DETROIT — It had been less than 24 hours since homicide Lt. Michael Russell had been summoned to a killing, and now, on a hot Saturday morning in July, he was headed to yet another.
One of his sergeants texted him with a message and a location: “Man, can’t get a breather, Fatal Shooting, Greiner/Fairport, John Doe.”
This time, the body had been found lying in a playground in front of the swings.
Since 2012, someone has been murdered nearly every 24 hours in Detroit, a city long plagued by violence. Despite sweeping changes to make the homicide division more efficient, police arrest suspects in fewer than half of all killings.
Russell said the explanation is simple: There are too many murders and too few detectives.
“The only way you can fix it is lower crime or to get more manpower,” Russell said.
Over a five-year period, each detective in Detroit has been tasked with solving an average of about eight new slayings annually - a caseload exceeding what policing experts say should be no more than five homicides per detective, per year.
Major police departments that are successful at making arrests in homicides generally assign detectives fewer than five cases annually, according to a Washington Post analysis of homicide caseloads in 48 cities, including Detroit.
The Post study found that departments with lower caseloads tended to have higher arrest rates, while departments with higher caseloads tended to have lower arrest rates - 39 of the 48 departments fell within that pattern.
The findings come at a time when homicide rates have fallen nationwide, yet police are making arrests less often- in 37 of the 48 cities, homicide arrest rates have declined over the past five years.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Solving homicides often hinges on a combination of factors, including community trust, deployment of detectives and departmental morale and leadership. It takes time and effort to train seasoned homicide investigators who are effective at solving cases. But the workload of detectives can be one of the most critical factors, policing experts said, leading to failures that perpetuate the cycle of unsolved murders.
Investigators wrestling with older, still-active cases are unable to devote their full attention to new murders, police said. This leads to fewer arrests and an even deeper backlog of open cases.
To explore the connection between staffing levels and homicide arrest rates, The Post surveyed 50 major city police departments for the number of homicide detectives they employed in 2016, the last year with reliable data. That number was then compared to the average number of homicides annually from 2012 to 2016 to calculate annual caseloads per detective. Two cities - New York and Philadelphia - declined to disclose the number of homicide detectives, and two others provided only current staffing levels.
While there is limited academic research about the correlation between detective caseload and homicide arrest rates, a 2008 FBI study concluded that departments whose detectives had fewer than five cases a year had higher arrest rates.
“Any city that has a homicide detective handling more than five cases is kidding themselves,” said Vernon Geberth, who wrote the textbook used by many police departments to teach homicide investigation. “Even the best detective can’t handle more than five cases.”
The Post analysis found nine departments in two categories that were exceptions to the overall pattern indicating a relationship between caseload size and arrest rate.
In five of the nine cities, detectives had lower caseloads but also had among the lowest arrest rates - Pittsburgh, Miami, Denver, Buffalo and Chicago.
Chicago had the worst arrest rate of the 50 cities surveyed - 24 percent of killings led to an arrest.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!
You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.
The department hired additional detectives in recent years, bringing its total number of homicide investigators to 208 and the caseload down to 3.1 killings per detective.
Kevin Graham, president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, said the department has struggled for years because Chicago had been down about 100 homicide detectives due to retirements.
“We’ve lost a lot of experience and knowledge in the department that hasn’t been passed on to these new officers yet,” Graham said.
Four other cities did not fit into the pattern because detectives had high caseloads but also had among the highest arrest rates for killings they investigated - Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Memphis and Tulsa.
In Tulsa, for example, the department has a comparatively small number of investigators - 10 detectives - who each handled an average of 5.6 killings a year. But the department made an arrest in 68 percent of the homicidesreportedfrom 2012 through 2016. Police attribute the arrest rate to their mobilization of the entire homicide unit for each case.
“We throw a lot of people at it. The whole unit comes in, the gang unit gets called in, and there is an immediate dissemination of information,” said Sgt. Dave Walker, who recently retired after overseeing Tulsa’s homicide unit for seven years. “We don’t have the same amount of murders of a St. Louis or Chicago. You wouldn’t be able to use the same strategy if you’ve got three murders a night. But for us, it’s still manageable.”
Police officials said the average caseload rates calculated by The Post, using the average number of annual homicides, may underestimate detective workloads.
In most cities, police deploy multiple detectives to investigate each homicide.
