Decreased Police Budget: Increased Unsolved Crime, Botched Investigations, Wrongful Arrests and Convictions
Thomas Hargrove, Scripps Howard News Service, reported last month that 6,000 homicides go unsolved in this country each year. Hargrove said the number of “unsolved homicides” has risen at an alarming rate even though the nation’s homicide rate has decreased to levels last seen in the 1960s. Most of these unsolved homicides occur in dozens of the nation’s largest cities.
“This is very frightening,” Bill Hagmaier, Executive Director of the International Homicide Investigators Association, said of the Scripps Howard study which involved a detailed examination of crime records provided by the FBI. “We’d expect that – with more police officers, more scientific tools like DNA analysis and more computerized records – we’d be clearing more homicides now.”
Network television shows like CSI and NCIS, which hail the so-called marvels of “forensic evidence,” have lulled Americans into thinking that crime fighting will surely catch the bad guys and put them away. Not so, and it is indeed “frightening” to realize that between 1980 and 2008 nearly 185,000 homicides in this country went unsolved. The Scripps Howard study reported “experts” as saying the traditional “crimes of passion” involving assailants who are quickly identified have been replaced with “drug-and-gang related” killings in areas where lack of witness cooperation is a major problem. The “don’t snitch” mentality.
Valencia Mohammed lives in Washington, D.C., an area with a significant number of unsolved homicides relating to drug/gang violence. “When my first son was killed,” she told Hargrove, “I was embarrassed and ashamed. Why did this happen to me? But when my second son died, I decided I’d had enough and wanted to be an advocate for murder victims.”
The grieving mother found her 14-year-old son shot to death in his bedroom in 1999 and five years later learned that her 23-year-old son had been shot to death on a city street. She demanded a meeting with the Washington, D.C. police department who informed her that there had been 3,479 unsolved homicides in the city since 1999. Her 14-year-old son’s murder was one of them, and while the killing of her 23-year-old son was solved, it took the police four years to do it. This mother had enough: she founded Mothers of Unsolved Murders.
The sheer volume of “unsolved homicides” is alarming enough, but the differences in the “solved homicide” rate among nation’s largest police departments is even more disturbing. For example, Chicago police solved 35 percent of that city’s homicides, New Orleans police solved 22 percent of its homicides, and the Detroit police managed to solve even less, 21 percent. Yet police departments in cities like Philadelphia (75 percent), Denver (92 percent) and San Diego (94 percent) enjoy a much higher rate of solved homicides.
Why do the nation’s top 25 police departments have such a disparate solved homicide rates?
The situation with the Philadelphia Police Department may offer a clue. In 2006 the department saw the city’s solved homicide rate drop to 56 percent. Newly-elected Mayor Michael Nutter declared the city faced a “crime emergency.” Hargrove reported that Nutter hired Washington, D.C.’s former police chief Charles Ramsey to head the city’s police department. The new chief promptly placed Capt. James Clark in charge of the homicide department with a clear mission: maintain a “results-based oversight of murder investigations similar to total-quality management methods first employed by Japanese manufacturers.”
“This is just like in any industry,” Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross told Hargrove. “If you don’t work a job, then it’s not coming in. That’s the saying around here. So we make our guys work the jobs.”
Charles Wellford is a criminologist at the University of Maryland. He has studied the way police departments work murder investigations. “We’ve concluded that the major factor [in the solved/unsolved homicide rate] is the amount of resources police departments place on homicide clearances and the priority they give to homicide clearances,” the respected criminologist told Hargrove. “If police departments say it’s unacceptable to have clearance rates of 50, 40, even 30 percent, then those rates will rise. They begin to institute smart policing.”
