A new study says that fatal shooting cases are getting measurably more attention from police than non-fatal shootings. But one expert thinks giving fatal shootings more attention might not be the most efficient way to combat gun violence.
Fatal and non-fatal shooting cases often start the same way: A gun is fired; someone is hit.
But if someone is killed by those shots, the case gets handed off to the police department’s homicide unit.
And according to the Duke University study, cases handled by a homicide unit are nearly twice as likely to lead to an arrest.
Philip Cook, Professor Emeritus of Public Policy Studies at Duke University, led the study with a team of researchers from Northeastern University.
They analyzed over 400 cases from the Boston Police Department from 2010 to 2014: 204 shooting cases that involved at least one homicide, and 231 shooting cases where no one died.
Cook and his team found that homicide investigators have a far lighter caseload and more resources compared to the district investigators who handle the non-fatal shootings. This allows homicide investigators to spend more time working a case and developing relationships with potential witnesses.
“Homicide cases get more resources, higher priority,” Cook said. “The investigators stay with those cases longer, and that extra effort pays off.”
He says it is natural that homicides are given a higher priority during an investigation. It reflects the societal value of a human life. That’s consistent with the criminal justice system, where punishments for homicide cases are higher than punishments for non-fatal shooting cases.
“But if we shift our attention and say the reason it is important to arrest and convict and punish in these cases is to prevent future shootings,” Cook said, “then you get a different answer where it is just as important to solve a non-fatal shooting as a fatal shooting.”
But Cook says non-fatal cases are just as important to reducing gun violence because the shooters in non-fatal cases are often the same people who commit homicides.
“To control gun violence,” Cook said, “we need to increase the resources going to non-fatal shootings.”
Cook says police departments in Houston and Milwaukee have tried to put equal focus on fatal and non-fatal shootings. His next step is to study what happens to overall gun violence in those cities and others like them.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.