SPECIAL REPORT

Nonfatal shootings in KC: Many bullets and little blame

In six out of 10 cases last year, victims declined to cooperate in catching their attackers, many times out of fear or distrust. Authorities then walked away, routinely shutting down the cases.

Updated: 2012-09-12T19:47:51Z

By CHRISTINE VENDEL

The Kansas City Star

A 15-year-old Kansas City girl came within 2.3 centimeters of death last year when a bullet intended for someone else sliced into her ear.

A 38-year-old man suffered five gunshot wounds in an argument over money.

A 21-year-old man survived a gunshot wound to the forehead after being ambushed at a neighborhood park.

In each case the victim didn’t cooperate with police, who then abandoned the investigation.

This scenario played out in Kansas City more than 175 times last year, The Kansas City Star found after analyzing all of the city’s nonfatal shootings — nearly 300 of them.

Overall, 60 percent of victims did not help police pursue their shooters, The Star found.

Each victim’s refusal kicks off a tragic cycle that obstructs justice, fosters more violence and stains the city’s reputation.

Without a victim, police stop investigating and prosecutors don’t file charges — longtime practices that shocked some national experts and police officials elsewhere. The shooters remain free and emboldened. Residents grow more fearful.

Because police abandon so many cases, detectives solve a small percentage. Last year, just 10 percent garnered criminal charges, according to an analysis by The Star. Even fewer will result in convictions or jail time.

“We’ve done a poor job of taking care of our victims,” Police Chief Darryl Forté said of his department. “They need to believe in the system.”

Though the percentage of victims refusing to cooperate varied in different swaths of the city, the problem clearly permeated every police patrol district, from north to south and west to east.

“That’s stunning,” said Pat McInerney, who just finished two terms as president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners. “It begs the question: Why?”

Victims and relatives interviewed by The Star cited a range of reasons, from fear of retaliation and a desire to handle it themselves to an ingrained anti-snitching culture and a lack of faith in police or courts.

The victims exist on a sort of continuum. On one end: innocent people, stuck in poverty and forced to live in neighborhoods that scare them. They know they will see the shooter, or his friends — but not police — in their neighborhood every day, so they take their chances.

On the other end: victims “in the game,” who shoot at people one day and get shot at the next. Their business, for lack of a better term, profits when police aren’t involved. They promote the no-snitching code as the prevailing culture.

Regardless of the reason, police shut down the cases, even if they have other witnesses and leads on suspects. Police statistics show they gave up on 67 cases last year after being unable to recontact the victims.

Investigators say they have limited resources, and Jackson County prosecutors won’t take cases without cooperating victims. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker confirmed that it would be extremely rare for her office to file charges.

“As a general rule, if we don’t have a cooperating victim, there’s no other way to go about it,” she said.

But experts point to other jurisdictions, including Baltimore, that regularly try such cases.

Research has shown criminals consider their chances of getting caught before deciding to act.

“If word gets out that you can shoot people and there’s little chance you’ll get caught, you’ve lost the deterrent effect,” said Volkan Topalli, a Georgia State University associate professor who has interviewed hundreds of criminals.

Shooting victims who don’t prosecute often don’t elicit much sympathy from the public, especially if they’re involved in criminal behavior.

But shootings affect more than just the people involved in a dispute, Topalli said.

“It never stays between the initial combatants,” said Topalli, who tracked a dispute from a Georgia dice game that sparked retaliatory shootings that dragged on for five years and killed five people, including a child.

Chicago researchers estimate that one in five youth homicide victims is an innocent bystander.

Gunshots possess a unique ability to terrorize communities, experts say, with their lethality, ability to kill from a distance and unmistakable staccato blasts. Meanwhile, researchers have estimated the social costs of gun violence to be $1 million per gunshot injury.

A city’s violent reputation repels businesses and development, Topalli said.

“There’s nothing worse for economic development than having a high murder rate and violent crime rate,” he said. “You may not care about offender-vs.-offender shootings, but that number still shows up in your statistics. … They (companies) don’t want to develop in places that are out of control.”

