This story was produced by The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system, and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.
When Denver police sped to the scene of a shooting on June 27, 2022, they found a victim lucky to be alive — and a case that could just as easily have been a homicide.
A man and woman had attempted to steal an unoccupied car that was idling at a gas station. When the owner chased them on foot, one of the assailants shot him in the face. Somehow, the bullet deflected off his mouth. He lost some teeth, but he didn’t lose his life.
The difference between life and death was a matter of inches or less, and in most big U.S. cities that arbitrary outcome might also have determined whether the shooter faced justice. That’s because major police departments devote far fewer resources to solving nonfatal shootings than they do fatal ones.
Police generally clear about half of homicides by arresting a suspect (or in extraordinary circumstances, by determining they cannot — for example, if the suspect has died). But when the victim survives, departments in some cities make an arrest in fewer than 1 in 10 shootings, according to data gathered by The Marshall Project.
But not in Denver, as the car thieves would learn. In the past few years, the Mile High City has set out to end the disparity between how police treat homicides and near-homicides. And other cities are taking notice.
In 2020, responding to an uptick in gun violence, the city’s police department adopted the uncontroversial but unusual approach of seriously trying to solve every nonfatal shooting. Officials created a new unit, the