The Philadelphia Police Department has launched a new unit dedicated to investigating nonfatal shootings — a major structural shake-up amid a gun violence crisis that has left people injured or killed in record numbers.

The unit has a captain, four lieutenants, and about 40 detectives who focus exclusively on incidents of gunfire in which victims survive. The department has long struggled to make arrests in such cases, with nearly 8 in 10 shootings over the last five years considered unsolved.

The undertaking, begun in recent weeks, is among the first large-scale reorganizations under Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and places the department in relatively unique territory nationally.

The goal, Outlaw said, is to ensure that investigators prioritize shootings in the same way they do homicides.

“Our caseloads have increased dramatically with these upticks in violence that we’re seeing,” she said in a December interview ahead of the unit’s launch, “and we recognize that we need to be putting the same amount of effort — if not more sometimes — into the investigations of our nonfatal shootings.”

Shooting cases in Philadelphia had previously been handled geographically, with detectives in bureaus also responsible for investigating nearby robberies, assaults, and other crimes. The new idea is that detectives responsible for just shootings have more time to find useful evidence and build relationships with victims.

Still, questions remain about whether the unit can increase the department’s so-called clearance rate. Obtaining reliable information from witnesses and victims will remain a challenge for a host of long-standing reasons: many residents’ deep mistrust of police, fear of retaliation from those who shoot, and apprehension about testifying in court.

And the caseload for investigators will be huge — more than 1,800 people were shot and survived last year alone, meaning each detective could be assigned more than 40 shootings each year. That’s about 10 times the recommended caseload for homicide detectives.

The stakes are high. Nonfatal shootings can leave victims with lasting trauma and life-changing injuries. And some law enforcement experts and community advocates say improving the clearance rate in such cases is a critical step to stem the surge of gun violence, which ticked up for several years and exploded in spring 2020, leading to record-breaking numbers of shootings and homicides.

Capt. John Walker, commanding officer of the new unit, said detectives working shootings citywide and coordinating more closely with homicide investigators will improve case outcomes over time.

He pointed to the shooting last week of a 12-year-old girl in Feltonville, who was standing among a crowd of people in the middle of the afternoon when a gunman drove by and sprayed at least seven bullets. The girl was hit in the stomach and hospitalized.

Walker said a man went to the hospital later in the day with a gunshot wound and said he’d been shot in a different part of the city. But detectives in Feltonville had just obtained surveillance footage showing the man among the crowd. Had those detectives been working in their old geographic divisions, he said, they might not have made the connection.

The gunman remains at large. But Walker said every piece of evidence improves their understanding of the dynamics of a shooting and can help build cases more likely to succeed in court.

“The ultimate thing is prosecution,” he said. “We always got to build the best evidence case.”

District Attorney Larry Krasner said he and Walker have discussed the new unit and talked about finding ways to ensure that detectives are afforded enough time to strengthen cases.

Krasner called the unit a “positive step in the right direction.” He said the reorganization will bring the department into better alignment with his office, which expanded its homicide unit to include nonfatal shootings in 2018.

“People want resources dedicated to the most terrible, vicious crimes,” he said.

Some experts argue that securing justice in nonfatal shootings is as important as solving homicides when it comes to deterring violence, but few departments nationally have units dedicated to them. Notably, the Denver Police Department launched a nonfatal shootings team in 2020 and saw its clearance rate increase from less than 40% to 65% in its first year.

Oftentimes nonfatal shootings can be more challenging to solve than homicides, said Philip J. Cook, a Duke University professor of public policy who has studied clearance rates. In most jurisdictions, he said, police solve homicides at a higher rate than nonfatal shootings.

Last year in Philadelphia, police made arrests in about 17% of nonfatal shootings as opposed to nearly 30% of fatal cases, according to data compiled by the District Attorney’s Office.

Cook said there are a variety of reasons for the gap. Often homicide detectives are able to stick with a case for longer and canvass more territory or double back with reluctant victims. Some witnesses are more likely to come forward in a homicide investigation because they view it as more serious. And he said a “remarkably high” number of shooting victims don’t cooperate with investigations.

Advocates who work with crime victims say police must show patience with gunshot survivors to develop trust.

“Nobody wants to answer questions right after they’ve been shot,” said Rosalind Pichardo, a trauma advocate and founder of the nonprofit Operation Save Our City. “A lot of times they are scared when they’re in the emergency room, or they don’t know who’s waiting for them or who knows what information. Timing is key with victims.”

Walker said investigators in the new unit are positioned to spend more time with victims. He said when detectives have more manageable caseloads, and aren’t juggling other types of crimes, their stress levels are lower and “they go into the hospital and it’s more conversational than aggressive.”

Detectives are also working more closely with victim service organizations and the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, he said, to better coordinate social services for those who have been shot.

“When you have a team of people who can be patient and persistent with interacting with people,” he said, “that becomes a huge, huge part of this process.”