by David S. Bernstein | February 12, 2017 6:06 am
It’s a Thursday afternoon in Roxbury, and as always the Grove Hall intersection on Blue Hill Avenue is bustling with action. Behind the street-front window of a salon, a young woman gets her hair dyed a bright shade of blue while customers flip through magazines and gossip. Several teenage girls giggle while crossing the street. In front of the wide windows of the Rainbow clothing store, a woman carries a small Minnie Mouse backpack for the toddler walking beside her. Up the road, a trio of rappers—dubbed Real, P-Nice, and Tone Tekk—freestyle back and forth. There is not a single visible sign that in this very spot earlier today, someone yanked out a gun and shot a man in the back.
The shooter was downright brazen, firing his gun in a busy commercial intersection in broad daylight before fleeing. He could afford to be so—whether he knew it or not: Boston police almost never arrest anyone for non-fatal shootings.
It seems obvious that people who commit such a crime—who point a loaded gun at someone and pull the trigger, indifferent to the lives of their intended victim or bystanders—should be arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated. Few things should be higher on a police department’s priority list. Yet that’s not something the BPD or the district attorney’s office typically do.
During a six-month investigation, Boston obtained police records through a public information request and examined 618 shootings over 994 days, from the start of 2014 through September 20, 2016. The results were staggering: During that time frame, Boston police had arrested fewer than 4 percent of gunmen involved in non-fatal shootings. That means, for instance, that detectives have not arrested anyone for shooting 14-year-old Keira Harrison three times as she watched Fourth of July fireworks on Bower Street this past summer. And police have not captured whoever shot a 15-year-old in South Boston in August, or the person who shot a seven-year-old on Bowdoin Street. In fact, the data revealed that police had not made a single arrest in any of the 19 non-fatal shootings of Boston minors under age 17. (And that was before the October shootings of two-year-old and nine-year-old girls in separate incidents.)
Not that the BPD is doing such a great job of locking up murderers, either: During the same time period, police made arrests in barely 15 percent of fatal shootings. Since only about one in seven shooting victims dies in Boston, that brings the total arrest rate for shootings over the past two and a half years to almost 6 percent. The BPD, which did not dispute this figure, offered no explanation for the apparent gap between these numbers and the department’s reported homicide-clearance rates of around 60 percent in each of the past three years. The difference is likely due to solving a high rate of non-shooting homicides, as well as the BPD’s practice of applying clearances of older cases to the rate for the year the arrest is actually made. Counting multiple-victim shootings together as single incidents, as the BPD prefers, does not significantly change these figures.
In response to such low numbers, officials at the BPD and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office smile and claim they’re doing just fine. Non-fatal shootings are tough cases to solve, they argue, usually occurring outdoors, where it’s difficult to locate physical evidence. The task is made even harder, police say, because witnesses generally refuse to cooperate and help identify shooters. No matter how you parse the numbers, though, one thing has become alarmingly clear: Shooting someone is not a punishable offense in Boston—so long as the victim doesn’t die.
I set out to learn how successful Boston’s cops are at catching shooters whose victims survive in large part because—amid the ongoing discussion about gun violence—homicides are drowning out thoughtful analysis of what constitutes the largest piece of the national gun violence picture. This task, however, proved to be more difficult than I thought.
There is almost no available data on arrests for non-fatal shootings in the United States, making it tough to compare Boston with national averages or similar-sized cities. Not only is there little accounting of arrest rates, there is a bewildering lack of record-keeping on non-fatal shootings in general. The FBI and other crime-data compilers statistically lump together shooting with stabbing, hitting with a pipe, or, under Massachusetts law, kicking with a “shod foot.” Groups that track gunshot injuries, through hospital admissions or surveys, don’t cull assaults from accidental or self-inflicted wounds, or in some cases pistol-whippings. In short: Despite the hue and cry over gun violence on both sides of the political aisle, it might surprise you to learn that nobody really knows how many people get shot.
The best estimate comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which puts the number of non-fatal gun injuries in the United States at more than 80,000 a year. That reflects a 29 percent increase over the past 15 years—a surge gone widely unnoticed at a time when violent-crime and shooting deaths have been on the decline.
Many cities do not track the number of non-fatal shootings, though fortunately Boston does. Each year, for example, the Major Cities Chiefs Association surveys its members to compile violent-crime data; only 40 of the 65 cities are able to provide numbers for non-fatal shootings. “The strange fact is that for a very long time, public and press attention has taken homicide really seriously,” says criminologist David Kennedy, who worked on Boston’s lauded Operation Ceasefire program in the 1990s and is now director of the National Network for Safe Communities at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “That seriousness has never extended to non-fatal shootings.”
In June, I filed a public information request with the city, seeking details about arrests for every shooting in Boston since the start of 2014. After considerable resistance, I finally received the data in October. Out of 618 cases involving shooting victims, 92 were classified as homicides; of those, 14 had been cleared by arrest. The other 526 people who were shot survived; of those, only 20 cases had led to an arrest. The total arrest rate had declined from 8 percent in 2014 to 6 percent in 2015 to barely above one percent in the still-active 2016 calendar year.
Cities with worse rates may simply be more secretive about their data, but the only other place with a single-digit arrest rate for non-fatal shootings that I could find was Chicago—one of the larger and more violent metropolises in America today, with more than 16 times the number of murders as Boston this past year. Still, even compared with similar-sized towns, Boston looks terrible and lags far behind nearly every city for which I could find clearance rates on non-fatal shootings. Milwaukee, for instance, clears 30 percent of such cases by arrest. Denver made arrests in 29 percent of its cases over the past two years. Baltimore claims a 36 percent solve rate. And even small yet trigger-happy Trenton, New Jersey, clears a remarkable 45 percent of its non-fatal shootings cases.
Lieutenant Michael McCarthy, the BPD’s top spokesperson, argues that city-to-city comparisons are invalid because each police department has its own definition of “clearance”—some go so far as to count shooting cases “solved” or “exceptionally cleared” even if the suspects aren’t charged and prosecuted—but I have seen little evidence that it would account for large differences. Just to be sure, though, I requested case dispositions for all 618 fatal and non-fatal Boston shooting cases between January 2014 and mid-September 2016—and it turns out that the BPD can’t provide them. In transferring case information to a new database system last year, the department accidentally lost the ability to update and track case outcomes. “There are a lot of issues with the data that we’re trying to fix,” McCarthy admits.
The lack of accessible data, of course, allows BPD and Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley to brush off criticism by claiming that the only thing stymying their success is the lack of cooperation by witnesses who refuse to come forward. After all, if nobody knows or understands what would improve arrest rates for non-fatal shootings, officials remain free to blame everyone else.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in early June, the streets outside Dorchester’s Jeremiah E. Burke High School lay soaked with blood. Seventeen-year-old Raekwon Brown had been shot to death and three other teens were wounded. Detectives and K-9 units searched for evidence as the school locked into safe mode. All anyone seemed to know, said a freshman at the time, was that someone pulled the school’s fire alarm, and “a sudden ‘boom, boom, boom’” followed.
Within hours, Police Commissioner William Evans and Mayor Marty Walsh held a news conference. Walsh lamented how young the victims were and the impudence of committing such violence in broad daylight. The following day Evans implored potential witnesses to “step forward” and “have some courage.” When no one did, Evans’s frustrations boiled over. “We know there are students that know exactly what happened,” he said outside the school. “Unfortunately, they are not coming forward. Everyone should be outraged by what happened, and shame on everybody if the parents and kids don’t step up here.”
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.
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