Low Clearance Rate for Gun Crimes Fuels ‘Retaliatory Violence’: Paper

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A “focused investigation strategy” along with evidence-based reform measures could help increase clearance rates for fatal and nonfatal shootings in cities stuck in a cycle of gun violence, said a report released by the Manhattan Institute Tuesday.

Nonfatal and fatal shootings are a “persistent and deadly problem” in many major cities, said criminologist Anthony Braga, who wrote the report.

From 2019 to 2020 in New York City alone, fatal and nonfatal shootings increased by 88 percent and 99 percent respectively, according to data from the report.

In 2020 the city produced a 47 percent clearance rate for gun homicides, and only a 32 percent clearance rate for nonfatal shootings.

A consistently low clearance rate in cities like New York can “fuel a cascade of retaliatory gun violence” influenced by distrust in local law enforcement, whose low clearance rate often reflects lack of action towards solving violent gun crimes.

Distrust in police, which has continually contributed to gun crimes, feeds “cycles of urban gun violence,” said Braga. Those who have been harmed most by the police, specifically disadvantaged communities and people of color, are less likely to report or be a witness to a crime if they don’t see police creating justice in their community.

“Boston homicide detectives suggested that eyewitnesses to gang and drug homicides were generally less willing to share relevant information due to fear of retaliation, street norms against snitching to the police, and a general lack of trust in the police by residents in disadvantaged minority neighborhoods,” wrote Braga.

“Many witnesses interviewed at gang and drug homicide scenes tended to omit key details from the information provided to detectives, which led to fewer follow-up interviews.”

According to Braga’s research, clearance rate varies depending on multiple different factors that could affect the level of difficulty in investigating a shooting.

For example, a gun homicide occurring indoors would likely end in a more sound investigation due to the greater likelihood of physical evidence found at the scene, said Braga.

Other factors, like eyewitnesses willing to report the crime to the police are largely impacted by the fact that gun homicides are more frequent in cities among gang members or those under the influence of alcohol, both of whom are less likely to report to the police.

Police departments often have different units for investigation of fatal and nonfatal shootings.

Fatal shootings often get their own special homicide unit for investigation, while investigating nonfatal shootings can be left to officers already handling dozens of other nonfatal crimes, leaving less time and resources to investigate a nonfatal shooting.

While nonfatal shootings may be treated with less urgency, Braga’s research advocates that a shooting without a fatality is often nonfatal by chance, and should be regarded with similar priority to fatal shootings.

In order to increase clearance rates for both nonfatal and fatal shootings and strengthen public trust in local law enforcement, investigation units need reform, said Braga.

Detailed in his research analyzing the Boston Police Department’s investigation of homicides, improvements to accountability, witness identification and use of forensic technology caused an increase in clearance rate from 47 percent to 66 percent in the city.

An increase in staffing, training and peer review of investigations also helped increase the overall clearance rate.

Braga also suggested the establishment of a special cold-case unit as a way to ensure more thorough investigations, as it would allow for further investigation from a new perspective and more advanced technology as time goes on.

By introducing more criminal investigators into nonfatal violent gun crimes has the possibility to increase clearance rates through arrest, bringing justice to families affected by gun violence and helping to break the cycle of gun violence, said Braga.

“The available research evidence indicates that enhanced investigative resources, improved management structures, and oversight processes can increase homicide clearance rates and improve the chances that murderers are apprehended in even the most difficult cases to clear,” said Braga.

Braga also discussed how low clearance rates regarding  gun violence does little to help deter further violent gun crimes. If cities are known for a low clearance rate regarding shootings, those who commit crimes could be more likely to commit a shooting than in a city with a higher clearance rate.

“The effective investigation of shootings can help prevent further cascades of gun violence in cities by deterring retaliation and incapacitating violent individuals who could persist in their crimes or end up as victims of retaliatory shootings,” said Braga.

The report outlines a larger picture of cities struggling to raise clearance rates in violent crimes.

According to The Baltimore Sun, only 22 percent of murders in 2020 ended in an arrest. Similarly to Braga’s research, a cycle forms between distrust in the police for not bringing justice to the community through arrest and the police not being able to arrest because of lack of information.

Access the full report here.

Read more: Tackling ‘The Thin Blue Lie’

Emily Riley is a TCR Justice Reporting intern

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