If Boston police put more time and effort into investigating every shooting in the city—prioritizing the non-fatal gun assaults as well as the homicides—they would arrest more of the shooters. That would increase prevention and deterrence, reducing the amount of gunplay in the city, and the number of homicides as well.
In short: there is an available path to less bloodshed. That’s the finding of an overlooked report, commissioned by the Boston Police Department using its own statistics, published last year.
The authors, at Northeastern and Duke universities, concluded that Boston could, by putting additional resources into non-fatal shooting investigations, “hold violent gun offenders accountable, deliver justice to victims, and prevent future gun attacks.”
Yet, the department has not done so. Nor are there any plans to follow those findings, confirms Sgt. Det. John Boyle, a department spokesperson. “In the big picture, it’s tough to devote people strictly to unsolved shootings,” he says.
We are at a moment when Boston’s officials are, once again, considering much-needed reforms to its police department. Activists press for shifting funds out of the department and into other community services. A task force is considering recommendations for oversight and training. The ACLU demands disclosure of so-called “Brady officers” whose untrustworthiness must be disclosed before they testify at trial.
Yet, the city continues to fail a basic element of the relationship between the police and the community: reducing the most dangerous activity, and removing the most dangerous offenders.
The study’s finding might seem self-evident—that there would be benefits to trying harder to solve and make arrests when people shoot other people. But, as the study’s authors note, “the prevailing view [in law enforcement] is that follow-up investigations are of limited value.”
Top brass at the BPD, and Mayor Marty Walsh, have explicitly endorsed the latter view, and that assumption has guided department philosophy for nearly 20 years.
The study, which used five years of BPD data from 2010 through 2014, sought to explain the gap between Boston’s 43 percent clearance rate—the percentage resulting in an arrest or other disposition, such as death of the suspect—for gun murders in the city, and its 19 percent clearance rate for non-fatal gun assaults.
They found no significant inherent differences between the fatal and non-fatal cases themselves, such as age, gender, motive, or gang involvement, that might make one type more difficult to solve than the other.
What did stand out to the researchers was the effect of time.
For both fatal and non-fatal investigations, 11 percent were cleared within the first two days. But after that, rates diverged. Fewer than one of every 10 non-fatal cases still open after two days ever got cleared. But more than a third of fatal ones were later cleared.
Going further, the researchers looked at the types of key evidence in the cases—and found that detectives interviewed more witnesses, ran more computer checks, collected more videos and other tangible evidence, ordered more lab tests, and analyzed more phone and computer data for fatal cases than non-fatal ones.
In particular, the researchers argue that the data suggests that witnesses become more willing to cooperate over time, “in response to the investigator’s efforts.”
All of this presumably stems from the resources and priority given—understandably—to homicides. Homicides are investigated by an elite, centralized team, under direction from the District Attorney’s office. Those detectives carry relatively few caseloads, to which they can devote time and resources over months, or years.
Non-fatal shootings are investigated by overworked detectives based in the precinct, who are also chasing down thefts, minor assaults, and everything else under the sun.
Nobody’s suggesting that police should take homicides less seriously. But these researchers note that since non-fatal shootings appear to be essentially the same as fatal ones—often just the difference of a few inches where the bullet strikes—then going after the “low-hanging fruit” of arresting more non-fatal shooters will reduce shootings of all types, including fatal ones.
History of not trying
Given the importance of gun violence in the public discourse, you might be surprised that no study has ever previously looked into the question of how to improve non-fatal gunshot clearance rates.
You might also think, given this study’s actionable findings, that city officials might eagerly draw attention to it—as they did with a similar study on homicide clearance techniques—and use it to argue for additional resources to move forward.
That’s just not how it is. This study resulted from a U.S. Bureau of Justice grant the BPD received in 2011 (supplemented by funds from the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston); the department did not get around to having its first meeting on the project until late 2016, as I previously reported in Boston Magazine. When completed more than two years later, the researchers quietly published the study in Criminolgy & Public Policy. No Boston officials have spoken publicly about it; no Boston media has reported about it; and it appears to have gone completely unnoticed nationally despite its important findings.
It’s not the first ignored warning, either. A 2015 outside review of the BPD highlighted the detective structure and workload as problems, and recommended changes. Nothing was done.
To acknowledge these findings, and attempt to act on them, would be to concede that law enforcement has been going at this all wrong for years—that police could have been doing much more to crack down on gun violence, but gave up on that because they wrongly thought it was impossible.
And, since Mayor Marty Walsh has sought to promote from within, the chain of command is personally invested in the myth that Boston’s detectives couldn’t possibly be doing any better.
Commissioner William Gross is a career BPD officer, with stints as a detective. His second in command, Superintendent-In-Chief Gregory Long, was previously head of the Bureau of Investigative Services, which oversees the detectives. That role now lies with Paul Donovan, a 34-year veteran of the department.
In Boston, a key turning point came nearly 20 years ago, with the Unsolved Shootings Project.
Boston had seen an increase in gun violence in 2001, along with a decrease in clearance rates for shootings—from 37 percent to what the department deemed “unacceptably low” 23 percent.
As the BPD later explained in an award application, due to the difficulty in obtaining witness cooperation, “the goal of the project evolved from clearance to deterrence.” That is, preventing cycles of retaliation by using “alternative means for intervention” rather than making arrests for the shootings.
An example boasted of in the application followed a shooting at Madison Park High School’s prom. The victims’ friends “clearly knew who the shooter was, but refused to cooperate with the police, intending instead to settle things themselves.” To stop them, prosecutors put the friends in front of a grand jury “and promptly charged them with perjury.”
This result, of arresting the victim’s friends but not the shooter, was deemed a “successful” intervention.
This general approach has dominated BPD thinking ever since. You’ll note that in 2001 the “unacceptably low” clearance rate was 21 percent. In the 2010-2014 sample used for the new study, that rate for non-fatal shootings was even lower, at 19 percent. When I reported, from the department’s own case data, that the rate had fallen below 10 percent in 2015-’16, then-Commissioner William Evans insisted that the rate was actually 15 percent. In 2017, according to a joint investigation by The Trace and Buzzfeed publications, Boston cleared just 10 percent of its non-fatal shootings—lowest of the cities included.
What makes this continuing decline even more remarkable is that it has occurred as the BPD has greatly improved its investigation capabilities.
New crime labs, improved training, and better procedures have been adopted during the intervening years. Data collection and inter-agency cooperation have improved. Still, more and more people get away with shooting other people in Boston.
A common thread through the ongoing reform efforts in Boston, and across the country, is the restoration of trust between police and the communities they serve.
Both sides of that relationship need that trust strengthened. Without it, detectives face a greater task in trying to solve and prevent crime.
Yet, BPD and city officials remain reluctant to do the things that might earn that trust. Instead, Commissioner William Gross continues the tradition of railing at the community for failing to come forward—blaming residents for his department’s failures.
Now, when it comes to non-fatal shootings, the department’s own research says no; you can do better. It’s on you to show that you’re willing to make the effort to improve a situation where some 90 percent of shooters remain on the streets.
So far, they have shown no inclination to do so.