Law enforcement must pour more resources into solving all gun crimes.
The difference between a shooting that results in a homicide and one that does not has just as much to do with luck as it does anything else. After all, the shooter’s intent is the same — to shoot and kill the individual they are aiming at. How good his aim is (I say “his” since the vast majority of shootings are committed by young men) or how quickly his victim receives medical care will often mean the difference between life and death or whether a case is a murder or an attempt. In other words, from a law enforcement perspective, the case is identical, except one has a living eyewitness to the crime and one does not.
So one would surmise that with a living eyewitness who can describe and often name their assailant, the direction he ran, who he was with, what he was wearing and the like, the nonfatal shooting should be easier to solve and thus have a higher law enforcement clearance rate — meaning, the likelihood a crime results in an arrest is solved — than murders.
Yet the exact opposite is true. Since 2016, the clearance rate for murders has been more than 20 percentage points better than shootings, in one year the gap widening to 29 percentage points.
So why is there such a disparity in the clearance rates for nonfatal shootings versus murders? As a three-decade career prosecutor, I have seen this question consistently vex law enforcement, elected officials and communities that are disproportionately affected by the gun violence epidemic in our society.
To begin, let’s put the problem in context. Shootings and homicides remain historically low in New York City as compared to 1990, when there were over 2,262 murders in New York City and roughly 500 in Manhattan alone. Violent crime has declined significantly since the 90s, reaching an all-time low in 2017 when there were 292 murders citywide with 41 murders in Manhattan, a drop significantly lower as compared to other cities that saw similar declines.
Since that epic low, violent crime steadily crept up, and, since the pandemic, even more so. In 2023, shootings and homicides are trending down compared to 2022, while other crimes are flat or rising. Depending on whom you ask and from what perspective they come, you will hear different people take credit for the decreases while others are blamed for the increases. Anyone who works in this field knows that the true drivers of crime are much more complicated than any one elected official, entity, change in the law, program or reform.
Why is there such a disparity in the clearance rates for nonfatal shootings versus murders? I have seen this question consistently vex law enforcement, elected officials and communities that are disproportionately affected by the gun violence epidemic in our society.
With that context, we return to the gap in clearance rates between nonfatal and fatal shootings. Why are nonfatal shootings so difficult to solve?
To be fair, homicides are extremely difficult to solve as well, often taking months, even years before an arrest is made — after all, a key eyewitness is dead. Another hurdle in solving shootings and murders has to do with fear of retaliation for “snitches” if there are any eyewitnesses to the crime. And even when there are eyewitnesses, law enforcement has come a long way in understanding the need for corroboration for witness identifications given the fallibilities of human perception.
Some may wonder why a survivor of a shooting would not want to cooperate with law enforcement; experience has shown that there is a whole host of reasons, including cultural or general distrust of law enforcement generally, fear that the perpetrator will try and finish the job next time if she cooperates with law enforcement, immigration consequences and retaliation from others in the community, to name a few.
In order to solve any shooting or homicide, police and prosecutors will need to conduct an extensive and exhaustive investigation, following the trail of evidentiary breadcrumbs, in an effort to solve the crime and be able to prove it to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
Consider a hypothetical crime. After a high school basketball game ends, a large crowd spills out onto the streets where energy and spirits are high, and a young, rowdy group begins to party. Suddenly, shots ring out and one person, a young woman, is struck with a bullet and falls to the ground, and the shooter runs away. 911 is called and the victim goes to a local hospital, where her life is saved. Nobody saw the shooter’s face, as they were wearing a mask and a hoodie over their head. The description is generic and could be literally anyone, though, again, most likely male.
Some may wonder why a survivor of a shooting would not want to cooperate with law enforcement; experience has shown that there is a whole host of reasons.
What does law enforcement do next? There are no shell casings on the ground, because a revolver was used and the casings stay inside the gun, so there is no ability to trace it to any particular gun. There is grainy video obtained from various storefronts around the area, which, when stitched together, shows a patchwork of blurry footage of the top of the shooter’s head, their back and the color of their clothing. The shooting victim refuses to cooperate with law enforcement in any way and won’t give any indication of who or why someone would have shot her, whether she was even the intended victim or whether she was perhaps hit with a stray bullet.
At this point, without more, the case can and often does grow cold. After all, if the victim doesn’t care to solve this, why should law enforcement? The victim could have her own reasons for not wanting to cooperate having nothing to do with the specific shooting. However, everyone should care — including the community and especially law enforcement — and protect the law-abiding communities that are raising families, are living their own lives and want to be free of this scourge of gun violence.
There are many tried-and-true investigatory avenues that can be attempted to try and solve the crime. And, if the victim had died, the case would be turned over to the elite NYPD Homicide Squads — the best of the best, the most experienced and sophisticated investigators in the business.
With limited resources, however, the ability to deploy these resources to every single shooting is daunting if not impossible. Thousands of hours of manpower go into every homicide investigation, including pursuing all investigative leads, looking at motives, finding video, attempting to locate trace DNA or electronic evidence, running down false leads, ruling in or out rival gang or drug dealing crew beefs, personal vendettas — you name it. Even the coldest of cases may ultimately be solved down the line, after years of relentless work. In the meantime, while that necessary work is being conducted, there are often more shootings and homicides in retaliation or perceived retaliation, and unnecessary lives are lost while communities continue to live gripped in fear of violence.
Law enforcement’s move toward a community policing model is a critical start — creating trust with law enforcement and having ears to the ground, both of which are necessary to solve crimes or, better yet, prevent them from occurring in the first place.
What more can be done about this epidemic, from a law enforcement perspective? Law enforcement’s move toward a community policing model is a critical start — creating trust with law enforcement and having ears to the ground, both of which are necessary to solve crimes, or, better yet, prevent them from occurring in the first place. And by creating safer communities and holding people accountable, the community will come to trust law enforcement and will feel safer to report crimes that do occur.
Mapping violent crime and strategically deploying resources is yet another tried-and-true tool that has successfully worked in Manhattan in the past. It is key to deploy resources to areas with high shooting rates and use an all-hands-on-deck model that focuses not only on the problem areas but the problematic actors who are usually always known to both the community and law enforcement. This will include cooperation and coordination among police, state and federal prosecutors, community groups, service providers, parole, probation and the judiciary.
In many cases, everyone knows who the “bad guys” are and aren’t, and when law enforcement surgically focuses on removing them from the community, while not casting an overly broad net, the results can be immediate and lives are saved. Not every kid arrested with a gun is a shooter or potential shooter who deserves to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law (the law currently provides a minimum of 3 1/2 years’ incarceration for anyone arrested with a loaded gun) and it is critical for police and prosecutors to know the difference. When a bad actor who is a known shooter is arrested, for any crime, law enforcement must utilize every tool in the toolbox they have to incapacitate that person (which could and should include attempts at rehabilitation) in order to stop the cycle of violence on the street. And for the worst of the worst, who cannot be rehabilitated or who do not deserve to be, considering maximum sentences or federal prosecution must be employed.
What else can law enforcement do to ensure that there are fewer guns on the street? Mass incarceration is not the answer, and law enforcement needs to learn to not to make that mistake again. Partnerships with violence interrupters and gun courts still need further study to know whether or how effective these measures are — but they can’t hurt, so why not do this and more? The epidemic of shooting violence, especially among young people of color, needs to be treated like any other epidemic. An all-hands-on-deck approach is needed to save precious lives.