Forté remembers victims refusing to prosecute when he became a patrol officer in 1986. He thinks decades of shootings without repercussions have encouraged criminals “to continue to do what they’ve done.”

The Star’s findings convinced Forté that the department needed to review the way it handled such cases.

“It’s critical we change our practices in how we approach victims and show empathy on the front end,” he said.

A shattered life

One night last summer, Lee, a petite 31-year-old, was relaxing on an upstairs porch with her dog and boyfriend when they noticed a stranger walking through a dark alley toward their Northeast area home.

Lee’s dog started barking. Lee stood and waved, telling the man not to worry, that her dog wouldn’t bite.

She didn’t have time to lower her arm before the man unloaded more than 10 gunshots. Lee’s boyfriend hit the floor. Bullets peppered the home, carving nickle-sized holes and breaking the glass storm door.

One tore through Lee’s forearm and into her upper arm, where it broke three inches of bone. She fell against the wall and tried to crawl indoors. Unable to see the bottom half of her limp, bloody arm, she initially thought it had been shot off.

She wrapped it in a towel and wouldn’t let anyone touch it. Not even the ambulance crew. Doctors had to administer anesthesia before they could even look at it.

When Lee awoke after surgery, bandages wrapped her thigh, where doctors had removed skin and arteries to fix her arm. Inflatable air bags compressed her lower legs. Scary-looking hardware, to hold her broken bones together, encircled her arm. The bullet remained inside.

During Lee’s weeklong hospital stay, one detective paid a visit. Lee was too upset to talk.

The day Lee was discharged, her mother tried to drive her to a police station. Afraid, Lee refused to go.

Lee’s first night home, someone tried to kick down her front door. Her boyfriend, now armed, told the intruder he was ready. The intruder fled. The boyfriend later nailed their windows shut.

After two weeks, infection forced doctors to remove the frame around Lee’s arm earlier than planned. They attached plates and screws to the broken bones and removed the bullet.

Lee eventually gained the strength to lift the arm, but 10 months later her bones still haven’t mended. She can’t straighten her curled fingers or feel sensation in her forearm.

Her injuries were described as non-life-threatening, a term her mother often had heard on the news about shootings.

“You don’t think it’s any big deal,” Lee’s mother said. “I just couldn’t believe how horrific it could be.”

Lee’s new disability has been a tough adjustment for the former child gymnast and competitive softball player. A former waitress, she used to easily juggle plates, drinks and trays. Now she’s unsure what kind of job she could hold.

And she faces another hurdle: unshakable fear.

She previously loved time outdoors. Now the openness represents all the places a gunman could hide. And strangers she encounters make her wonder: Is that him? Is that who shot me?

The gunman knows where she lives. She can’t afford to move. She’s afraid any police action would give him a reason to shoot her again.

“It’s not worth it,” she said of prosecuting. “I’m afraid it will bring more trouble.”

A litany of excuses

It’s unclear how much intimidation or retaliation actually happens on Kansas City’s streets.

Victims and police report seeing some court records plastered on social media websites, put there by people who want to humiliate cooperating witnesses.

Name-calling, threats and vandalism also could be fairly common, police say. But little gets reported to them.

Victims rarely get killed for helping authorities, say police, who couldn’t recall a recent Kansas City case. Jackson County prosecutors remembered a rape victim killed by a hit man in 1979.

Still, many residents perceive the risk as high. And though violent retaliation may only occur in a small percentage of cases, the fact that it happens at all can deter victims, many of whom doubt police can protect them, experts say.

Victims’ other reasons for not cooperating included:

• They have no idea who shot them, don’t think police can figure it out and don’t want the wrong person locked up.

• They distrust police in general and think officers harass regular people.

• They are in too much pain when detectives approach. It’s the wrong time, they say, to be asked: Will you prosecute?

• They fear a court case will be time-consuming, frustrating and fruitless.

After all, Jackson County, with its deluge of cases, is not known for harsh sentences or high bonds that can keep suspects locked up.

And frustrations mount quickly in neighborhoods where thugs return from jail faster than overgrown lots get mowed.

