There's more to shootings than the numbers, says reporter who covers a lot of them

There's a moment, when he can get to a crime scene quick enough, where everything feels weightless. Peter Nickeas looks across the scene, reads graffiti so he knows the gang territory, notes where the police stand and sees where the dead fell. Last weekend, he had a lot of those moments.

The Chicago Tribune reporter starts his shift around 10 most nights. Between July 4 and 5, 21 people were shot, two killed. By the end of the holiday weekend, 82 people had been shot in 84 hours.

"It comes down to a very catchy headline, 82 shot in 84 hours," said Dan Haar, Chicago Tribune breaking news editor. Those numbers got picked up and retweeted. They told a story, but it wasn't the only story.

What strategies did the police department put into place that weekend, and did they work? Was there a failure in that strategy or a screwup? Is there an institutional problem?

"Talk about numbers, and all of the sudden that kind of argument fades," Haar said, "and all we care about are the numbers."

There still aren't answers about what happened during the weekend, and another weekend's about to begin. But through his reporting, Nickeas isn't just offering a tally. He writes about neighborhoods, people and moments that won't make the police report.

On Monday, Haar collected Nickeas' tweets and images from Tribune photographer E. Jason Wambsgans for "What it's like covering 82 shootings over 4 days."

That presentation is the outcome of what the Tribune has been doing for a few years, Haar said, "which is show people what violence looks like. Show them."

Two years ago, Nickeas went totally mobile, Haar said, working with a laptop, a camera, two mobile scanners and chargers. He can post from the scene. He tweets and shares Vines and photos and videos with Instagram. And he works with a photographer.

"It brings it to life," Nickeas said, "and it also allows you do to some different things with presentation, like create chapters."

They can't make it to each shooting, so they pick their spots or head for shootings that are close, then peel off, Nickeas said, and head to the next. They'll stick around longer, if people there are tolerating them, if they're talking, if the police are providing a narrative.

One way they share what they find is through a feature created by the Tribune called Scene of the Crime. Each entry is tightly written, with a large photo and different moments from the scene on the landing page and on the specific story. The stories allow people to walk right into the crime scene, Haar said. Here's part of one from May 29. The total story is 314 words.

The two detectives stood over the 14-year-old boy and lifted the blue sheet covering his body, focusing a flashlight underneath. As the sheet came off, the sobs from relatives grew deeper, more choking.

“They don’t believe it but I’m telling ‘em, they showed me his face,” said the boy’s 17-year-old brother Jose Diaz, standing a few feet away on Francisco Avenue just south of 64th Street. “How can it not be true?”

As the crying grew louder, three officers holding crime scene tape formed a line and nudged the relatives away from the body.

How and what he writes depends on what's happening, Nickeas said, but he writes as soon as he's able. For basic crime stories, he can write about a dozen shootings in 15 minutes. But he's there, too, to witness, to look for the details that make the people involved more than just numbers.

"Everyone can write what the police department gives out in their script," he said. "And that's what they are, they're scripts. Being out there adds value."

Nickeas and Haar didn't see each other until Monday morning, but by then, Haar knew all Nickeas had seen over the weekend. As Nickeas worked on his story, Haar worked on telling that story in another way.

Haar used ScribbleLive for Monday's collection of moments from the weekend. He wished it was tighter, that he had included more.

"The purpose of this was to walk people through this violence that they're always being told about or preached about or scolded about," Haar said.

See this, he said. See what it looks like.

"The numbers are one way of measuring it, and I'm not discounting it," Haar said.

It's a risk for Nickeas to be in many of these places, but one that he thinks is worthwhile. He wants people to slow down, to get past the ease of dismissing a crime because of the neighborhood where it happened and to see the results of those numbers.

Here are some resources for covering crime from Poynter's NewsU:

-- Resources for Covering Gun Violence
-- Journalism and Trauma
-- On the Beat: Covering Cops and Crime

-- Telling Smarter Stories About Gun Issues


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