Annise Parker was sworn in as Houston’s new mayor on January 2, 2010. Nearly three months later the mayor appointed a veteran of the Houston Police Department “HPD”), Charles McClelland, to replace the department’s retiring police chief, Harold Hurtt. The HPD under Hurtt’s leadership was rocked by one scandal after another. We reported about the scandals: here, and here, and here, and here. We don’t know if Chief McClelland will be able to accomplish what Chief Ramsey has accomplished with Philadelphia’s police department: to create a “results-based oversight” management style. McClelland had been in office less than six weeks before he faced two major “police brutality” scandals.
While we do not have recent data on Houston’s unsolved homicide rate, the State of Texas enjoys a solved homicide rate of 71percent while the Dallas Police Department had a solved homicide rate of 58 percent in 2007 and 82 percent in 2006. The DPD estimated that it had 700 unsolved homicides between 1990 and 2008. The DPD”s 2007 solved homicide rate of 58 percent is comparable to the HPD’s solved rate of 59.6 percent in 2004, the last year for which we could find reliable data. What we do know is that the HPD has 1023 unsolved homicides on its hand as of June 5, 2010.
While we understand that the “code of silence” in some communities does significantly contribute to homicides going unsolved, we believe that by far most unsolved homicides are attributable to ineffective police work. This was exampled in a case reported about in the Houston Chronicle on June 3, 2010: Marty Anton Koci. Koci, a 38-year-old sandblaster, disappeared in January 2009, leaving behind four children and a long personal history of drug use. His social status lacked sufficient standing to warrant an initial concerted law enforcement effort to determine the reason for his disappearance. That was left up to Koci’s mother, according to the Chronicle. After the family filed a missing person’s report and in the face of the attitude by investigators with the Harris County Sheriff’s Department that Koci was probably on a “drug binge,” Patti Koci hired a private investigator named Mark Stephens to find out what happened to her son.
Stephens’ investigation quickly determined that Koci left a drug party on the night of his disappearance. The drug party was at a motel in Crosby. Koci left with the motel with what the Chronicle called a “known drug dealer.” The drug dealer returned to the motel alone driving Koci’s vehicle and in possession of Koci’s cell phone. Those three facts should have caused homicide investigators to realize Koci was the victim of “foul play,” and had Koci been anyone other than a drug user, investigators probably would have come to that realization.
Three months after Koci’s disappearance a dog dragged a human skull into “the yard of a Crosby residence,” reported the Chronicle, “but a search turned up no other remains.” The newspaper said a “search of the area” did not turn up any additional remains, and even though the skull was later identified as Koci, homicide investigators still did not suspect “foul play” because the skull “showed no sign of injury.”
Let’s recap a minute: Koci and a “known drug dealer” leave a party together. The drug dealer returns alone. He has Koci’s vehicle and cell phone. Koci’s skull is found three months later by a dog. The skull shows no sign of injury. “Foul play” is not suspected. If that’s not a recipe for a homicide going unsolved, we don’t know what is.
Two months after Koci’s skull was found Stephens went to the end of the street where the body part had been discovered and searched an adjacent field. The Chronicle reported it took the private investigator “five minutes to come across Koci’s skeletal remains” which had been damaged by a brush mower. Stephens informed the sheriff’s homicide detectives about his findings. Armed with this information, homicide detectives finally went after the “known drug dealer.” They found witnesses who saw the drug dealer return to the motel in Koci’s car,
and in July, they seized the vehicle at the home of the drug dealer’s sister. A search of the vehicle revealed two spent .40 caliber bullets and “traces of Koci’s blood.” Detectives determined that the bullets found in the car and one found in Koci’s body had been fired from a .40 caliber Glock pistol. Detectives also learned that the drug dealer had been stopped on a routine traffic violation two weeks after Koci’s disappearance. Officers found a .40 caliber Glock pistol in the SUV, but it was charged to a passenger in the vehicle because it was closest to him and he was a convicted felon. And, finally, a month after Koci’s disappearance the known drug dealer confessed, and pleaded guilty, to using the same Glock to pistol whip his girlfriend around the time of Koci’s disappearance.
