Citing growing gun violence concerns, HCSO launches new team

Dozens of shootings are currently under investigation across Hillsborough County, including a boy and a man who were killed after a shooting and a crash early last week along Tribune Drive in Riverview. Two women were also hurt in the incident.  

Hillsborough County Sheriff's office said in a news release that the increase in gun-related violence, both locally and nationally, is the reason Sheriff Chad Chronister has launched a specialized team: the Gunfire Response Investigations Team, or GRIT, as it will be known, will focus on reducing street violence and non-fatal shootings.

"The executive staff chief deputy and myself are always wondering, ‘What can we do?’" Chronister said. "We knew that we had to do more. [We] saw homicides significantly increasing, [and we were] looking to see where we could mitigate those numbers."

At the state level, violent crimes were up nearly 2.5% from 2019 to 2020, marking the first time Florida has seen a year-over-year increase since 2015. Hillsborough County's 12 law enforcement agencies - including Tampa Police - reported seeing the highest incidence of violent crimes in the region, by far.

According to the sheriff, since the formation of GRIT, deputies and detectives have already solved two non-deadly shootings in less than 24 hours. But Chronister added the reason behind the rise in shootings during the last two years is a mystery.

"I don’t know if it has something to do with the pandemic and we forgot how to socialize with other individuals or conflict resolution. I don’t know if we’ve just become a more violent society. I don’t know what it is," he said. "I know that I’m committed to doing everything within our power to make sure that we are reducing gun violence and violent crimes."

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The sheriff said the homicide unit will still investigate deadly shootings.

He also said gun owners need to remember to store their firearms in a safe location, not an unlocked vehicle; in 2020, nearly 300 guns were stolen from vehicles in Hillsborough County. So far this year, there have 170 guns stolen.

Meanwhile in Tampa, Chief of Police Brian Dugan told reporters in late June, "When we talk about these numbers, we have to remember those are names. Those are people. Those are faces and that’s why they’re here. These are not just statistics. They’re actual people and we have to stop this stuff. It’s gotten out of control."

Chief Dugan went on to stress that crime witnesses can anonymously report illegally-owned weapons.

"You don’t even need to get involved. You can just tell us where the gun is. That’s what we’re after. This is not about gun control," he said. "This is not about taking people's guns away. It’s about the guns that are being used in crime."

The number of murders in Hillsborough was up from 66 in 2019 to 81 in 2020. The number of aggravated assault cases now sits over 3,200, growing by more than 620 from the year before.

Sheriff Chronister has pointed out that observers do need to factor in the county's explosive growth.

According to figures released by the state in June, Hillsborough County's population has grown by nearly 34,000 to more than 1.4 million people.