While Tulsa has struggled to keep up with many other cities in the region in the first decade of the 21st century in terms of growth and economic development, it has had no such trouble keeping abreast of many of its peers--or even surpassing them--in a more dubious category: its homicide rate.
That situation likely will draw closer scrutiny in the coming days as 2009 winds to a close and as Tulsa moves closer to establishing an all-time high for homicides in a single year.
As of Dec. 14, 68 people had become homicide victims in the city in 2009, just two short of the record of 70 set in 2003.
"We've got three weeks left (in the year), and this is usually an active time (for violence) when you look at years past," Sgt. Mike Huff, who heads the Tulsa Police Department's homicide unit, said last week, acknowledging the likelihood that the previous single-year homicide rate will be eclipsed this year. "We're not hoping for any tragedy."
Huff does hold out some hope that the city will avoid setting a new record.
"It's very hard to predict this kind of stuff," he said. "Nothing's predictable about a murder."
This year is a good example of that. The first third of the year was particularly bloody, with 23 homicides having been reported by the end of April--just shy of a record pace. But things slowed dramatically in the summer and early fall, leading Huff to voice the hope that 2009 would not be one for the record books.
That optimism proved ill founded. In November alone, eight people were homicide victims. Three more followed in the first two weeks of December, along with the death of a child under suspicious circumstances in September that recently was determined to be a homicide. So with Christmas and New Year's Eve approaching--a time when alcohol consumption and human interaction both increase--Huff and his unit are bracing themselves for even more cases.
Still, the 30-year homicide unit veteran believes this year is not that far out of line with what has been happening in the city since 2003, when the homicide rate spiked, remaining relatively high ever since. In the first three years of the decade, Tulsa had only 33, 34 and 26 homicides. Since 2003, there have not been fewer than 49 in any given year.
"We always flirt around 55 or 60," he said. "So I don't know that the rate has skyrocketed this year. It has edged up year by year."
Huff fears that Tulsa's climbing homicide figures are a reflection of larger changes in society, but he declined to speculate about the specifics.
"That's way beyond my pay grade to understand," he said.
George Kennedy--a longtime law enforcement official for entities throughout Oklahoma and now the president of Tulsa's Center of Professional Studies, a private school that offers law enforcement and security training and education--said it's important to look beyond the raw figures.
"I think we need to look at who's getting killed and who's doing the killing," he said.
"A significant number of the killings in the Tulsa area are gang and dope related. People in that type of lifestyle have no regard for human life. That takes us back to the culture in which they were raised."
A closer examination of the city's totals throughout the first decade of the 2000s reveals that Tulsa is among the regional leaders when it comes to the rate at which its residents become homicide victims.
According to the FBI's annual "Crime in the United States" reports since 2000, the number of homicide victims in Tulsa has often rivaled or surpassed corresponding totals in much larger cities in the region, especially since 2003.
Two examples of that would be Denver and Fort Worth. At the beginning of the decade, Tulsa trailed both those cities in population by more than 130,000 residents. By 2008, that deficit had swelled to more than 200,000 in the case of Denver and 315,000 in the case of Fort Worth.
Yet, Tulsa consistently has come close to or even exceeded their homicide totals throughout that time frame, leading to a homicide rate that is precipitously higher than the figure in either of those cities.
An example closer to home exists when Tulsa is compared to Oklahoma City. Tulsa's population in 2000 was 392,000, while the capital city had 488,000 residents. In 2008, Tulsa's population actually had declined to 383,000, while Oklahoma City's had swelled to 552,000. But since 2003, Tulsa has had more homicides than Oklahoma City three times and come within a handful of matching that total the other three years.
Those numbers hold up even when a discrepancy between the Tulsa Police Department numbers and the FBI figures are taken into account. The FBI's totals for Tulsa throughout the past several years are always lower than the TPD totals because federal officials do not count officer-involved shootings, cases of self-defense or instances in which the District Attorney's Office decided no crime was committed, while Tulsa does, Huff said.
"So (the FBI figure) doesn't reflect the real number of (homicide) cases out there," he said.
The result can be a significant difference in totals. In 2003, for example, Tulsa police counted 70 homicides, while the FBI attributed only 61 to the city. Even so, that total was higher than such larger cities as Albuquerque (51), Oklahoma City (49) and Fort Worth (57), while trailing Denver (63) only by two.
