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Stopping Random Gunfire in Phoenix

By Sergeant Tommy Thompson, Phoenix, Arizona, Police Department

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aced with a growing epidemic of random celebration gunfire during holidays, the Phoenix Police Department in Phoenix, Arizona, said, “Enough is enough,” and began combating this problem with an unusual, if not unique, two-pronged approach. The approach, which consists of an educational phase and an enforcement phase, has cut random gunfire on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day by 64 percent over the last seven years.

In June 1999, 14-year-old Shannon Smith was talking on the telephone in the backyard of her central Phoenix home. A bullet that was fired into the air over a mile away struck her in the head, tragically ending her life. This incident galvanized the community to action. In a grassroots effort, Otis and Lory Smith, Shannon’s parents, went to work with then-city council member and current Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon to make a change. They united with law enforcement officials, prosecutors, politicians, and citizens to change the law. The National Rifle Association became involved and supported the change as well. The result was the creation of Arizona Revised Statute 13-3107, respectfully called “Shannon’s Law,” which made it a felony for anyone “who with criminal negligence discharges a firearm within or into the limits of any municipality”1 in Arizona.

Prior to the passage of this law in 2000, it was only a misdemeanor to carelessly discharge a firearm in a city or town. By designating such action a felony, police officers were given a valuable tool to make the community a safer place. However, even with the change in the law, the crisis of random gunfire continued to grow. The tool was there, but like any good tool, it was useless if it wasn’t used.

The Stop Random Gunfire Project

At a Violence Impact Project meeting in December 2003, the Phoenix Police Department named the reduction of random gunfire a top priority. New Year’s Eve was approaching quickly, and random gunfire would continue to be a problem if changes were not made soon. As the problem was being discussed, a veteran sergeant said, “I believe a lot of it comes from good people . . . who just don’t understand that it’s dangerous and illegal to shoot into the air. We have to do something now to stop the problem.” Those in the meeting agreed and the first New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day “Shannon’s Law Operation” was born.

On that first Shannon’s Law Operation in 2003, random gunfire—measured by “shots fired” calls received by the Phoenix Police Department Communications Bureau—decreased by 18 percent throughout the city from the previous year. In the heavily targeted Violence Impact Project area—an area of focus because of historically high incidents of violent crime—the decrease was more than 43 percent. The operation was deemed a success and has become an annual event.

For the past seven years, the Phoenix Police Department has conducted Shannon’s Law Operations each New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. As previously mentioned, the first year brought an 18 percent reduction in gunfire throughout the city between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., when the gunfire reaches its peak, followed by an 11 percent reduction the second year, and seven years, “shots fired” calls between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day have been reduced by 64 percent.2 More importantly, citizens have stated that they have observed a significant decrease in gunfire. Tenured officers who work at the department have noticed that decrease as well.

Key Phases: Education and Enforcement

The Shannon’s Law Operations have gone through an evolutionary process over the years. They are broken down into two phases: education and enforcement. Without question, the greatest impact has come from the educational phase, which deserves further examination. The success of this phase has come through community partnerships among neighborhood groups, faith-based groups, business groups, schools, community leaders, the media, and the Phoenix Police Department, which together educate the community.

Education: The educational phase is broken down into several parts. Working with the nonprofit organization Arizonans for Gun Safety, the Phoenix Police Department kicks off the first part of Shannon’s Law Operations’ educational phase in September. At that time, children in kindergarten through eighth grade are invited to participate in a “Stop Random Gunfire Poster/ Billboard Contest.” The children design a poster with a slogan aimed at stopping random gunfire. The contest lasts two months and the winning poster is transformed into a billboard that December. The winner wins a trip to Disneyland in Anaheim, California, paid for by community donations.

One significant requirement of the contest is entrants must have signed permission slips from their parents or guardians to enter. This means the message is carried directly into homes where the purpose of the contest can be discussed among family members—some of whom may have been previous violators. In 2009, more than 1,300 students from 19 different school districts in Phoenix participated. The posters are judged by members of the media and city leaders on the basis of which one best conveys the message “Stop Random Gunfire,” and which one will best lend itself to a billboard display in a high-traffic area. This objective allows a kindergarten student to have as much of a chance of winning as an older child. The contest consistently receives a great deal of media coverage, which further spreads the message.

The second part of the educational phase involves creating and distributing flyers and door hangers, printed in English on one side and Spanish on the other. The flyers are passed out during the weeks prior to New Year’s Eve to solicit support from members of the community and inform them that enforcement teams will be searching for violators. Neighborhood groups, community leaders, and police officers go from door to door, passing out the flyers and asking the community to spread the word. With the assistance of the local liquor distributors, thousands of signs have been placed in retail liquor establishments to educate the community. Additionally, the flyers are mailed out in neighborhood association newsletters, and schools send them home with students. As many as 50,000 flyers are distributed each year.

