After facing a record-setting year in 2009, the homicide unit at the Tulsa Police Department is experiencing a less-violent start to 2010, with less than two-thirds as many killings having been reported this year as there were at this point last year.
With 2010 nearly one-third complete, 14 homicides had been reported in Tulsa as of Tuesday, April 27. That represents a sharp drop from the 23 that had been reported through the end of April a year earlier. Tulsa finished 2009 with 71 homicides, an all-time high.
That total worked out to one killing roughly every five days -- a pace that taxed the resources of the homicide unit, according to Sgt. Mike Huff. He said he welcomes the slower rate this year, though he doesn't really have any explanation for it.
"You look at the trends over the years, and some years you go a month or two without one," he noted, referring to this March, when no killings were reported in the city.
The reduction in the homicide rate through the first four months of the year matches a decline in the number of other crimes reported throughout Tulsa. So-called Part 1 crimes -- homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft -- are down 11 percent year to date, according to figures released by the department on April 22, while year-to-date total crime is down 16 percent.
The irony of that decrease in crime is that it corresponds with a reduction in the number of police officers on the streets. A total of 124 officers were laid off by the city in January as a cost-cutting measure, though 35 were hired back weeks later through the use of a federal grant.
While those numbers might be surprising on the surface, Huff cautions that they are only preliminary figures and things have a way of evening out during the course of a year. In the meantime, the decline in homicides has allowed his unit to turn its attention to other areas, he said.
"My guys and gals are working hard," he said. "They're using this slack time to make progress on other cases and try to figure out how to better serve our mission to protect people. And we're implementing new forms of technology in our investigations. With a lot of this stuff, you can't just pick up a book and say, 'Hey, let's do this.' You have to integrate it into your protocol."
Despite the demands it faced, 2009 was another successful year for Huff's unit, which once again boasted a closure rate of more than 80 percent -- considerably better than the national average of 59 percent he said. He hopes to push that figure even higher by having his crew go back and take another look at some of those unsolved homicides while it has the time.
"This is giving us the chance to work on older cases, and we're making progress there," he said. "So that is a plus, but it's also one of those things that can change in a hurry."
Huff acknowledged that his department's situation could have changed dramatically overnight with a recent spate of violence. In the space of just a few hours on Tuesday, April 13, four incidents took place in which police responded to altercations that easily could have turned deadly. In three of them, shots were fired, resulting in three victims being hit, while in the fourth incident, a man was left in critical condition with severe head trauma after suffering an apparent beating.
"Violence is violence, the way we look at it," Huff said, noting that such incidents require police attention whether they result in a fatality or not. "When you look at the amount of man hours we have to go through to investigate those things, and with the police department dwindling in size, it's not easy."
One disturbing trend revealed in the recent crime figures released by the department was a sharp increase in the number of auto thefts, especially during the most recent reporting period of March 22 through April 18. Auto theft increased 19 percent during that time and is up 5 percent for the year to date. Police were concerned enough about those numbers to issue an advisory to media members last week asking citizens to avoid leaving their keys in their car when they go inside their houses or a place of business, even momentarily.
That trend hit home for Huff when he returned to Tulsa last week from speaking at a conference paid for by the federal government. His homecoming was spoiled by the realization that his recently purchased used truck had been stolen and his home had been burglarized, with a number of family heirlooms left to him by his parents having been taken.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is what victims feel like,' " he said, describing his reaction.
While still coming to terms with that loss, his frustration spilled over a bit when he addressed some recent criticisms of the department he said he had read in local online forums.
"Certain people are very short sighted and have very high expectations of the police department based on what they watch on a fictional TV show," he said. "Some of those criticisms are more than just an opinion -- it's like somebody is starting out to further misinformation about the police department."
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