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Experts say Louisville’s new nonfatal shootings unit needs resources, community trust to succeed

LMPD interim chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel sits down for an interview with WFPL's Roberto Roldan.
J. Tyler Franklin
LMPD interim chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel sits down for an interview with WFPL's Roberto Roldan.

Experts say Louisville police’s new unit dedicated to investigating nonfatal shootings is a move in the right direction, but its success would rely on treating those cases on par with homicide investigation and cultivating community trust.

Faced with low clearance rates and a Department of Justice consent decree on the horizon, the Louisville Metro Police Department will put resources into investigating non fatal shootings in Louisville with the creation of a new unit.

Mayor Craig Greenberg and LMPD Interim Chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel announced the Nonfatal Shooting Squad last week.The unit is headed by Lt. Stephen Lacefield and consists of two sergeants and 16 detectives moved from the LMPD’s homicide unit. The city is carving this unit out of the existing homicide squad and not adding additional funding.

“Homicide and nonfatal gun crime share many of the same characteristics and are often only separated by good medicine and timely responses by law enforcement. Our unit was started in response to this and given the resources to investigate these crimes with the same level of commitment that we do for homicide,” Lacefield said at a recent press conference.

Justin Nix is Associate Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He agreed with Lacefield’s assessment, saying investigating and solving nonfatal shootings can prevent retaliatory shootings, which are sometimes fatal.

“The venn diagram of people involved in nonfatal shootings and homicides shows it’s usually a very small number of people committing violent crimes,” he said.

Potential of a dedicated unit

There have been 208 nonfatal shootings in 2023 so far, a 6% increase from 197 last year, according to the latest weekly report from LMPD. The report said there were 78 homicides, four more than this time last year.

Greenberg said last week LMPD’s biggest challenge is the number of unsolved homicides, and this year’s homicide clearance rate stands at 40%.

Scott W. Phillips, a criminal justice professor at SUNY Buffalo State, has studied Buffalo Police Department’s nonfatal shooting unit. He said the rate at which detectives solve violent crimes overall can improve with this kind of dedicated unit, as long as police departments structure nonfatal shooting units in a way that mimics those that investigate homicides.

“They need to have the resources, the expertise and the ability to do what a homicide unit would do, that’s important. Just because one guy's dead, and another guy’s not, the case should still be treated the same. A shooter’s a shooter,” Philips said.

Historically, fatal shootings are investigated by dedicated homicide units with investigators who carry smaller caseloads and receive priority access to and support from crime lab staff, prosecutors, and others.

But nonfatal shootings are usually handled by detectives who aren’t specialists and may be swamped by looking into robberies, assaults, burglaries, thefts and other crimes committed in the areas where they are assigned.

Nix said beyond an initial response at the crime scene and continued investigative work over the following two days, shootings that injure but don’t kill don’t receive much action.

“Usually, nonfatal shootings aren’t followed up on as aggressively as homicides or fatal shootings are,” Nix says.

Lt. Lacefield said at the city’s press conference LMPD’s unit would spread out that work by having the lead detective interview a victim at the hospital while receiving real-time updates from on-scene detectives gathering evidence and speaking with witnesses.

Investigators in the unit were required to attend 40 hours of specialized training with the International Homicide Investigators Association, according to an LMPD press release. They also attended 40 hours of instruction through LMPD’s Criminal Investigations Course.

Representatives for LMPD declined to answer follow-up questions about the new unit.

Cooperation and community trust key in investigations

Without victim cooperation and trust, solving nonfatal shootings can be a hard road, criminal justice expert Phillips said.

“For example, if it's a domestic violence situation but there's no cooperation from the victim, prosecutions might be difficult. Without cooperation, without a good back and forth between the police and the community, you're never going to fix any of those problems,” he said.

At the announcement for the nonfatal unit, Greenberg said he would donate the remaining balance of his inaugural funds to Kentuckiana Crime Stoppers, a nonprofit that accepts anonymous community tips 24 hours a day. He said LMPD’s unit would work closely with that group in its investigation efforts.

“If you see something, say something. We can’t do this without the public’s help,” Greenberg said.

But against the backdrop of the DOJ’s report on LMPD officers’ pattern or practice of constitutional violations and excessive uses of force, Phillips, also a former police officer, said genuine efforts to build community trust cannot take a backseat.

He said that will require Louisville police officers to take a careful approach to interviewing witnesses and victims.

“You can’t arm-twist them,” he said. “Being a jerk, or even just being cold-hearted or robotic is not the way.”

Phillips also said regular oversight of the unit is important. Louisville has an Inspector General’s office that has an information-sharing agreement with police, as well as an independent Civilian Review Board. State lawmakers have so far failed to grant the board subpoena power.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.