Shooting with impunity

Boston has become one of the safer big cities in the United States.  In 2015, the city’s murder rate reached a 10-year low, with just 39 people killed. That number climbed to 47 homicides last year, but still remained far below the murderous days of the crack epidemic of the early 1990s, when the city regularly recorded more than 100 homicides per year. Nonfatal shootings in Boston were down slightly last year, with 192 victims compared with 204 in 2015.

Against that backdrop, one might expect that some of the explanation would be the city police department’s reputation for delivering swift justice to those responsible for gun mayhem in the streets. But in an eye-opening investigative article in the current issue of Boston magazine, David Bernstein reports that the department’s record when it comes to solving shootings is anything but stellar.

Over a close to three-year period starting in January 2014 and ending in late September 2016, there were 994 shootings in the city.  Of those shootings, Boston police made arrests in fewer than 4 percent of nonfatal shootings, Bernstein reports.

It’s a stunning finding, and one that leads Bernstein to this very uncomfortable conclusion:  “Boston police almost never arrest anyone for non-fatal shootings.”

It should be an alarming headline that prompts an all-out demand for answers and change. Yet there has been little hue and cry from public officials about the issue, which is overwhelmingly concentrated in the city’s minority neighborhoods.

The track record when it came to fatal shootings is better, but hardly something to brag about, with arrests made in 15 percent of such cases over the same period. Because the vast majority of shooting victims survive, the story said, the overall arrest rate for all shootings during the period examined was still under 6 percent.

In December, the Boston Globe reported on an analysis showing that Boston’s clearance rate for homicides had increased by 10 percentage points, going from 47 percent during the period between 2007 and 2011 to 57 percent in the period between 2012 and 2014.

The Boston magazine story says the disparity between the 15 percent arrest rate for fatal shootings and the higher rate for homicides overall “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.”

Boston reports that police and prosecutors offer the now-familiar explanations for the extraordinarily low arrest rate for nonfatal shootings: It’s hard to gather forensic evidence in shootings that usually occur outdoors and witnesses are extremely reluctant to provide information that would help solve the cases.

With headlines often focused on murder rates, Bernstein points out that nonfatal shootings get far less attention. Yet he says the best national estimate that can be gleaned from data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that nonfatal shootings in the US have increased 29 percent over the last 15 years, a troubling rise that has been largely overshadowed by overall reductions in crime, including shooting deaths.

Data on nonfatal shootings and arrests rates for them are not as uniformly collected as are figures on fatal shootings. Bernstein writes that the only other major US city he could identify with an arrest rate for nonfatal shootings in the single digits was Chicago — not a place Boston should want to be in company with, given the surge in fatal and nonfatal shootings being experienced there. He says other cities, meanwhile, recorded significantly higher arrest rates for nonfatal shootings: Milwaukee, 30 percent; Denver, 29 percent; Baltimore, 36 percent.

Bernstein says “unsolved shootings are a solvable problem.” He cites efforts in New Jersey police departments following a 2012 newspaper expose of low clearance rates. A number of cities there have created centralized investigative teams focused on nonfatal shootings, with clearance rates in some cities now in the 40 to 50 percent rage.

The lack of trust of police among those in Boston minority neighborhoods where shootings are concentrated undoubtedly plays an important role in the difficulty solving shooting cases. But it’s not clear that such tension is so much greater here than in other US cities.

Bernstein reports that Boston police officials have been aware of the stunningly low arrest rate for nonfatal shootings and in 2011 decided to commission a study to examine the problem. He says the first planning meeting for the study, however, did not occur until November of last year — five years after the department agreed to examine the problem and several months after he started asking about the status of the research.

While there is plenty of talk these days about terrorist threats from those entering the country, that threat is a daily reality for residents in areas of Boston where gang members and others can fire guns with impunity.

It may not lend itself to a simple fix. But it’s an issue that should be put front and center in this year’s mayor’s race, something that deserves a lot more attention in our public discourse than squabbles over helipads or how long residents can save parking spaces after snowstorms.



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