Consider the case of a 26-year-old gang member accused in three homicides since 2007. He remains free after two Jackson County cases were dropped and a third resulted in a plea deal with a one-year, credit-for-time-served jail term. Arrested again in April on a suspicion of a gun charge, he was released after 24 hours, pending further investigation.

Meanwhile, some victims say no to prosecution because they don’t want police finding out what really happened, The Star learned.

One woman told The Star her son didn’t want to prosecute because a friend had shot him accidentally. Rather than admit that to police, he reported that he had been caught in someone else’s crossfire.

Other victims initially say they will help but provide wrong phone numbers, give bogus addresses, or ignore detectives’ calls and visits. Some curse at police and tell them to get lost.

Of all the reasons victims don’t want to prosecute, perhaps the most intractable is: They don’t want to be called a snitch.

An ingrained problem

After a gunman shot Jasmine, 16, in the leg in July as she stood outside a friend’s house near Swope Park, no one had to tell her to keep her mouth shut. No one had to threaten her.

She absorbed the code long ago.

“You just don’t say nothing,” said Jasmine, who while healing first had to crawl before moving to crutches, then a brace.

Her toes, still stiff and unmovable, suffered permanent nerve damage. She got shot, she admits, because she hung around people associated with gangs and guns.

She recognizes the insanity of the situation, that leaving shooters on the streets only makes neighborhoods more violent. But she says she doesn’t have a choice.

“I know who shot me, but I’m not going to say anything. … It’s how we live.”

A snitch is considered the lowest of the low in some neighborhoods.

Alvin Brooks, a former police officer, former mayor pro tem and longtime community activist, said he thinks most of the resistance to cooperation stems from people wanting to avoid that label.

He cites as an example a homicide victim’s mother who visited his organization for assistance. Her son had been carjacked while trying to sell his vehicle to pay for college. But instead of telling reporters who congregated outside Brooks’ office about that, her first words were: “I want you to know that my son ain’t no snitch.”

There had been rumors that he had cooperated with police, Brooks explained, adding, “She couldn’t stomach the thought that her son would be thought of as a snitch.”

Many victims say talking to police is tantamount to giving up everything they’ve known. They would have to move, lose lifelong friends and neighbors, and start over. And that’s if they could afford it.

When Brooks offered to help relocate witnesses, they refused.

References to snitching appear in police reports, too. A 19-year-old man shot in the shin, bicep and both forearms in October after a fistfight told police he did not want to be a snitch. He refused to provide suspect information or say where or with whom he had been partying.

Professors who have studied the issue in Philadelphia for more than a decade think it’s a by-product of years of over-policing and stricter sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses.

Residents in that city’s worst neighborhoods think police “don’t protect people like me. They just arrest people like me,” said Maria Kefalas, a sociology professor at St. Joseph’s University and the director of the Richard Johnson Center for Anti-Violence in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the cops are thinking, “But I’m out there trying to help,” Kefalas said.

From an outsider’s perspective, Kefalas said, it seems as if the victims choose this lifestyle.

“But it’s actually the other way around,” she said.

Missed opportunity

Jeff’s mom always told him not to go out late at night. Trouble will find you, she said.

Yet when the 19-year-old athlete and his brother got hungry one June night, they set off in their mother’s car for McDonald’s about 11:20 p.m.

As they returned home, another car pulled alongside.

“I thought it was the police,” recalled Jeff, who had filled out college financial aid forms that day as part of his plans to play football while attending community college. “So I told my brother to slow down.”

As they entered their driveway, bullets pounded their car. Jeff fumbled with the door. The bullets kept coming.

He sprinted behind his house and felt his shirt for blood. Holding up his hand, he saw none. Yet he reached the back steps too woozy and weak to open the door. When his brother let him inside, he collapsed. His brother lifted Jeff’s shirt, revealing three holes in Jeff’s abdomen.

Chunks of what looked like meat oozed from the holes. Jeff struggled to breathe, afraid he was dying.

“I love you,” he told his sister’s boyfriend before closing his eyes.

