Denver police see success solving nonfatal shootings with new unit
The agency's clearance rate for nonfatal shootings jumped from 39% in 2019 to 65% so far in 2020
By Elise Schmelzer
The Denver Post
DENVER — Last year, suspects who shot and wounded someone in Denver more than likely got away with it.
At least 145 people were injured in shootings last year, though most of those cases were never solved by a department that had a 39% clearance rate for nonfatal shootings in 2019.
But Denver police are seeing early success with a new solution to the low clearance rate for gun assaults. Seven months in, the department's new Firearm Assault Team has solved 56 of its first 86 cases, giving the team a 65% clearance rate.
"I was hoping for some modest improvement, I just didn't expect it to be as effective as it's shown so far," Denver police Chief Paul Pazen said.
Pazen launched what's known as the FAST team in February after another year of elevated violence in the city. The idea is simple: Create a unit in the department's Major Crimes Division dedicated specifically to solving nonfatal shootings and handle those investigations as if they were homicides. Previously, most of the city's nonfatal shootings were investigated by detectives stationed at each of the department's seven police districts.
That meant that investigators weren't always communicating about cases in between districts and the cases often didn't get the attention they deserved because of the district detectives' heavy workload, said Lt. Matt Clark, who leads the Major Crimes Division. If a victim did not want to cooperate, investigators often left the case inactive, he said.
"Really the difference between a nonfatal shooting and a homicide is luck," Pazen said. "Either good luck by the victim or bad luck by the suspect."
While longer-term data will be a better measure of effectiveness, the department's plan shows early signs of promise and is generally a good idea, said David Pyrooz, a University of Colorado Boulder professor who studies crime. It's a simple solution that doesn't require fancy technology or controversial tactics, he said.
"It's what is expected of law enforcement — go out and solve the damn crimes in your city," he said.
The FAST team is comprised of six detectives and one supervising sergeant, Clark said. The longtime detectives were pulled from a variety of other investigative teams, like sex assaults and domestic violence, in an attempt to give the team a wealth of varied expertise.
Clark said he focused on detectives who had experience gaining a victim's trust and cooperation in an investigation, which can be a major hurdle in solving shootings. The team will handle almost all nonfatal shooting investigations unless those investigations are handled by another unit, like gang detectives.
The change comes as Denver experiences a significant uptick in both homicides and nonfatal shootings.
In the first 10 months of this year, 252 people have been injured but not killed in 152 shootings in the city, according to Denver police data. That's 73% higher than the 145 people injured in shootings in all of 2019. The number of homicides recorded so far this year is the highest seen in more than 15 years.
"A way to prevent future homicides and prevent future shootings is really to resource, train, support these nonfatal shootings," Pazen said. "Evidence shows that swiftness and certainty in arrests in certain crimes can have impact on future crimes."
That's true, Pyrooz said. Violence is almost always perpetrated by a tiny portion of people who offend multiple times.
Low clearance rates can affect both police and community perspectives, Pyrooz said. If police feel like a type of case is unsolvable, they might feel a sort of fatalism about ever solving them. Low clearance rates can also breed distrust between communities and police — why should someone report a crime or cooperate with police, potentially putting themselves at risk, if the case isn't going to be solved anyway?
"They start to view the law with illegitimacy," Pyrooz said. "Where there aren't clearances, it breeds vigilante justice. It makes people think that people can harm and kill with impunity."
The FAST team is less than half the size of the 15-detective homicide unit, which generally handles between 50 and 70 cases a year. In 2019, police cleared 51 of the 63 murders in the city for a clearance rate of 81%. Like their counterparts in homicide, FAST detectives are required to respond to the scene of every shooting.
It's difficult to compare Denver's shooting clearance rate with other cities' because there is no national database that records departments' data on nonfatal shootings. Data compiled by news outlets and in academic studies show recent clearance rates for nonfatal shootings in several large cities, including a rate of about 10% in Boston in 2016 and 6% in Chicago in 2018.
Nonfatal shootings can be recorded in a variety of crime categories, including aggravated assaults or robberies. In Denver, many nonfatal shootings are mixed in with other types of aggravated assaults such as stabbings and incidents where someone fired a gun but nobody was injured. The Denver Police Department did not specifically track nonfatal shootings until 2018.
A report issued in 2019 by the National Public Safety Partnership — a U.S. Department of Justice program — recommended that departments form units dedicated to nonfatal gun violence and allow those detectives to focus on one type of crime to develop expertise. Studies conducted in individual cities have also made similar recommendations.
But an arrest is not the only action that can help prevent future violence, said Dr. Emmy Betz, director of the Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative at the University of Colorado's Anschutz Medical Campus.
"It's not just punitive criminal justice, though that's important in many cases, but it's about the factors that led to it and trying to stop the violence there," she said. "You need larger community programs and policies that are addressing those underlying issues as well."
Those factors often include poverty, housing stability, hunger, substance abuse and inadequate access to education or employment.
"The hope is that by intervening to fix the underlying issues, we can prevent the shootings from occurring in the first place," she said.
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