What does it take to solve a shooting?
Every weekday at 10 a.m., about 20 men and women gather for an hour in a sleek conference room with sweeping views of New York Harbor. They do not seem to match their surroundings entirely — some come sporting sleeve tattoos, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, while others bear the full regalia of brass buttons and stripes of a high-ranking New York Police Department chief or the muted suits favored by public servants.
They are bent to a single purpose: ending gun violence in New York City and measuring success by the number of days in a row without shootings. So far, the record for 2023 is 72 hours. Together, they identify the people who have records of violence and work to put together the strongest possible cases. This seemingly quotidian task requires the focused effort of every one of the people in the room, representing a gamut of different government actors — prosecutors, police, parole, probation, DMV, sheriff, corrections, as well as a variety of federal agencies that cover the alphabet (ATF, DEA, FBI and more).
In a system often bereft of written records, or where records are scattered across the state on 3-by-5-inch cards, in log books and filing cabinets, this group collectively acts as a human computer search engine. The avid viewer of “CSI” or other crime shows would be shocked to see how much shoe leather is involved in the painstaking work of building a case — and how far from reality are the omniscient information systems that Hollywood has trained us to believe are the engines of investigations.
On any given day, this group will look at perhaps three to four cases. In a city where last year there were 1,294 shootings and 4,627 gun arrests, this hardly seems like a breakthrough strategy. But these are the “money” cases, the tiny number of people in a city of 8.5 million who drive the violence. This method, handmade and painstaking, is just one slice of what it takes to drive down violence.
The people in this 10 a.m. group are the inheritors, and reimaginers, of Compstat — the relentless engine of governance, accountability and knowledge distribution that the NYPD invented in the early 1990s to drive down crime. The central insight of Compstat is that it is hard, bordering on impossible, to reduce violence unless decision-makers have knowledge of where, when and why it is happening.
And there’s the rub.
When it comes to reducing gun violence, law enforcement is the tail of the elephant. To be sure, solving a shooting requires thorough investigation — witnesses, license plate readers, ballistics, videos, fingerprints and all the rest. But the nuts and bolts of the formal legal system, important though they are, are not everything.
If the residents of the city do not come forward as witnesses and jurors — and if they do not have enough confidence in testifying officers to be able to assess dispassionately whether the testimony is believable — then all of the shooters in the world could be identified but no cases would be successfully resolved. Neighborhood involvement is the arterial structure that makes a case come to life. This is a point powerfully made in this issue by the NYPD’s former Chief of Detectives James Essig.
If you travel just a few miles from the downtown Manhattan conference room that hosts the 10 a.m. meeting, you will find yourself in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, where you will see why the seamless intersection of the people and the system is hard.
Brownsville was in the top few precincts that led the city last year in shootings. It has held this dubious honor almost every year for the last 30 years. Shootings here are regularly and durably many times that of the city’s safest precincts, even as neighborhoods have gotten safer: In 1993, there were 304 shootings in Brownsville, while the safest precinct had zero shootings. The safest precincts in the city in 2019 and 2022 also had no shootings, while Brownsville had 34 in 2019 and 83 in 2022. This phenomenon is not unique to New York. As Aaron Chalfin and Brandon del Pozo point out, in the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago and other cities, the concentration of violence can be worse for young men than in a war zone. The places in New York City that bear the brunt of the violence, like Brownsville, are home largely to Black New Yorkers. In New York from 2020-2022, young Black men were shot at 53 times the rate of young white men.
It only takes a second to shoot someone. But the eddying effects can ricochet for generations, touching not just the shooter and the shot, but an expanding arc of families and friends, neighborhoods and the city as a whole. For example, it is now well established that violence in a neighborhood affects school achievement, reducing advancement by a year and more. Why? Because when a child is worried about getting shot on the walk to school, it crowds out the ability to focus on math homework. Gun violence, in this and other dimensions, amplifies inequality, creating a widening gap between rich and poor, safe and unsafe, as well as dividing people by race.