“Don’t be talking like that,” the boyfriend said, slapping Jeff’s face. “Stay with me!”

Police arrived and asked Jeff whether he knew who shot him. He didn’t. He couldn’t explain what happened because he was in too much pain.

Jeff underwent two surgeries and spent the summer in the hospital. Doctors left in one bullet, afraid removing it would cause more harm.

A detective who came to the hospital found Jeff asleep. Later, police sent Jeff letters asking whether he wanted to prosecute. Preoccupied with his recovery, he never replied.

“I was wondering how it was going to get better,” said Jeff, who still carries an ugly scar. “You could see inside my stomach. It took forever to close the wound.”

He later learned police had stopped investigating his case.

“I never said, ‘No,’ ” he said.

Now, nearly a year later, Jeff figures it’s too late.

To serve and protect?

A different approach by police might have persuaded Jeff to cooperate.

“I didn’t like the way police came at me,” he said.

He was one of several victims who told The Star police seemed unaffected by their pain and asked about prosecution while they were suffering or in shock.

Other victims said police treated them like suspects — accusing them of lying or being gang members.

Although some victims do lie about the circumstances of their shootings, police need to be careful not to lump average citizens into that category based on stereotypes or where victims live, experts say.

Police aren’t doing victims a favor by investigating — victims are putting themselves at personal risk for the community’s safety, said Philip J. Cook of Duke University, who is researching how police use their resources in fatal and nonfatal shootings.

Shutting down cases based on victims’ initial apathy or refusal means police lose valuable intelligence, experts say.

Jeff, for example, later heard a rumor about who shot him — information never relayed to police.

When investigations stop, witnesses, video surveillance and tips from relatives get ignored. Gunmen are allowed to flee.

Last July, someone shot a man in the buttocks at a cemetery funeral. Patrol officers immediately began an intense search, but shut it down the minute that word came over the police radio that the victim didn’t want to prosecute.

In September, Kansas City police noted a bullet inside a shooting victim’s car parked at a hospital but didn’t recover it because the victim, who was shot in the leg, refused permission.

Police also didn’t look for evidence inside several homes last year after victims refused access.

Police give away too much of their power when they allow shooting victims to dictate the extent of investigations, said Philadelphia Police Lt. Ray Evers, a department spokesman who spent 10 years in investigations. Philadelphia police go to a judge and get a search warrant when victims refuse access, he said. Police need to verify that the evidence matches what the victim is saying.

“It’s not his decision,” Evers said of the victim. “What if another guy’s dead in the closet? What if there’s guns in there?”

Philadelphia police continue to investigate using intelligence, street information — anything they can get their hands on.

“Anytime we have a shooting, we’re worried about retaliation, because that’s never the end of it,” Evers said. “If you have 10 shootings, there’s going to be 20.”

Kansas City police investigators defended their practices, saying “it’s the victim’s prerogative” whether to prosecute. They don’t think judges will grant warrants to search uncooperative victim’s homes and vehicles. Plus, their “end game” is prosecution, and they’d be “spinning their wheels” chasing unprosecutable cases.

No one knows how many shooting cases Kansas City police could solve if they pushed cases as far as they could go. But experts say catching even a few more shooters could reduce violent crime, because a small percentage of people are responsible for the majority of the violence.

As it stands, detectives respond to most shooting scenes and collect evidence and witness statements. They start each investigation assuming the victim will cooperate, said Sgt. Tom Dearing, who supervises the investigations. But all efforts stop once a victim refuses to cooperate. Veteran investigators say that’s the way the department has handled such cases for as long as they can remember.

Kansas City, Kan., police also shut down cases with uncooperative victims, but they have fewer of them. Their statistics showed last year they closed 15 percent of the 210 reported aggravated battery cases — shootings, stabbings and beatings — for that reason. The figure is lower than previous years because of new efforts by Kansas City, Kan., police to ensure adequate follow-up by detectives before closing cases, said Maj. John Cosgrove.

“We wanted to be more responsive and more accountable to our victims, and part of that was to make extra efforts,” he said.

The change, which started in 2010, resulted in a 40 percent drop last year in cases closed due to uncooperative victims for all crimes, he said.

