2019 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom finalist

Free to Shoot Again

About the Project

Over the past few decades, violent crime rates have fallen, while investigative technology has improved. So it stands to reason that police departments should be arresting a greater share of shooters. But our investigation, done in partnership with BuzzFeed News, showed that police are leaving gunmen free to strike again, fueling cycles of violence and eroding trust in police.

The main feature, “Shoot Someone In a Major U.S. City, and Odds Are You’ll Get Away With It” detailed a string of nine shootings in Baltimore linked by a common individual. The feature included a review of over 1.5 million incidents, revealing that the clearance rate for murders committed with guns has dropped by around 20 percentage points since the 1980s — even as the clearance rate for murders committed with other weapons or by physical force has improved. In some departments, hundreds of cases aren’t investigated at all.

We supplemented our feature with a reader-friendly guide of charts and other visualizations. Among the key takeaways, detailed in our post, “5 Things to Know About Cities’ Failure to Arrest Shooters”:

– The entirety of the decline in murder clearance rates since the 1980s appears to be accounted for by law enforcement’s increasing failure to solve shootings of black and Hispanic victims. The clearance rate for white victims has actually increased.

– The racial disparity in arrest rates for murders and assaults is largely confined to gun cases. There is little disparity when these offenses are committed with other weapons or by physical force.

– The arrest rate for nonfatal shootings is shockingly low in many major cities, often below 25 percent.
Fatal and nonfatal shootings are intrinsically linked, but the lack of attention to nonfatal shootings prevents police from making those connections.

– Police frequently cite lack of cooperation from witnesses, and even victims, as a primary reason why so few shootings get solved. But we found detectives stretched to the breaking point, often with only a few days to work a case. Many agencies don’t even investigate a significant share of nonfatal shootings.

Many of our findings had never before been reported, and our investigation shed light on the toll unsolved shootings takes on victims, their loved ones, and the entire community. People we spoke to cited paranoia, thoughts of suicide, the urge to seek retaliation, and a complete lack of faith in law enforcement. “I’ve just felt like they looked at my son like he nothing,” said Janice Moses, whose son was the victim of two still-unsolved shootings.