Boston Is a Shooters’ Paradise

More than 96 percent of gunmen involved in non-fatal shootings are never arrested in Boston. The cops know it—but will they do anything about it?

The police ultimately made three arrests in the Burke High School shooting, but Boston’s authorities nearly always blame their inability to identify and arrest shooters on a lack of community cooperation. A decade ago, then-Mayor Tom Menino tackled the issue following a surge in shootings by trying to banish “Stop Snitchin’” T-shirts from the city. As recently as last summer, officials rolled out a “Can I Get a Witness?” public information campaign. Neither has helped boost the city’s declining arrest rate.

Nor has funding for the district attorney’s Witness Assistance Program; nor has the 2007 installation of Shot Spotter, which immediately alerts police to gunfire. Nor, for that matter, have a slew of other BPD programs engaging directly with hundreds of targeted gang members; nor have ice cream giveaways, basketball games, and a variety of community-engagement efforts.

It’s not like the BPD doesn’t know this. In 2011, the department grew concerned over its low clearance rates for non-fatal shootings and decided to conduct a study to determine ways to improve its performance. Unfortunately, it never really got off the ground and nothing has yet come of that intended research project, which was supposed to have been led by longtime BPD policy advisor Anthony Braga, now with Northeastern University. McCarthy tells me that the first planning meeting was held in mid-November 2016—five years after the department initially agreed to the study and, coincidentally, a few months after I began asking questions and submitting information requests about it.

I can’t tell you where that project stands at the moment, or much else about the department’s work in this area, because Braga did not respond to my repeated requests to discuss the topic with him, and the BPD turned down my requests to interview Commissioner Evans, Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross, and Superintendent Gregory Long, who heads the BPD’s Bureau of Investigative Services. District Attorney Conley also declined to discuss this understandably embarrassing subject.

 

Make no mistake: unsolved shootings are a solvable problem. Rather than throwing up their hands and blaming witnesses for not cooperating, an increasing number of city police departments are revamping their investigative practices and making arrests in nearly half of their non-fatal shootings. For an example not far from home, look at New Jersey.

After an embarrassing December 2012 Star-Ledger exposé on clearance rates for non-fatal shootings, several state, county, and city police departments created centralized investigative units devoted to solving those cases. Trenton’s Shooting Response Team, for instance, is credited with an increase in the city’s arrest rates and a decrease in shootings since its 2014 creation. Paterson, New Jersey, found success with the same approach and maintains a roughly 40 to 50 percent clearance rate for non-fatal shootings. Changing to a centralized unit was key to raising Jersey City’s clearance rate for non-fatal shootings, from less than 30 percent to more than 40 percent, says Robert Cowan, who created the unit as the department’s deputy chief of police and now runs an investigations firm. Among other advantages, he argues, is that the perceived importance of a specialized unit ensures quick cooperation from patrol officers and crime scene investigators immediately after a shooting—all of which helps catch suspects.

Jersey City, however, didn’t stop with a new detective unit. The police department also broke the unit up into shifts—including one from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. “Me being a night-patrol guy for years,” Cowan says, “that’s when I wanted them working so they could go right out.” He believes that, while expensive because of union rules, the change has been an essential part of the city’s success.

Here at home, BPD dispatches elite centralized squads to handle all homicides. When it comes to non-fatal shootings, though, overworked detectives based in the district where the crime occurred take the lead. Overnight shifts are also notoriously taboo for BPD detectives, who all finish by 1 a.m. “I don’t know that it would make that much of a difference,” McCarthy tells me, arguing that detectives are on call after 1 a.m. and respond quickly to shootings. “I don’t think it would help.” Still, it couldn’t hurt: Of the 526 non-fatal shootings I reviewed, 105 were called in between 1 and 6 a.m. Just one of those 105 had resulted in an arrest as of September. Of the 63 shootings occurring between 2 and 4 a.m., not a single shooter has been brought to justice.

 

Still standing on Blue Hill Avenue near the site of the shooting earlier in the day, I walk over to where to Real, P-Nice, and Tone Tekk are rapping. Let’s be honest, I say to them: Had it been a police officer who shot that guy here in Grove Hall this afternoon, there would be a dozen eyewitnesses happy to describe what they’d seen—half of them with video evidence on their phones. Don’t the authorities, I asked, have a point about the lack of cooperation?

They don’t disagree. It’s true, they say, that many people won’t come forward because today’s street shooters won’t hesitate to kill a witness or anyone they think is cooperating with police against them. But it’s not that nearby residents don’t want to help police remove violent offenders from their streets, the trio allow. The problem, they tell me, is that people in high-crime neighborhoods simply do not trust the authorities as much as they fear the shooters.

If there’s good reason to fear the shooter, then there’s also evidence not to trust the cops. Many of today’s potential eyewitnesses, for instance, were around during the atrocious Mission Hill police sweep for a fictitious African-American shooter in the 1989 Charles Stuart case. Part of it, at least among those I spoke with, is reinforced by daily experience: Police continue to stop and frisk black Bostonians at a disproportionate rate, according to the ACLU of Massachusetts, and many potential witnesses generally distrust the district attorney’s office. In the 2013 mayoral preliminary election, Conley received a strikingly low 54 votes, or 2 percent, in the four precincts that abut the intersection where the shooting took place. “There’s definitely a lack of trust,” says Monica Cannon, a longtime anti-violence activist and head of City Councilor Tito Jackson’s Community Fund. She says law enforcement often treats victims, and even witnesses, like criminals: “[Police] come in fearful, they come in reluctant, and they come into a community that’s already distrustful.”

Cannon and nearly everybody I spoke with agreed that the people who need to cooperate with police are the ones who know how many shooters are going unpunished—and walking around scot-free—in their own neighborhoods. These are shooters who have injured many people, even murdered on multiple occasions—criminals who in another neighborhood would be considered serial killers, Cannon says.

However we got to this point, where 94 percent of shootings remain a mystery, it’s pretty evident to the community who’s in control of their streets: the shooters. Which leaves victims in an unfortunate position: on one hand wondering whether their attacker is coming back to finish the job, yet secure in the knowledge that so long as they don’t die, statistically Boston’s finest likely won’t do much of anything to help.


David S. Bernstein
David S. Bernstein David S. Bernstein, Contributing Editor, Boston Magazine david@davidsbernstein.com