The challenges in recording accurate shooting statistics

Hillary Ojeda, Iowa City Press-Citizen Published 5:08 p.m. CT Oct. 9, 2018

After a shooting injured two people last month, Iowa City took a moment to be surprised by what appeared to have been an anomaly for a city that had been relatively free of gun violence for quite some time. 

“This is the only reported intentional shooting of a person that I find for 2018 right now,” Sgt. Derek Frank of the Iowa City Police Department said of the Sept. 29 shooting. The two victims suffered non-life threatening injuries.

By this time last year, three people had been shot to death in Iowa City –an arguably simple stat to track by looking at police complaints, newspaper articles and court documents. But official records tracking the number of shootings and injuries resulting from gun violence are surprisingly difficult to come by.  

To start, the Iowa City Police Department doesn’t have a tracking system that counts the number of shootings per year. Offenses aren’t classified by whether or not shots were fired, if someone was shot or whether or not there was an injury, Frank said.

Some ambiguity is because various types of calls to the Johnson County Joint Emergency Communications Center related to shots fired are not the result of an actual discharge of a firearm. In addition, some actual shooting incidents may be logged as noise complaints, car backfires fireworks or other incidents. 

In order to know which shootings led to injuries, Frank said he would have to look at each individual report to confirm, which turned out to be the case for the neighboring Waterloo Police Department. 

“There’s no computer software that tracks shots fired,” said Waterloo Major Joe Leibold, which led him to task their records department to begin noting incidents in January so those incidents could better be tracked. 

Leibold says when an officer is on the street and determines a shots-fired call is legitimate, it’s now marked down in the records department. e a legitimate shot was fired, it’s marked down in the records department. 

They won’t have an idea of his method’s accuracy for 2018 shooting statistics until January 2019, he noted.

Fireworks, disorderly conduct, vandalism, a car backfiring or “loud noises”–these are just a few types of calls they get that could be the result of shots fired. “It’s endless, it could be just about anything,” Leibold said. 

Tracking the injuries resulting from gunshots is also very difficult. 

“It depends on how you define injury from gun violence,” Leibold said. But what he could try to estimate is the number of aggravated assaults that resulted from a firearm incident. An aggravated assault is a charge showing intent to inflict serious injury. 

The state of Iowa recorded a total of 6,321 aggravated assaults of which 920 involved a firearm in 2016. 

He said another reason data on injuries hasn’t been tracked is because the federal government doesn’t track those statistics. The Federal Bureau of Investigation does, however, track the number of aggravated assaults by state, type of weapon and year. 

Leibold said he now tracks the statistics in house so there is a clear record on the rate of shootings in the city. 

In Dubuque, police investigate each call involving possible shots fired, after they started to notice in an uptick in calls a few years back, said Capt. Scott Crabill.

By searching for bullet holes, recovering shell casings, observing traffic cameras and having multiple witnesses providing accounts, the Dubuque Police Department has been tracking its shooting statistics since 2015. 

Their statistics don’t include suicides by guns or accidental discharges that resulted in injuries. 

In 2015, Dubuque police recorded 33 confirmed incidents involving shots fired and four injuries. For the next three years, they recorded decreasing incidents and injuries. In 2018, they’ve recorded three incidents involving shots fired and one possible injury.

Dubuque has a population of about 58,000 and is about 85 miles northeast of Iowa City. Crabill said the police department bordering Illinois uses the records to discuss ways to continue lowering incidents. 

“And, we’ve been down every year,” he said. “We’ve been investigating every case, and bringing the applicable charges. And I think that’s had an effect.” 

Reach Hillary Ojeda at 319-339-7345, hojeda@press-citizen.com or follow her on Twitter at @hillarymojeda

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