With all this incriminating evidence, Stephens and Koci’s mother were convinced the “known drug dealer” would be charged with Koci’s murder. But in October 2009 a grand jury refused to return an indictment against the man. That news devastated Koci’s mother who died a few weeks later. At first glance the grand jury’s decision not to indict seems perplexing. But not when all the facts were revealed. First, after the “gun possession” charge was resolved against the “convicted felon,” the weapon was destroyed. Then several weeks before the grand jury met Koci’s seized vehicle was “sold at auction” by the sheriff’s department unbeknownst to the homicide detectives.
Lt. Rolf Nelson addressed the issue of the Glock’s destruction with the Chronicle. “Basically, an unfortunate set of circumstances led to an error,” he said. “Seldom do you have one piece of evidence that’s connected to two cases. It shouldn’t have occurred, but it did. It was an error.”
And what about the “known drug dealer?” Homicide detectives have employed a new tactic to go after him after so many missed opportunities. They asked the district attorney’s office to file an “illegal possession of a firearm by a felon” against him. Detectives theorize if they get the suspect in jail, witnesses will come forward about Koci’s murder. The district attorney’s office has remained mum about the case and its intention. And for the good reason, Houston criminal defense attorney Mark Bennett pointed out to the Chronicle: “If I were on that case, I’d make a big fuss needing my own expert to evaluate the ballistics on the gun, and that’s impossible now. I’d be objecting to the judge that the forensic evidence from the gun, and from the car, shouldn’t be admitted because we didn’t get a fair shot at it.”
And Bennett’s right. That’s the job of a criminal defense attorney: to put the State’s evidence to every challenge possible, to strenuously test the government’s case to prevent a wrongful conviction. Of course, if charges are dismissed against the “accused killer,” the defense attorney will often bear the brunt of criticism from most in the general public, when in fact it was shoddy police work that causes a case like Koci’s to go unsolved. More importantly, from a defense lawyer’s perspective, and as we all know very well, shoddy police work often leads to wrongful arrests and convictions.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Department and the Houston Police Department should follow the lead of the Durham, North Carolina police department. In the 1990s that department’s solved homicide rate fell to an average of 39 percent a year. The department blamed the dismal solved rate on a dramatic increase in drug-related crime. Then Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez decided to do something about it in 2000.
“We will canvass door-to-door to see what information we can get,” the chief told Hargrove. “If necessary, we’ll get up to 100 officers knocking on doors. It’s civilians, police, even elected officials who come out so we can get more witnesses … witnesses we otherwise would never have gotten. And that builds more trust throughout the neighborhoods.”
Durham’s “solved homicide” rate rose to 78 percent for the 215 murders in the city since 2000, according t the Scripps Howard study.
But, unfortunately, we don’t expect these kinds of results here in Houston. In fact, we expect things to get far worse than better in Harris County. The City Council—under pressure from Mayor Parker who had declared that Houston faces a “fiscal emergency” rather than a “crime emergency” as Mayor Nutter did in Philadelphia—has forced serious budget cuts in the sheriff and police departments. Both Sheriff Andy Garcia and Chief McClelland have tried to allay public concerns by saying they will “do more with less.” The reality is that they won’t because they can’t. Professional “boots on the ground” officers who practice trust based, honest and innovative policing are the only ways to keep a community safe; that is the key to effective, improved law enforcement. A policy attitude of providing more efficient law enforcement through a streamlined service, no matter how determined, sounds good in the media, but in reality, it will translate on a day-to-day basis of less community protection and more rush to judgment, goal oriented investigations—and the inevitable consequences will be that Houston’s solved homicide rate will fall to levels comparable to New Orleans.
We hope we’re wrong, but with information from the Scripps Howard study and other sources, we don’t believe we are. And as criminal defense attorneys we will mostly surely see more cases like Koci as fewer homicide detectives are forced to work more cases, leading to more “botched” investigations, more unsolved crimes and more wrongly accused defendants—and this increased case load will surely grow as the criminal element realizes the community is more vulnerable because of less police protection.
By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair