published Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Most nonfatal shootings go unsolved in Chattanooga

Chattanooga Police Department officers work at the scene of a shooting on 12th Avenue.
Chattanooga Police Department officers work at the scene of a shooting on 12th Avenue.
Photo by John Rawlston.
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If you shoot someone in Chattanooga and they die, there's a 62 percent chance that police will arrest you. If you shoot someone and they live, the chance that you'll get caught or that the case will be cleared drops by about half, to 33 percent, according to a Times Free Press analysis of shootings since the start of 2012.

The data show 184 shooting incidents in which 191 people were wounded and 27 people were killed between Jan. 1, 2012, and Tuesday.

With Mayor Andy Berke's plan to add manpower to the police department, police Chief Bobby Dodd hopes to improve those arrest percentages.

Thanks to the 40 additional officers included in Berke's proposed 2014 budget, Dodd expects to augment his investigative units with 20 more detectives.

But even with the extra manpower, the department still will have fewer officers per capita than it did in 2000. And calls for service have risen faster than the population.

Records show the number of Chattanooga police officers peaked in 2000, with 463. They served a population of about 155,554, or about one officer for every 335 residents. Calls for police service totaled just under 170,000.

Last year, there were 461 officers with an estimated population of 171,279 residents, or about one officer for every 371 residents. Officers answered well over 200,000 calls for service.

Berke is authorizing funding for 486 officers. But even then the ratio will be one officer for every 352 residents.

"My hope is that it's enough," Berke said. "We have to be smarter. We have to be more effective. We have to be doing the right things. ... If it turns out we need to look at the numbers again to fund our priorities, we certainly will."

He also noted that the department will undergo a management study.

Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York, said Chattanooga is not the only city where there is such a low closure rate for nonfatal shootings. He said many cities are still learning to make gun violence a priority.

"Realistically, many shootings would be homicides if it wasn't for the fact that the shooter was a bad shot or medical care was readily available," said O'Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor. "Shootings should be at the top of the heap in terms of priorities. A lot of cities have yet to figure that out."

Berke has pledged to stop the shootings.

•••

Chattanooga police Capt. David Woosley, who oversees the department's major crimes unit that investigates crimes including homicides, rapes, robberies and kidnappings, said he expects investigators will be able to increase the arrest numbers.

"If we can stop those repeat offenders, then by default, those numbers must go down," he said. "I know that if I were involved in a violent crime and knew the likelihood of me getting caught was very small, certainly that would play into me doing it again."

The bullets continue to fly.

On Tuesday, a pregnant teen was shot and wounded while standing outside a home at the East Lake Courts housing projects.

The odds are in favor of the shooters. Chances are they won't get caught. Chances are they have been in and out of jail on other charges.

Of the 41 people accused of shooting someone and arrested by police in 2012, 71 percent had at least one other arrest, according to Hamilton County General Sessions Court records. On average, the defendants had 12 other charges from other incidents.

Of those arrested in 2012, at least 14 were documented gang members. Six were juveniles.

And the caseload for detectives never seems to ease.

Detectives who work major crimes, on average, pick up five new cases each month, Woosley said. Fatal shootings are automatically given a higher priority and more resources.

"We handle each [shooting] like a potential homicide," Dodd said.

Two homicide detectives and a crime scene unit are sent out to the scene of every shooting. Resources are either scaled back or added depending on the case, Woosley said. A scanner using laser and camera technology maps details of homicide scenes, but isn't necessarily used in every shooting case.

In Tuesday's shooting, two detectives are assigned, though many more investigators pitched in to interview witnesses at the scene.

"If we need to interview 100 more witnesses we will," Woosley said.

Oftentimes, though, even the victims prove to be an obstacle in shooting investigations.

Sometimes, detectives only learn of gunshot wound victims when they show up at a hospital. It's not always clear where the crime scene is located, and victims are sometimes uncooperative.

Dodd said some witnesses won't come forward unless someone dies.

"People are now looking at shootings the way we used to look at fistfights," he said.

The result is shooters continue to go free.

So far this year in Chattanooga there have been 80 shooting incidents with 95 victims. At the same time in 2012, there had been 57 shooting incidents with 65 victims.

"Word is out on the street, often in the communities," O'Donnell said. "People know who the shooters are, and understand they are out, and not caught. If you want to see a lawless culture in a community, that's one good way to get it."

"When people say, 'Isn't that the guy who shot another guy a week ago?' and he's hanging out at the mall or walking down Main Street."

•••

The department has been inconsistent in how it internally tracks shootings. Major crimes investigators track and tally shootings differently. And the public isn't always notified of shootings through department news releases. The Times Free Press routinely compiles a shooting log that is cross-checked with the department's log. It's not uncommon for shootings to be missing, have incomplete information or for there to be discrepancies.

Dodd said he plans to fund a crime analyst position using money from his upcoming 2014 budget to better track crime data, including shootings throughout the city.

Of course, many police departments don't even track nonfatal shootings, O'Donnell said.

The FBI, which mandates the types of statistics departments must track, does not have a category for nonfatal shootings.

Those fall under aggravated assaults, which could range from a drunken bar brawl resulting in minor injuries to a drive-by shooting leaving a bystander in critical condition.

O'Donnell said there needs to be a reporting category for shootings.

"It should be homicides and shootings right at the top of the list," he said.

Contact Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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