The third part of the educational phase involves the media. The English and Spanish media, both printed and electronic, have worked with the Phoenix Police Department to publicize upcoming events through interviews and articles. In addition, the media has traveled with enforcement teams on the nights of the operations to provide additional coverage of the events. Reports air live on New Year’s Eve to remind the community that officers are out on patrol to inform the community and arrest violators. The importance of media involvement cannot be overstated and has been absolutely crucial to the success of the operations.

The fourth part of the educational phase actually occurs on the night of the operation. Following an operational briefing, the enforcement teams—officers from the SWAT team, the Gang Enforcement Unit, the Weapons Enforcement Unit, the Neighborhood Enforcement Teams, and the Patrol Squads—visit assigned areas, locate large gatherings, and distribute flyers at those locations. The impact of “high-speed, low-drag” tactical officers in raid gear knocking on doors to remind people they will be out enforcing the law is amazing. Hundreds of such contacts are made each New Year’s Eve.

Enforcement: The educational phase transitions into the enforcement phase of the Shannon’s Law Operations on New Year’s Eve. As 12:00 midnight approaches and gunfire begins to occur, the enforcement teams transition their roles from educators to enforcers. They stop passing out flyers and begin to hunt for violators. The teams position themselves in their assigned zones where they can see violators shooting and move in to safely arrest them.

Prior to the Shannon’s Law Operations, 12:00 midnight on New Year’s Day was a time for officers in high-gunfire areas to find cover under a bridge or a garage until the gunfire subsided. Now these same officers understand that the only way enforcement action can be successful is if they move toward the sound of the gunfire rather than away from it. A change of philosophy was in order for many officers and supervisors, and for some this was no small task.

Safety is absolutely paramount in these operations, and it is dealt with every year in several ways. First, training is given prior to the operation through roll-call training tapes, as well as during the operational briefing, reminding officers of the difference between cover and concealment. In addition, proper contact and cover techniques are reviewed.

Second, officers are reminded that most violators are involved in celebratory gunfire, as opposed to other types of criminal activity. In addition, there is a high probability that the violators have been drinking. When an officer orders a person who is shooting into the air to lower or drop a weapon, there is a good chance the violator may inadvertently point a weapon in the direction of officers without intending to threaten them. In this type of an enforcement action, strict firearms discipline must be adhered to.

In the past seven years, there have been no officer-involved shootings in any of the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day operations, which involve hundreds of officers, because of the steps taken. This is due in part to the training reminders given to the officers, which are based on training they received earlier in their careers. Another key factor in this record of safety is the supervisors who are assigned to work specific zones with their teams. When the teams are approaching and communicating with violators, the supervisors are normally there with them.

During the first several years, the arrested violators were taken to the multiagency Command Post/Processing Center. At that point, the Processing Center was staffed with personnel to help process the arrested and the evidence. In addition, booking personnel were on hand to take custody of the arrested violaters when the processing is complete. This provided a one-stop shop for the officers who arrested violators. During the last several years, the Command Post remained staffed, but officers processed their arrested violators and the evidence at their respective precincts.

Lessons Learned

The Shannon’s Law Operations conducted by the Phoenix Police Department to stop random gunfire on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day rely on education and enforcement—with the emphasis placed on education. Educating the community is not a new concept for law enforcement officials. However, the extent to which it is used in these operations is unusual, if not unique. For many, this is a significant departure from traditional crime prevention and reduction techniques in which the emphasis is often placed on enforcement efforts. However, the change that the city of Phoenix has experienced through the Phoenix Police Department and its partners has resulted in significant and measurable success.

There is still room for improvement, but these operations have successfully reduced random gunfire in Phoenix by 64 percent in seven years. Undoubtedly, this same success can be achieved elsewhere throughout the United States through this type of cooperative operation, which employs education combined with enforcement. In jurisdictions where no laws like Shannon’s Law currently exist, other endangerment or assault laws may apply and be useful in the effort to stop random gunfire in municipalities. The success of the project indicates that many other law enforcement and community challenges could be addressed with this formula of education and enforcement.■

1Arizona Criminal and Traffic Law Manual, A.R.S. 13-3107 (Charlottesville, Virginia: Matthew Bender & Company, Inc., 2007).
2New Year’s Eve “Shots Fired” Calls for Service; 11:30 p.m., December 31, 2009, through 12:30 a.m., January 1, 2010; Phoenix Police Department, Crime Analysis and Research Unit (CARU).

Please cite as:

Sergeant Tommy Thompson, "Stopping Random Gunfire in Phoenix ," The Police Chief 77 (August 2010): 78-81, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 8, August 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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