and cited it as a reason for an increased federal presence in the city.

The impact of the strike force is difficult to capture in a city like Chicago, where local law enforcement initiatives and federal muscle have affected the fluctuating rates of homicides and shootings for decades. But the task force has contributed to a number of significant cases over the past year.

In September, the strike force was credited with arresting Klint Kelley, 27, who the bureau said had sold illegal guns to a confidential informant in Chicago. Kelley was suspected of trafficking firearms back and forth from Arkansas to Illinois, including to gang members in the neighborhood where the agent was shot. He pleaded guilty in March to charges of firearms trafficking.

The strike force was also part of a separate September indictment against nine people accused of being members of a Chicago street gang, the Four Corner Hustlers. The charges against them ranged from racketeering to murder.

“Everybody knows why it’s there and what we’re there doing,” Frank Kelsey, an ATF spokesman, said of the strike force. “We want to make sure that we give it our full attention.”

At the bureau, the task force is seen as an experimental evolution of its Crime Gun Intelligence Center, which puts gun tracing technology and databases in communities around the country. The task force added a team of gun-focused agents to that effort to make it operational and to work with local officers.

It echoes a similar ATF strategy employed in the Bronx, where bureau agents and New York Police Department officers work on a joint team focused on targeting armed robberies in some of New York’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

Three law enforcement officials said the wounded agent, who is not being named because he is undercover, was working on a significant case for the strike force. They declined to discuss details.

Federal prosecutors charged Ernesto Godinez, 28, on Tuesday with assaulting a federal officer in the shooting, which was described by multiple law enforcement officials and in court documents.

“He is not the shooter,” said Godinez’s lawyer, Lawrence Hyman. Godinez was scheduled to appear again in court next Thursday.

Some in Chicago have accused the bureau of a lack of transparency, which has done little to ease concerns of criminal justice advocates in the city, where the ATF has been accused of racial bias.

“No one knows what’s going on in those task forces,” said Tracy Siska, founder and director of the Chicago Justice Project, which tracks criminal justice issues in the city. In a court hearing in December, a panel of federal judges heard arguments that the ATF had for years run sting operations in Chicago that were racially biased. The ATF denied the accusations. A judge ruled in March that the bureau should end the stings but stopped short of accusing it of discrimination, instead calling its disproportionate targeting of minorities in its operations “troubling.”

The city’s homicide rates are down slightly compared with the same time last year, though it is difficult to directly attribute that to the presence of the strike force.

Kelsey declined to provide further details on the strike force’s operations or the agent. Godinez was identified through surveillance footage and ShotSpotter, a system that detects gunshots and was able to provide law enforcement with a general location of the gunman.