In Fresno, California, each killing is worked by a pair of detectives. In Boston, officials said the homicide unit is broken into eight squads of three or four detectives. In Richmond, Virginia, officials estimate that each detective assists in nearly 12 homicides, even though the average caseload is just under three killings per detective.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Homicides investigators also are often tasked with investigating other types of cases, including overdose deaths, suicides, accidental deaths and nonfatal shootings.
And annual average caseloads also do not take into account open homicides from recent years, which still require the management of witnesses and evidence. Those cases may eventually become “cold cases” after a certain period of time has passed, but until then, they remain the responsibility of the detectives assigned to them.
In St. Louis, the department’s 24 detectives have a rate of 6.4 cases per detective each year. Detectives are handling a backlog of open cases from prior years as the city’s arrest rate has steadily declined - from 56 percent in 2012 to 36 percent in 2016.
“While they may only get five for 2018, if they have something that’s not solved from 2017 - one, two, three, four cases - their caseload is now nine,” said Maj. Mary Warnecke, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s commander of investigative services. “It’s hard to keep those open cases and then work on the ones you’re getting fresh.”
Many police departments never fully recovered from the Great Recession, said Rick Myers, the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which comprises leaders from the largest police agencies in the United States and Canada. Police budgets and staffing levels were slashed, creating fierce internal competition for staffing - with patrol, property crime and violent crime units battling for personnel, he said.
“During a period of starvation, people are stealing bread and hiding food and not inviting anyone over for dinner. It’s kind of that way when it comes to resources in a police department,” Myers said. “Patrol is running short; they never have enough officers to staff their beats. But are you going to shortchange your investigative units so you can have more cops on the streets?”
In Stockton, California, police officials said they’ve had a shortage of homicide detectives since at least 2008, when the city was hit especially hard by the nation’s foreclosure crisis. The department was forced to lay off officers, institute pay cuts and leave jobs unfilled. The impact on murder investigations was immediate: The homicide arrest rate plummeted from 68 percent in 2008 to 24 percent in 2009.
“We were losing officers like crazy,” said Lt. Grant Bedford of the Stockton department’s investigations division.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
In 2012, Stockton filed for bankruptcy, and killings hit a record high of 71, which meant each member of the six-person homicide unit worked an average of more than 10 cases, Bedford said. The Post analysis found that the department’s detectives handled an average of 6.2 cases each year and made an arrest in 22 percent of killings in 2016.
Bedford said that last year he put together a proposal asking that the department hire six more homicide detectives.
“They said it looked really good,” Bedford said. “But I didn’t get anyone.”
Elbert Holman, Stockton’s vice mayor and chair of the City Council’s Community Improvement and Crime Prevention Committee, said the recession forced the department to cut about one-fourth of its force to repay creditors. But, he said, he thinks hiring more detectives would not increase the department’s homicide arrest rate.
Holman, who supervised the homicide unit at the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, said that Stockton’s low arrest rates are because detectives have failed to develop trust among the hardest-hit communities, which are often home to poor, black or Latino residents. Holman, who is black, criticized the lack of diversity within Stockton’s homicide division.
“The police department has no relationship in those neighborhoods. So people don’t talk to them,” Holman said. “You can put 150 more officers in homicide, and it doesn’t mean you’re gonna get more solved.”
Officials at departments that have been able to secure funding for additional officers said they have had trouble filling the open positions because qualified job candidates are deterred by increased criticism of police use of force. Fewer recruits in the pipeline leads to a smaller pool of homicide detectives.
“This is not a very wanted job anymore,” said Cmdr. Doug Eckert, who oversees the New Orleans Police Department’s criminal investigations division, which had a caseload of 8.7 homicides per detective in the Post study. He said the public controversies since the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, have made it difficult to recruit. “In some ways, we created some of this problem. But we’re not the total problem.”
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Even if a department can hire new detectives, police officials said it takes time before the officers are trained and can handle cases on their own.
In Phoenix, Arizona, The Post found the rate was four homicides per detective after a hiring spree, but the experienced detectives are each juggling about six cases, officials said.
“All of the investigative bureaus got thinned out. Now we’re trying to build them back up,” said Capt. Sean Kennedy, who runs the Phoenix Police Department’s violent crime unit. “I’ve got 12 brand-new detectives in my homicide unit who won’t start taking cases on their own for close to a year.”
When James Craig was hired in 2013 as police chief in Detroit, he became the seventh in 10 years.
He inherited a financial crisis - the city was an estimated $18 billion in debt and would soon file for bankruptcy, becoming the largest in U.S. history to do so. And his department had been under federal oversight for more than a decade for alleged civil rights violations, including illegally arresting witnesses who failed to cooperate in investigations.
