POSTED ON DECEMBER 1, 2010:
Loop of Violence
After a violent 2009, fewer murders have hit Tulsa in 2010. But wait a year
One of the most curious aspects of Tulsa's homicide rate is that, generally speaking, the numbers seem to spike one year, drop the next, then spike again.
That's been the cases for the last decade or so, and the trend appears to be continuing this year. After the city suffered through a violent 2009 in which a record 71 people were homicide victims, 2010 has been quieter, with only 55 victims having been reported as of Nov. 29.
"I don't have an answer for a social solution," said Sgt. Mike Huff, who leads the Tulsa Police Department's homicide unit. "But I do see that we seem to be going through the same thing every other year."
Huff said the department has put a lot of effort into identifying those issues and analyzing the accompanying figures, particularly through its Comparative Statistic program, which provides instantaneous crime statistics.
"We're trying to intelligently address different areas," he said, explaining that the CompStat figures help the department's management decide where and how it can devote its manpower for the best results. "But it's frustrating, when you have to hurry in after the fact instead of doing preventative things."
As for the up-and-down nature of Tulsa's homicide rate, Huff described it as a "violence loop."
"So much of it is the product of street violence, and we'll have an uptick, so we deal with it and take people off the streets," he said. "That seems to settle things down for a year or so, then a new group will form and we'll go through a period of more violence again."
The simple explanation, he acknowledged, is that that void in violence never remains a void for long -- there are always other individuals or groups eager to step in and take advantage, he said, initiating another violent cycle.
With one month left in 2010, Tulsa appears to be safe from setting a new record for homicides in a year. But Hyde felt much the same in the middle of November last year, and a bloody holiday season changed all that.
"There always is a bit of a rush," he said, referring to the fact that the holidays -- a time when people tend to socialize more and consume more alcohol -- can lead to an escalation in violence. "We only saw four or five homicides (last year) in the month of December, but we saw four or five alone after the 17th of November (through the end of the month)."
Huff is hoping this year won't follow the same pattern.
"The holidays can be feast or famine," he said. "We hope for a famine every year."
The decrease in the number of reported homicides this year hasn't necessarily meant less work for the people in his unit, Huff said.
"We've had a couple of very active situations involving missing people that we suspect are victims of foul play," he said. "And we seem to have a lot of those open over the last 12 to 14 months ... that's always a very intensive effort.
"I don't think people realize we're not a Monday-through-Friday, 7:30-to-5 job," Huff said of his 15-member department. "Seven days a week, somebody's on duty, every day, every holiday. These things usually start in the middle of the night. So the human factor is, how do you manage people and manage their time? When we solve cases, we also spend a considerable amount of time getting them ready to go to court and working with the prosecutors. So we've got a lot of balls in the air."
The lesson from all that, Huff said, is that "even though the number (of homicides) is less than last year's, that number is not reflective of the effort."
He said his unit continues to spend a good deal of time investigating the murder of Tulsa businessman and former University of Tulsa football star Neal Sweeney, who was gunned down in September 2008. So far, five people have been arrested in connection with the crime, Huff said, describing the effort his unit has put into the investigation as "overwhelming."
And while the homicide unit leader emphasizes that he is aware of the human cost of every killing in the city, some cases make a bigger impression than others. He cited the example earlier this year of a 14-year-old boy who was shot to death by a clerk as he attempted to rob a convenience store.
"We all thought, 'Where did that kid come from?'" he said.
Nevertheless, Huff said, the decrease in homicides so far this year is a welcome development, along with the recent announcement by Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. that interim Police Chief Chuck Jordan would be filling the job permanently.
"Now we have a chief of police who really has the got the best interests of the police department as a whole at heart," Huff said. "He was a homicide detective years ago, so he's very supportive of us, and I think this will be good for the department of our delivery of service to the community ... I think we've got the support of the brass now, which always makes you feel a tad bit better."
Huff said his unit has taken advantage of the comparatively slow year to make some changes in its investigative policies and make better use of the technology that's available.
"Technology is an asset, but dealing that technology is extraordinarily difficult," he said. "The boom in surveillance video and cellular technology is, wow, great, and it can certainly help you deliver results. But the time it takes to search for those things, recover it and analyze it is substantial. I'm not griping at all, but the size of our department has not grown to fulfill the requirements of that."
Huff said his unit has a homicide clearance rate of 78 percent this year, slightly lower than its customary 80 percent rate in years past but considerably better than the national average of 58 percent. He also said he anticipates being ready to announce the closure of two more cases soon, which will lead to an improvement of this year's rate.
"We're not just sitting back waiting for phone calls," he said.
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