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Philadelphia police are trying a new strategy to bring down the murder rate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many American cities reported a surge in murders in 2020. And some of those cities have seen that higher murder rate persist. Philadelphia broke its all-time record for homicides in 2021. And this year, the pace is only slightly slower so far. So the police department is trying a new strategy, asking detectives to work harder to solve shootings that do not kill anybody. Here's NPR's Martin Kaste.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO CHATTER)

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Lieutenant Dennis Rosenbaum has 26 years with the Philadelphia Police Department, 12 years as a detective. And he's never seen it like this.

DENNIS ROSENBAUM: My phone goes off all night long - triples, quadruples, quintuples, one after another, one after another.

KASTE: Right now, he's arriving at the scene of a double shooting outside a Chinese takeout place on Susquehanna Avenue. Other detectives have already marked out the trail of spent shells. Rosenbaum looks at the pattern.

ROSENBAUM: One, two, three, then ran up - four, five, six, shooting up the street. Obviously, at some point, he takes out that window, you know. All the projectiles when they eject, 7 to 11 feet, back and to the right.

KASTE: His guess is this was a run-by shooting. Both victims were hit in the foot not very seriously and are getting medical care. And that's what's different here. Even though nobody died, the police are investigating this as if somebody had. Rosenbaum is a squad commander in a new citywide team that investigates nonfatal shootings almost as intensively as homicides. They do ballistics, a neighborhood canvass for videos.

ROSENBAUM: Two detectives will go to the hospital. Two detectives will come here to process the scene. We're modeling a lot of our things after what homicide does.

KASTE: The chief of detectives in Philadelphia is Frank Vanore. He says the reason they're putting more effort into solving nonfatal shootings is that it might actually deter fatal shootings.

FRANK VANORE: If we start to see a group of shootings, if we don't get a few people off the street, that'll continue until somebody wins.

KASTE: This approach is based on research. Philip Cook is a professor of public policy at Duke University with an emphasis on criminal justice. And he's studied nonfatal shootings.

PHILIP COOK: Whether the victim lives or dies in most shooting cases is a matter of luck.

KASTE: It might just come down to aim or how close the ER is. And yet, Cook says, whether someone dies tends to determine how hard the police work to solve that crime.

COOK: 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. And certainly, the caseloads for the investigators was quite different.

KASTE: Almost all police departments solve homicides at a higher rate than nonfatal shootings. That's pretty normal. But the gap in Philadelphia is especially big. Vanore says so far this year, they've cleared about 51% of homicides, compared to 25% for nonfatal shootings since the new unit started two months ago.

VANORE: I expect and I believe that clearance rate will rise. I looked at Denver. Denver did this. Their clearance rate went up pretty substantially. I think we'll have success.

KASTE: But if this strategy is going to deter homicides, people need to be aware of it. And right now, the news is still filtering out to the most affected neighborhoods. At a free food distribution in North Philadelphia, Reuben Jones of the community group Frontline Dads is intrigued to hear about the police taking this tack.

REUBEN JONES: I definitely think that makes sense. One thing we know, the data shows that almost half of those shootings are retaliations. Let's do more of it and really hold people accountable.

KASTE: Back on the overnight shift, Lieutenant Rosenbaum is now at another scene using his flashlight to count bullet holes in a victim's car.

ROSENBAUM: He's got one in the windshield, one in the driver's side door.

KASTE: It's another nonfatal. The driver is in the hospital, wounded in the buttocks. He told police it was a road rage incident. But Rosenbaum doubts the story. He wonders if this is linked to the earlier shooting outside the Chinese takeout. It's a completely different part of town. And he says under the old system, investigators might not have looked for that connection.

ROSENBAUM: And then those guys would be in their silo over there in central division. Now we're all together. We all sit around the same area. Our desks are all near each other. They all talk. And that's what makes a big difference.

KASTE: But Rosenbaum also acknowledges that you don't get something for nothing. This citywide team has pulled detectives away from other jobs, such as robberies and burglaries. He says you just have to set priorities.

ROSENBAUM: You're just moving the resources around. So - and you got to adjust. We had to adjust with 1,800 shootings. We had to make a change. Hey, if it doesn't work, we go back to the old model. But let's try it.

KASTE: Two months into the strategy, the police department says it has seen a small improvement in the percentage of nonfatal shootings that it solved. But Rosenbaum says people should give them at least a year to see whether improving that number can also help to bring down the city's homicide rate.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.