A Murder A Day

Less Than Half Solved

Wednesday, December 15, 1999

More murders go unsolved

Detroit officials blame low 45% success rate on inexperienced detectives, lack of training

By David G. Grant, Kim Kozlowski and David Shepardson / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- The Detroit Police Department has failed to solve more than half the murder cases it handled so far this year, forcing about 200 families to end the millennium not

knowing who killed their loved ones.

The department's Homicide Section has come up with enough evidence that would lead to the arrest of a suspect in 197 of 411 homicide cases through Nov. 30.

Police executives blame the problem on the retirement of experienced detectives and the lack of time to train and season newly hired investigators.

The department's 45-percent success rate is far below the national average of 70 percent and is a sharp drop from 1995, when the department solved 62 percent of homicide cases.

Department executives vow to reverse the trend. "The closure rate is something that deeply disturbs us," said Cmdr. Dennis Richardson, head of the department's Major Crimes Division. "I am responsible. The buck stops here. We are trying to address the problem and implement things that will change the problem."

Laura Lewis has a personal interest in the department more murders. She and her husband are coping with the death of their son, 21, who was shot to death in June. Not knowing who killed their youngest child, Eric, makes the couple's life more painful, especially with the approaching holidays.

"It seems like they're not doing anything," Lewis said. "They said we should be patient. Right now, I'm very disgusted with them. People are killed -- and it's like just another young black was killed. It's just a number."

But police insist they never overlook any case.

"People's biggest fear is we have so many cases that we're not giving their case special attention," said Detroit Police Insp. Bill Rice, who oversees the Homicide Section. "But

that's not true."

Negative consequences

When police fail to solve serious crimes such as homicides, experts say it creates a devastating effect on the community, especially in cities such as Detroit that are trying to rebuild.

Instead of creating a new image in people's minds, criminals feel more confident committing their crimes while residents lose faith in their community as a safe place.

"When people get the sense the streets aren't safe and police aren't solving crimes, people who can move out of the city," said James Fyfe, a criminal justice professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. "It leaves a city destitute and desperate."

Fyfe, a former New York City police lieutenant, called Detroit's rate of solving homicide cases "surprisingly low," especially because criminals tend to kill people with whom they are acquainted.

The New York City Police Department has had a dramatic improvement in its record of solving homicide cases during the past decade because police routinely interrogate every

person who's brought in for questioning, Fyfe said. If a person is brought in for robbery, officials will offer to cut them a deal if they can offer information about an unsolved murder.

"It has solved an awful lot of outstanding homicides," Fyfe said.

Changes implemented

In Detroit, Richardson said he has instituted some changes in the Homicide Section to help close cases, including:

-- Sending more investigators to homicide scenes to make sure that nothing is overlooked and every scene is inspected correctly.

-- Working more closely with prosecutors to ensure that all of the paperwork involved in the cases is done properly and efficiently.

Last July, Wayne County Prosecutor John O'Hair blasted Detroit Police Chief Benny Napoleon and Wayne County Executive Edward H. McNamara for inadequately addressing the rising homicide rate.

Although the number of Detroit homicides dropped in 1998 to 430, the city's murder rate last year was still the highest by far among the nation's 10 largest cities. There were

roughly 42 murders last year for every 100,000 people in Detroit compared with eight per 100,000 in New York City and 25 per 100,000 in Chicago.

O'Hair wanted money to add five prosecutors dedicated to swiftly prosecuting murders and more homicide detectives to investigate homicides.

Fifteen new police officers have been brought in to the Homicide Section this year. But Richardson said it takes time to train them properly.

Meanwhile, the Wayne County Commission approved money in November for five more prosecutors in the homicide unit, doubling the number to 10. The five prosecutors started early this month, said Kevin Simowski, head of the prosecutors' Homicide Unit.

"The five of us reviewed nearly 450 murder warrants, handled 60 preliminary exams and tried about 20 cases," Simowski said. The rest of the 300 murder trials were handled by prosecutors assigned to individual courtrooms, he said.

He hopes to double the number of cases his unit's prosecutors handle.

"We're keeping a lot of cases that are complex, especially the first-degree murder cases," he said.

Attacking murder rate

The number of homicides in Detroit so far this year is 411, far below the 714 murders in 1974, and on track to mirror last year. But cities across the United States are

reporting more substantial drops.

In February, a task force of federal and state law enforcement officials began meeting in Detroit to tackle the stubbornly high murder rate.

Another task force made up of officers from the Detroit Police Department and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has been investigating drug-related homicides.

In addition, the Southeast Michigan Forensic Enhancement Initiative will help improve crime-lab programs for local and state police investigating murders. The group is also

working on doing a better job of catching fugitives, especially those wanted for murder.

The group also wants to create a Regional Crime Gun Control Center that would allow police better and faster tracking of all weapons confiscated in crimes, and would

provide the investigator with the gun's history and involvement in other crimes.

Richardson said if all of these efforts don't increase the homicide closure rate, more changes will have to be made.

"I am responsible for the citizens of this city. It's on my shoulders and I will see that the job gets done."

Copyright 1999, The Detroit News