Las Vegas Sun

July 26, 2014

Currently: 88° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

J. Patrick Coolican:

Here’s why hundreds of wannabe murderers are roaming our streets

Image

Metro Police investigate a robbery and shooting Friday, April 2, 2010, at a jewelry store in the 2400 block of Western Avenue.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Since 2010, the worst types of violent crimes, including homicides and assaults with weapons, have been on the decline in the Las Vegas Valley.

And the Las Vegas Metro Police Department has been particularly adept at investigating murders, with more than 75 percent of cases leading to an arrest, well above the national average of 65 percent for departments of similar size.

Buried within the data, however, is a troubling fact. In nonlethal shootings, when the victim survives, the criminal is more than 90 percent likely to get away with the crime, according to data supplied to me by Metro.

In 2012, for instance, there were 313 nonlethal assaults with firearms. Just 20 of the cases led to an arrest. Although the number of these incidents has declined 9 percent since 2010, the pattern of investigative failure has remained largely unchanged, with just 7 percent of all nonlethal shootings leading to an arrest since 2010.

In the past three years, 917 incidents of nonlethal shootings — 93 percent — remain unsolved.

Metro spokesman Bill Cassell told me that homicides, as opposed to nonlethal shootings, can be easier to solve. First, a corpse and a murder scene offer certain investigative advantages over, say, a highly dynamic drive-by shooting when the victim survives. The victim in a nonlethal shooting may also be uncooperative, fearing retaliation for talking to police or wishing to settle matters himself.

Also, Cassell said, in most homicides, the victim has some relationship with the killer. That in turn helps investigators narrow the number of suspects.

(Criminologists threw cold water on this explanation for fewer arrests in nonlethal cases. Why, they ask, would a victim who survives a shot to the shoulder be any less likely to know the perpetrator than a homicide victim?)

Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and now a criminologist at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice at City University of New York, said Metro is not alone in its failure to solve these crimes. Other large, urban departments have faced similar struggles.

Still, he said, it’s a glaring failure of basic policing.

“What's a police department for if not to solve gun violence?” he asked.

As O’Donnell noted, the only reason these shootings do not result in homicides is sheer luck — the perpetrators are poor marksmen and/or advances in traumatic medical care saved the victims.

Given the ongoing scourge of gun violence, O’Donnell said these shootings should be treated with the same investigative zeal as lethal encounters.

“It should be treated like homicide, and they should flood the zone when it happens,” he said.

O’Donnell said the failure to solve the shootings and make arrests erodes any potential deterrence: “You can pretty much bet you won’t get caught. Bad guys know this. Undoubtedly, some are repeat offenders.”

Other criminologists contacted by the Sun were surprised by Metro’s low arrest clearance rates, wondering whether the total number of shootings reflected police merely responding to “shots fired” calls.

Cassell clarified for the Sun that a “nonlethal assault with a firearm” does not include officers responding to a “shots fired” call. The incident only qualifies once an officer has investigated and determined there’s been a shooting with a victim.

Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkley criminologist and an expert in crime data, offered a blunt assessment of the discrepancy between homicide and nonlethal shooting arrest rates in police departments across the United States: “They don't care as much. So they don't invest resources in it.”

Metro’s Cassell replied: “We would love to have the resources to investigate with the intensity we do with homicide. In this economic environment, we simply don't have those resources.”

In recent years, Metro has eliminated 506 positions: 238 officers, 236 civilians and 32 temporary positions.

O’Donnell said a lack of investigative focus on these nonlethal shootings has become all too common.

One potential problem is that many police departments do not track nonlethal shootings. Indeed, Cassell said that to retrieve the data I was seeking, Metro analysts had to extract the numbers from other data sets.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports — the widely used data that police departments and policymakers use to compare crime from one year to the next and between jurisdictions — do not have a category for nonlethal shootings. Instead, aggravated assault is used to measure serious assaults; police arrest someone in about half of those cases.

O’Donnell said this is a flaw in how we measure crime. He also said there’s a disturbing — and baffling — lack of attention from the media and criminologists in academia on issues of basic policing.

“When people present themselves and say, ‘I was shot in the shoulder,’ how are you doing on those cases? That should be measured. For some reason, it doesn't get a lot of attention,” he said.

Last year, the Newark Star-Ledger used public records requests to compile data on arrests in nonlethal shootings in New Jersey’s nine most violent cities. The paper found 2,593 nonfatal shootings in those cities from 2008 to 2011, with nearly 2,000 — or 75 percent — unsolved.