St. Louis police say they don’t know how many victims refuse to prosecute shootings, but they don’t close such cases until the statutes of limitation run out. They rarely seek charges, however, because not having a victim is a “huge barrier,” according to a spokeswoman.

A spokesman for the Detroit Police Department said they don’t aggressively pursue cases without cooperating victims. They, like Kansas City police, say they need to focus their attention on cases with cooperating victims.

Kansas City police collect bullets removed from victims at hospitals and shell casings left at scenes in public places — even if victims don’t cooperate — and run ballistics tests that could provide links to other crimes, Dearing said.

But they don’t go back and try to solve the shooting.

“Even if we did know who the suspect was, we couldn’t pursue charges against him, because you can’t prosecute without a victim,” Dearing said.

They don’t question what prosecutors tell them.

Giving up too easily

Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor, said she thought the U.S. Constitution and Missouri law require that victims testify so defendants can face their accusers. That’s long been the belief in the office that she inherited a year ago.

Jackson County Circuit Presiding Judge Charles Atwell agreed that presenting a case without a victim would be problematic.

“There are circumstances when a case could still be made, but it would be difficult,” he said.

Prosecutors must prove who did it, that the victim suffered a “serious” injury, and that the shooting was not accidental or done in self-defense.

That can be a challenge without a victim providing his or her story, said Dawn Parsons, Jackson County’s chief trial assistant. How does a prosecutor prove that the suspect didn’t act out of fear?

Plus, juries want to hear from victims, Baker said.

“What the jury sees is, the victim doesn’t even care, and the victim was shot. Why should we care?” she said.

But these are all excuses, said Page Croyder, a former deputy state’s attorney in Baltimore, where authorities aggressively try to identify and prosecute shooters.

“You push the law. … The point is to try. You can’t give up so easily.”

The excuses set a tone for police, Croyder said.

“They’re obviously getting a mindset going there and a culture,” she said. “Then you see people get lazier.”

You don’t need a victim to testify, Croyder insists.

“It’s a case-by-case thing,” she said. “For any prosecutor to get the message out, ‘Don’t bother,’ takes the case-by-case out of it.”

Prosecutors can use witnesses, relatives, medical records and other evidence to try cases, she said. They can subpoena victims in front of grand juries.

The cases are too numerous and too important to let go just because a victim is uncooperative, said Mark Cheshire, spokesman for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office.

“We routinely file all kinds of cases without victims’ cooperation, provided there is other evidence,” he said.

Getting convictions against shooters is important, because they can be used later for harsher sentences, or even federal prosecution, against repeat offenders. But when cases aren’t filed because of uncooperative victims, the legal paper trail on shooters never develops.

Some prosecutors worry about their conviction rates. But high rates can be hollow, Croyder said.

“If you’re only going to charge 10 percent of your cases and get a great conviction rate, you’re not doing a public service at all. Clearly there’s an issue.”

In Baltimore, prosecutors lost about 70 percent of their 160 nonfatal shooting and weapons violations trials in 2004, according to a Baltimore Sun story in 2005 about the practice of prosecuting cases without victims. The office did not provide more recent statistics.

Jackson County prosecutors don’t track the dispositions of shooting cases specifically. But they filed 136 assault cases in 2010, which included stabbings and beatings but not domestic violence. Of those, they took just one case to trial and won a conviction. In 84 cases, the defendant pleaded guilty for an overall success rate of 75 percent. Other cases either remain pending or have been dismissed.

Laws against shootings exist and need to be enforced, said John Ashcroft, a former Missouri governor and U.S. attorney general.

In a shooting case, the victim actually is the state, he said. The shooting victim, meanwhile, is considered a witness.

“I think I would tend to side with Baltimore,” he said. “When you prosecute something, you diminish it. If you don’t, you’re very likely to see more of it.”

Ashcroft said his aggressive efforts to combat gun crimes during his time as attorney general “drove down the percentage to the lowest level in the history of record-keeping. … I’ve got a lot of faith in the idea that you prosecute that which you don’t want.”

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