The only two cities in the region that seem to consistently feature a higher homicide rate than Tulsa, in fact, are Albuquerque and Little Rock, though the figures for Albuquerque have been declining steadily since peaking in the middle of the decade. Conversely, Little Rock--by far the smallest city in the sample region--has had consistently ranked at or near the top of the region for its homicide rate.
Those figures certainly carry some weight with Huff, but he said that figuring out what's behind such big-picture issues is beyond his purview.
"It's like baseball statistics," he said. "Those statistics are great for somebody to look at society as a whole. But they're definitely a separate issue than solving murders."
That's where Huff concentrates his attention, he said.
"Our focus is to solve these murders," he said. "There should be an effort made to look at these questions. Let's look at ourselves in the mirror. But at my level and job responsibilities, it's solve murders. I put 110 percent into that."
Huff said he has identified one major trend among the killings in the city this year.
"One thing we have seen in most of these murder cases is an association between the victim and the suspect," he said. "In a very large majority of cases, the victims are putting themselves in a lifestyle that's more susceptible to violence.
"These are not stranger cases; people are not running rampant. If they're not out dealing drugs and they're not involved in crime, the general public should feel pretty safe. These people involved in criminal activities drive the homicide numbers up a little bit."
Kennedy--a former police officer in Tulsa, chief of police in three medium-size cities in Oklahoma and a supervisory special agent with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation before becoming director of the Law & Justice Careers programs at Rogers State University in Claremore--urged residents not to place too much emphasis on simple numbers.
"I don't think John Q. Citizen will be at any greater danger if the number is 65 or 75," he said. "I think the average citizen is really relatively safe in Tulsa."
Asked if the recession might have impacted Tulsa's homicide rate this year, Huff was noncommittal.
"There are a lot of people trying to make money selling drugs," he said. "Is that because of the economic downturn or because drugs are a bigger part of society? I don't know."
Even with a murder rate that essentially gives his unit a new case to work on every five days or so, Huff remains proud of the work his people are doing. He boasts that the unit's 82-percent clearance rate on homicides this year far exceeds the national average that is close to 60 percent, and he said old cases continue to be worked with just as much vigor as new cases, citing the recent clearing of a three-year-old homicide.
"The example there is, we didn't forget about this thing," he said. "That sent a really good message to the community. Relationships change, and personal thoughts change, and we want people to step forward (if they have knowledge of a homicide). We don't care if it's an hour (after the crime) or 10 years."
Huff has said before, one of the most difficult aspects of clearing a case, particularly one in which drugs or gangs are related, is the unwillingness of those with knowledge of the crime to come forward and report what they know.
"The drug subculture is very difficult to deal with in solving cases," he said. "We're looking for solutions. But to keep harping on the no-snitch thing, years ago we didn't have that. It came up occasionally, but now it permeates the whole deal. And it takes a real effort to penetrate that."
One trend that perhaps can be ruled out in terms of driving this year's higher homicide total is gang activity. According to TPD spokesman Officer Leland Ashley, only six of the 67 homicides reported this year were gang-related. That number compares very favorably with 2008, when seven of the city's 55 homicides were gang related. As recently as two years ago, when there were 64 homicides in Tulsa, 15 were determined to be gang-related, according to the department's annual report.
Kennedy said he would have anticipated that figure being higher.
"It does surprise me, simply by virtue of the news reporting," he said.
Huff speculated that funding might have something to do with the fact that Tulsa's homicide rate has surpassed that of Oklahoma City. He believes it's no coincidence that the capital's city homicide rate has remained relatively flat after it adopted a dedicated tax to fund public safety.
Tulsa, on the other hand, seems to continually find itself struggling to meet all its civic responsibilities, including public safety, he said.
"You can't say we're going to compare apples to apples," he said. "We're funded like a grape while the big apples are elsewhere."
Kennedy echoed those sentiments.
"The police do an exceptionally good job here in Tulsa, especially considering the resources they have," he said. "The city doesn't have ... the resources to invest everything it wants to in terms of money and manpower."
Kennedy believes more funding could help make a dent in the homicide rate, but he said achieving a substantial decrease is more complicated than that.
"I don't think it's any one particular thing," he said. "The police have got to be an active presence. This has to be proactive work, as well as reactive work."
Kennedy said in terms of assigning blame for the homicide rate, families, religion, education and lawmakers all share responsibility.
"The police are not going to stop the homicide rate," he said. "That's not going to happen. I don't know what the answer is. Nobody else does, either."
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