After the paper’s story was published, Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio created a detective squad to focus solely on nonfatal shootings, acknowledging the need to invest more resources: "It’s kind of common sense. If you’re closing more shootings and you’re arresting the people that are doing the shootings, your numbers are going to go down."

Cities with detective squads that focus on nonfatal shootings — including Paterson, N.J., and Baltimore — have seen higher arrest rates, around 50 percent.

I realize Metro has struggled through budget cuts these past few years, but nearly 1,000 unsolved gun crimes in the past three years is far too many.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: 11 comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

  1. Where did all these aggravated assaults occur? Is there a geographical pattern that a well-placed police presence could aid in either detering or solving these crimes? Where were the cops and civilians who lost their jobs from inside LVMPD? Could they have helped? What about the More Cops initiative that was just passed in special session-can any of those forces be used to help?

  2. Cooklicsnt, look at the decline of the family. Can't look there, can ya?

    BTW, the decline of the family in this country began when one of your leftist presidents, LBJ, replaced fathers with government with his supposed "War on Poverty," 1964.

    You wanna do something good? Look into that (you won't)

  3. Without the requirement of background checks or record of sales transactions, guns and ammunition are easier to get in Nevada then a job to pay for them and guns become the life blood of the terminally unemployed.

    The irony is, that even if they were caught, the Governor couldn't find enough money for supervised incarceration, let alone IJT (in-jail training), so one of the few options left outside of jail would be to buy them a bus ticket to Sacramento or Long Beach and hope they didn't come back.

    If they were put in jail as punishment, the re-occurrence of this behavior after being released is a very high probability. Jail time alone isn't cure and more police only change the graphs, not the shootings or gun traffic. The solution isn't one thing, it is a matrix of coordinated actions and policies which cannot happen at this time.

  4. Young > minority > male...

    Gangs > drugs > guns...

    There are over 300 gangs represented in the valley. Three HUNDRED!

    We need to vigorously engage on the 'gang issue'. It's a COMMUNITY problem...and will take a concerted effort to address; people have to CARE why our young people 'need' to join/belong to a 'gang'. I would think that, considering all the 'root issues' involved, calling that an 'uphill battle' would be a fantastic understatement.
    Why do you think Chicago has all those shootings? See above.

  5. We can blame the police, the state, gun control or anything else but the fact is the public is the problem.

    In 99% of all shootings SOMEONE knows who pulled that trigger but either don't want to get involved or think it is better to not be a rat.

    The public is the problem with most things today yet the public will post and blame anything or anyone else they can for the falling of society.

    Want to see the problem, look in a mirror.

  6. @lovinglife,...."Cooklicsnt, look at the decline of the family. Can't look there, can ya?"

    So it's assertion that the reason Metro has such a poor solve rate for non-lethal shootings is "the decline of the family?"

    Walk me through your logic here. Are you alleging a lack of strong family roots among investigators is to blame for their lack of success? Do you have any empirical evidence supporting the breakdown of the family unit among Metro officers.

  7. I go to the core of why we have the problem in the first place. I'm a problem solver.

  8. We see the tv shows where they work on a case for 30 or more years when it's a homicide--even when the suspects are dead or in their 80's. MIGHT be more cost effective and prevent more crime if WE CAUGHT and lock up incorrigibly violent offenders. I'm NOT in favor of letting murderers off the hock but spending millions and millions 30 years after.... BRADLEY: 7:06. Seems like we agree about violent lower life forms.

  9. These statistics need be brought to the attention of the NRA and others that see no value to back-ground checks. I'd like to hear the NRA's reaction to this article.

  10. Having been shot at, with bullet holes in vehicle to prove it, after a non confrontational evening drive, it is clear that there is a problem out there. The police are going to be limited in terms of resources, responding usually after an incident. They are not to be blamed for the frequency of these assaults. My feeling is that there are too many guns out there, in the wrong hands. Perhaps tighter restrictions and more confiscations would help.

  11. "Perhaps tighter restrictions and more confiscations would help."
    What are you going to "restrict"? What are you going to "confiscate"?
    We've already throttled Metro by reducing the number of officers available to protect and defend the vast majority of people who don't shoot anyone, nor want to have to do so.
    Respectfully, I fail to see your logic.
    Molon Labe