The first four months of 2009 were a particularly difficult time for the Tulsa Police Department's homicide unit, especially when compared with the previous year. There were 20 homicide victims in January, February, March and April of this year, compared to only nine in 2008, leading some observers to fear the city's murder rate was spiraling out of control.
But Sgt. Mike Huff, who leads the unit, has been around long enough to see plenty of variations in that rate, even during the course of a couple of months. Things have a way of evening out throughout the course of a year, he said.
Six months later, many of the things Huff said then have been borne out.
Tulsa's homicide total for the year, 53, is still high. In fact, it already has eclipsed the total of 50.6 killings per year the city has averaged for the past 11 years. But it's not on a record pace, as it was for the first couple of months of 2009.
Huff said the year-to-date total for 2009 as of Nov. 5 was only slightly higher than the year-to-date average for the past few years. At that time in 2006, 50 people had been homicide victims, while in 2007 that number was 58. Last year's figure was 46. That comes out to an average of a little more than 51 killings per year at that point since 2006.
And there have been extended periods this year in which homicides were a virtual rarity. Summer--traditionally a bloody period in any large city--was much more calm than usual in Tulsa, he said, with only five homicides in June, five in July and four in August. Huff noted that only two people were homicide victims in October.
"We went almost a month without a murder (this fall)," he said, though he noted he has no indication of what could have led to that hiatus.
Those periods of calm are certainly welcome in the homicide unit, he said.
"What happens when you get a big crunch in a short period of time, even though you know the work will even out over the course of the year, is we have to look at how much manpower we can throw at it while leads are fresh," he said. "When you get bunched up like that, you run into a situation where you can't throw the manpower at it that you'd like. Even so, you have to keep working it because you can't say, 'We'll get to it next week.' "
Huff said the rate at which homicides have been taking place in Tulsa this year--essentially one every 5.8 days through Nov. 5--comes close to taxing the resources of his department to its limit.
"One every five days is about the maximum capability of us being able to handle these things efficiently," he said.
That workload might be reflected in the unit's closure rate. Huff said his department has about a dozen killings that are still unsolved for this year, giving it an approximate 80 percent closure rate.
"A lot of people may look at that and say, 'Well, that's great,' but to us, that's not good," he said, indicating that in years past, his unit has often achieved a closure rate of greater than 90 percent.
"That is absolutely unheard of in a major city," he said. "So we do have goals."
Huff blames that lower success rate on the specifics of many of the cases that have taken place this year.
"The complexity of these cases is higher," he said. "So it's very hard to measure them in one-to-one (terms)."
He also said he also is growing increasingly frustrated by the unwillingness of people to share information with police.
"We continue to struggle with people not wanting to get involved," he said. "It's a challenge."
Huff noted that the onset of a new calendar year does not simply mean old cases are forgotten. For instance, Tulsa Police charged Terrico Bethel on June 4 of this year in the Sept. 4, 2008, killing of Tulsa businessman Neal Sweeney, a former University of Tulsa football star. That was a high point in an investigation that has continued on a daily basis since the day of the murder, Huff said.
"I think maybe this was one of the most high-profile cases I've seen in the last few years," he said. "It was an immense challenge--it was off the charts and remains off the charts" in terms of the amount of time his unit has spent on solving the crime. "But we're making forward progress on it. There were other people involved, and we're carrying on to make sure we hold those guys accountable, too."
For now, it does not appear as if Tulsa will eclipse its record of 70 homicides in 2003. At its current pace, the city would wind up with 64 killings for the year--still too high a number for Huff, but not as many as once feared.
"I'm very in tune to not jinxing myself," he said, noting that the onset of the holiday season--with its increased incidence of over-consumption of alcohol--frequently results in more violence. In any event, he said, his unit will try to improve its closure rate, a point of pride and satisfaction to the detectives.
"It makes us feel good (to solve a case)," he said. "Even though it's a tragedy, we like helping the families get some closure. It makes us proud of ourselves."
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