“Despite that, we still had to manage running a police department,” Craig said. “. . . Here, we have fewer officers and we’re doing more with less.”
One of Craig’s first concerns was that the homicide unit was not solving enough cases - making an arrest in only one-third of its homicides. Craig promoted David LeValley from lieutenant to deputy chief and told him to come up with a new plan to solve homicides.
“A lot of our reputation as an agency . . . rests with homicide,” LeValley said. “You’re probably not going to look at a city and ask, ‘How many larcenies are there?’ “
At the time, the city’s 39 homicide detectives worked around the clock in three rotating shifts. They were dispatched from the downtown office to killings across the city’s 143 square miles. LeValley concluded that was too much ground for any one detective to cover.
He redeployed detectives into five investigative districts, with the deadliest areas getting the most manpower. He also eliminated the overnight shift.
“They’re not going to be out interviewing witnesses at 4 in the morning. So they’re watching movies in the office. It was a horrible waste of their time,” he said.
Under the new system, detectives go home at the end of the day shift and are called back to the office and paid overtime if there is a homicide at night. By moving the night shift entirely to daytime hours, each detective gained about a week of investigative time.
LeValley said he also began to require that the lead detective visit each homicide scene to increase ownership of the cases. Before that, the overnight investigators would process the crime scene and turn over their notes to the lead detective.
“Maybe somebody went to a scene that wasn’t necessarily focused, or didn’t have their heart into it, because they know this isn’t going to be my case,” LeValley said.
Officials said they believe the organizational changes have helped: In 2013, police made an arrest in 37 percent of killings. That rate improved to 48 percent last year.
“You have all your investigators available in the daytime to deploy all your resources on these cases instead of taking your small group of people and splitting them up over a 24-hour shift,” saidRussell, the Detroit police homicide lieutenant, who has worked under nearly a dozen chiefs in his 23 years with the department.
The police department remains understaffed because of recent retirements and competition with other city departments for limited resources, said Detroit City Council member Scott Benson, who chairs the council’s Public Health and Safety Committee.
“I’d like to give them more resources so that we can get our closure rate above the national average,” Benson said, but “we still have to clean the streets. We’ve got to cut the grass. We’ve got to be able to staff our offices. So, unfortunately, that’s not the only interest to Detroit.”
Detroit’s detectives handled about eight cases each per year, the Post study found.
Detectives with that many cases do not have time to stay in contact with witnesses and the victim’s family, brief supervisors in detail, and meet with the medical examiner, policing experts said.
David Carter, a criminologist at Michigan State University and a former police officer, recommends that each detective handle no more than three cases a year.
A smaller workload means a detective is able to respond more quickly to homicide scenes as they are discovered.
“Every piece of evidence or potential piece of evidence deteriorates with time,” Carter said.
When Detroit police were called out the morning of July 14 to the John Doe found dead on a playground, they realized they were already behind: Neighbors had heard gunshots the night before. The man had been dead for at least nine hours.
Russell huddled with patrol officers and investigators. He took a call from his captain.
“He’s laying in the grass . . . We don’t know if he is from the neighborhood,” Russell told his boss. “We are doing canvasses, trying to tighten up the timeline. . . . That’s all we got.”
Someone from the medical examiner’s office pulled the white sheet back from the facedown body: The victim was thin and wearing a black T-shirt, jeans and a pair of Jordans.
Bullets had torn into the back of his shirt.
The official flipped the body over so they could see the man’s face. He searched his pockets.
A wad of cash, about $200, was still in his pocket. Police surmised that this was not a robbery and that the victim probably knew his killer. They found a 30-round magazine tucked into the dead man’s pants, but no gun. A cellphone was next to his body.
The call history showed that three people had repeatedly phoned the victim - but stopped just before the killing.
Police found video surveillance footage from a store in the area that showed the victim with two men about two hours before the homicide. Police also found witnesses who said they heard gunshots and saw those two men and a third person flee the park. Police identified the men and soon determined they were the ones who had been calling the victim.
Police arrested two of the men and charged them with murder in the death of 19-year-old Armani Keith VanBuren. The third suspect has not been arrested. VanBuren’s family could not be reached for comment.
“Without the phone, it would have been much more difficult,” said Eugene Schaden, the lead detective in the case. “I think we could have gotten there eventually, but not nearly as quickly as we did.”
The Washington Post’s Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.