And while study after study shows that police are key in quelling violence, a point powerfully made in this issue by Anthony Braga and Philip Cook, the way in which policing is carried out can depress or encourage the crucial participation of residents. A hard history of violence and blunderbuss policing, particularly in Black neighborhoods, has left many residents with a wariness of police and a fatigue with their efforts to engage in “community problem-solving.” Tracie Keesee and Joseph Richardson each, in different ways, explain how the depth charges of history have an explosive currency, feeding well-founded anger and distrust. Josiah Bates underscores the frustration of residents that they are not heard, at the cost of solving crimes. Some piece of the vicious cycle of distrust can be seen in the arrest rates for murders. In the last few years in New York City, when a Black person was the victim, there was an arrest only 54% of the time in contrast to 83% when a white person was the victim.
This issue is devoted to the nuts and bolts of solving gun cases. As important as it is for cities to get this right, we know that it is only part of the story. Pulling back the camera further, we can see that safety — defined as more than the absence of crime — is both the product and the driver of urban vitality, including decent jobs, good schools, well-maintained public spaces, vibrant culture and more. All of these seemingly inchoate goods are, in fact, concrete and achievable. This has been, and will continue to be, the focus of Vital City’s work.
Gun violence is a singular threat to all of the positive building blocks of urban life. Our inaugural issue was devoted to what must happen before a single bullet is shot. This issue looks at what must happen after a gun is fired. But we have just scratched the surface. The United States now has more guns than people. Even in an era of polarization, the politics of gun reform are particularly intense. Given these realities, what kinds of laws and regulations can realistically be put in place to stem the damage? This is a question we intend to return to in the months ahead.
For now, we seek to help readers develop a greater appreciation of what’s involved in solving a shooting, both for the people tasked with this enormous responsibility and for the people dealing with the devastating effects of violence. We look first at the data, showing the shocking jump in gun violence in 2020, after a period of all-time lows in violence and other crimes in the city. We take a closer look at the pullback of police and residents in the summer of 2020, followed by the resurgence of the criminal justice system as COVID-19 restrictions eased with an accompanying reduction in shootings.
Without good data — not just about the criminal justice apparatus but about all the other pieces that can help drive down violence — it is difficult to plot out a strategy for durable reductions. Jeff Asher shows us just how partial our data are.
Ted Alcorn helps set the stage for the political and operational context of what the city is trying to do to stem the violence. Against this backdrop, Mayor Eric Adams highlights his aspirations to meld the power of “upstream” solutions — for example, summer youth employment, dyslexia screening — along with the presence of cops on the streets and the subways. His interview underscores the difficulties cities face in choosing a path when knowledge of what’s caused the spike is absent and clear-eyed analysis of whether initiatives are quelling it is lacking.
Braga and Cook take us through some of the powerful evidence showing how important policing is in reducing gun violence. And Ken Corey, Max Kapustin and Jens Ludwig shine a light on an often obscured point: The proper management of police power is essential to ensuring that police are connected to residents and is thus directly related to reducing the violence.
Why is it that murders are solved at a much higher rate than shootings? After all, in shootings, the victim is still alive, which would seem to make it easier to bring a case. Karen Friedman Agnifilo suggests that focusing investigative resources on shootings with the same seriousness as murders would be a good place to start.
Police can bring their cases to a federal or a state prosecutor. The choice of the feds is rare — they simply handle fewer cases. But as Drew Skinner points out, the federal power is an awesome one, and in the right cases can have an immediate impact on the safety of a neighborhood and its residents.
Holding this all together, we offer some ideas about what New York City could be doing differently to reduce violence. They come from a range of perspectives: an experienced police commander, Bill Bratton; a police policy expert, Tanya Meisenholder; the chief administrative judge of the New York State Court System, Joseph Zayas; a civil rights lawyer, Chris Dunn; and researchers Caterina Roman and John Pfaff.
What are the throughlines? For us, it is the importance of information, the central role that residents play (but all too often do not) and the need for disciplined governance. All are essential to making the case and building stronger, healthier neighborhoods.
The Public Square