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Philadelphia set a homicide record in 2021. Now police hope a new tactic deters crime

Sgt. Joe Dydak and Lt. Dennis Rosenbaum examine bullet holes in a car. They're part of the Philadelphia Police Department's new citywide team investigating nonfatal shootings.
Martin Kaste
Sgt. Joe Dydak and Lt. Dennis Rosenbaum examine bullet holes in a car. They're part of the Philadelphia Police Department's new citywide team investigating nonfatal shootings.

In most cities that saw a surge in homicides during the pandemic, it's the worst it's been since the early 1990s. In Philadelphia, it's the worst it's ever been.

The city set its all-time record for homicides in 2021, with 562 deaths, and is maintaining that pace so far this year.

Driving that number is a more generalized increase in gunplay. Homicides aside, last year about 1,800 people were shot and wounded.

"My phone goes off all night long," says Lt. Dennis Rosenbaum, a 26-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department. "Triples, quadruples, quintuples — one after another."

Rosenbaum is a squad commander with a new citywide team of about 40 detectives focused specifically on nonfatal shootings.

"We're modeling a lot of our things on what homicide does," Rosenbaum says at the scene of what he judges to be a "run-by shooting" outside a Chinese takeout store in early March. The street has been closed and yellow evidence markers show the trail of spent bullet casings.

"Two detectives will go to the hospital, two detectives will process the scene," Rosenbaum says. He says it's more manpower than they used to dedicate to an incident with minor injuries. And he says the citywide approach also makes it easier to find connections between different shootings.

Connecting shootings is a big reason for this new strategy

"Now we're all together. We all sit around in the same area, our desks are all near each other, they all talk — that's what makes a big difference," he says.

Connecting shootings — to head off the retaliatory violence — is a big reason for this new strategy.

"If we start to see a group of shootings, if we don't get a few people off the street, that will continue until somebody wins," says Philadelphia Police Department's chief of detectives Frank Vanore.

Generally, police departments solve — or "clear" — nonfatal shootings at a lower rate than homicides. In Philadelphia, for instance, Vanore says so far this year his detectives have solved about 51% of homicides, versus 25% of nonfatal shootings.

Duke University professor of public policy Philip Cook has studied how police allocate investigative resources, and he says this gap is not unusual.

"One thing that we found in Boston is that for every type of evidence, there was simply more of it being collected in the case of a homicide investigation," he says.

In theory, nonfatal shootings should be easier to solve, since the victim is alive and can provide evidence. But many victims don't speak up either out of a fear of retaliation by the shooter or a simple refusal to "snitch." Experts say the difficulty is compounded by the fact that detectives on nonfatal shootings generally carry more cases than their counterparts in homicide, and have less time to coax witnesses into cooperating.

The result, Cook says, is very different levels of response to crimes that start out the same — an attempt to kill someone.

"Whether the victim lives or dies in most shooting cases is a matter of luck," Cook says.

Crime deterrence depends on whether people have a sense that punishment will be "swift and certain"

Most criminologists have come to agree that crime deterrence depends less on severity of punishment than it does on whether people have a sense that punishment will be "swift and certain." For this reason, they say you would expect shootings to increase in a city where there's a general impression than shooters are rarely identified and arrested.

That's an impression the Philadelphia Police Department hopes to reverse. So far, the news of the nonfatal shootings investigations team is just beginning to filter out to the most affected neighborhoods. In North Philadelphia, Reuben Jones, director of the community group "Frontline Dads," welcomes the new approach.

"I definitely think that makes sense," Jones says. "One thing we know the data shows almost half of those shootings are retaliation. So something like that, I can publicly applaud and say 'Good job, good start, let's do more of it and really hold people accountable.' "

But there are inevitable trade-offs. If a department uses more staffing to investigate nonfatal shootings, it means less effort for other kinds of crimes, such as robberies and burglaries.

"You're just moving the resources around," Lt. Rosenbaum says. But he thinks this is what he and his detective colleagues should be focused on, right now.

"We had to adjust, with 1,800 shootings," he says. "We had to make a change. Hey, if it doesn't work, we go back to the old model. But let's try it."

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Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.