SCHENECTADY — Just before 3 a.m. on July 29, a fistfight on Crane Street turned into a gunfight.
By the time it was over, two people were wounded, one mortally. Shell casings found by investigators indicated at least 20 bullets were fired from at least three different guns during the fight.
The case marked the city's 28th confirmed "shots-fired incident" of 2017. It was the city's first — and only, so far — shooting death of the year.
"Guns are always a problem," said Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford. "One gun that's out on the street that's not legally owned is always a problem for us. We know that they are out there. We know that it is only a matter of time before one could surface. So whenever we have an idea where one is, we aggressively move toward it."
During the first nine months of the year, the city saw a total of 37 shots-fired incidents. There were 32 over the same time frame in 2016 and 46 in 2015.
As of this week, arrests had been made in 13 of this year's shootings — a murder indictment was just filed in the July shootout, and a warrant has been issued for an arrest related to another, according to police and records.
The availability of illegal firearms has been top-of-mind for area police in recent weeks, as the guns used in earlier Schenectady shootings may have been joined by 40 new firearms stolen during an Oct. 23 burglary at Target Sports in Glenville.
At least two thieves made off with 67 guns during that heist, and authorities have announced the recovery of only about 20 of them. Both main suspects have been arrested, and there have been no reports that any of the ill-gotten guns have surfaced or been used either locally or elsewhere. Clifford said his department is aware of the danger.
"Whether it's the guns that came out of Glenville or it's the guns that came out of a burglary in North Carolina, guns are mobile. Guns can be hidden," Clifford said.
"It goes back to being prepared and being trained," he added. "It's the business that we're in."
To that end, the department is using data-driven methods to send patrols to areas where crimes have occurred or are statistically likely to occur. The department also is trying to build trust with residents so they feel comfortable reporting crimes and vital information to officers when shootings happen.
The city and county are also fighting a reputation for being a high-crime area; a report out over the summer, based on state numbers, revealed Schenectady County has the highest crime rate among all New York counties.
Critics of the report have pointed out that Schenectady County's small area and dense population skew the numbers.
When cities are compared directly to each other, Schenectady fares better. Of 21 New York cities included in the Gun Involved Violence Elimination program, Schenectady's overall index crime rate ranked 10th. Albany was No. 6, and Troy was 8.
According to numbers provided through the same program, Schenectady's violent crimes dropped 6.6 percent, to 455, over the first nine months of this year, compared with the same period last year. The percentage involving firearms fell 18.9 percent, to 69.
City councilman Vince Riggi said drugs were involved in many of the incidents reported in the violent crimes report. He also highlighted recent arrests, including one in connection with the July Jonny Olds murder and multiple arrests related to a shooting on Campbell Avenue in Bellevue a year ago. The latter case, detectives concluded, was a contract killing done for insurance money.
"I don't know what we do to stop it. Life is meaningless to a lot of people. That's the sad part," Riggi said. "In my estimation, they're doing a good job keeping up with this trend of deadly force. That's not an easy thing to do."
The city police department relies on analyst Matthew Douglas to provide the data that helps officers plan and deploy law enforcement resources. He keeps seasonal maps that show five-year crime trends that include shots-fired incidents and drug arrests, as well as assaults and even the location of bodegas, which have frequently been the scenes of shootings in the city.
That information goes into a "heat map" that is then used focus attention of officers and outreach workers.
"What we've seen is that the field interviews and traffic stops, they look like this," Douglas said, referring to the heat map, "which is good because it means that we are putting our resources in the right spot."
Clifford added, "we're using those to be preventative, to have high visibility to prevent crimes. We're also using those to deploy our outreach workers."
Those outreach workers are independent of the department, but they have the department's support, Clifford said. Their aim is to go into those hot spots and find people who might need services, with the idea that future crimes can be prevented if struggling individuals can be diverted from criminal behavior.
Investigators also rely on a network of street cameras, which help police make arrests when shootings happen, as was the case in the Jonny Olds murder case and in the Bellevue murder case from a year ago.
"We're solving crimes because of having the cameras that we may not be solving otherwise," Clifford said. "It's just another part of our investigative process that is super valuable."
When responding to crimes and shootings, Clifford said he believes cooperation from the public has gotten better.
Where once, witnesses might not have come forward out of fear, he sees that changing.
"It's not perfect, but it's better than it was," Clifford said. "The public is beginning to trust us more, and they're starting to understand that crimes get solved with their help. They're willing to speak with us, whether it's on the record or its confidential. They are assisting us, which is why we've been so successful."