Gauging gun violence in Miami-Dade complicated by jumble of records

City of Miami Crime Scene investigators scour a shooting scene.
City of Miami Crime Scene investigators scour a shooting scene. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Just how many people were shot in Miami-Dade last year? It’s hard to tell, at least for now.

Gauging the scope of gun violence in Miami-Dade — particularly involving young people — is difficult because a jumble of statistics kept by dozens of different police and state agencies can sometimes take months to be compiled or released to the public.

Hospitals, local police, the medical examiner’s office and emergency medical services all keep their own data on shooting victims but generally don’t compile the numbers in one place or regularly compare them across agencies, said Steve Dearwater, a former epidemiologist at Jackson Health System who helped develop a now-defunct program to track injuries to people in Miami-Dade.

“There are too many agencies that don’t play nice together, so it would just be a nightmare trying to get the data,” Dearwater said.

One trend is clear: Gun violence is nowhere near what it used to be decades ago. In the early 1980s, Miami-Dade County regularly recorded over 500 homicides a year — with 1981 logging a staggering 621 murders. In 2016, there were just 231 homicides in Miami-Dade, a far cry from Chicago, which has a similar population but recorded 762 murders.

Some data, of course, is easier and quicker to obtain.

The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office, which must conduct autopsies on victims, serves as a central repository for homicide cases. In Miami-Dade, there were 187 shooting homicides in 2016, down from 200 the year before.

But non-fatal “contact” shootings — when someone is wounded but survives gunfire — is first and foremost kept by police departments.

And with over 40 police departments in Miami-Dade, most of the small agencies with only occasional violent crime, getting a precise snapshot is often tedious and time consuming. Getting accurate historical statistics has even vexed prosecutors who have been working with police departments to try and plot out shooting hotzones.

Through public-records requests since early January, the Miami Herald was able to tally over 500 non-fatal contact shootings in 2016, up slightly from the year before. That includes big departments such as Miami-Dade, Miami and Miami Beach, which quickly replied to requests for stats.

But the number is incomplete because other relatively large agencies that frequently investigate shootings — including Miami Gardens, North Miami Beach and Homestead — did not respond to repeated requests. Another major department, Hialeah’s, would not run the data unless it was paid $130.

The Florida Department of Health, however, does compile statistics on shooting victims admitted into hospitals, including breakdowns on age. But data from hospitals and emergency rooms also takes several months to compile, so 2016 data likely won’t be available until at least the summer.

The same goes for crime statistics voluntarily reported to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Local police agencies don’t report “contact” shootings but will classify them by suspected crime: say, an aggravated battery or an attempted murder. FDLE publishes a breakdown of crimes in which firearms were wielded, though not necessarily used to wound or kill somebody.

In Miami-Dade, the total firearms crimes totaled 5,601 in 2015, a far cry from nearly two decades ago — in 1996, over 11,500 gun crimes were reported. Last year’s total won’t be available until at least May.

The difficulty in obtaining shooting data echoes broader concerns over researching the effects of gun violence. Decades ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used to support research into gun-related injuries, even completing one study in 1993 that found a correlation between having a gun in the house and an increased risk of homicide.

But the National Rifle Association, according to a report by Herald news partner WLRN, came out against the gun research and a law was crafted to squelch any research into gun-related injuries and deaths.

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