Homicides may be down in SF, but their solution rates differ depending on where they occur

The number of homicides in San Francisco has been cut in half over the past decade, yet the number of solved homicide cases varies depending on where the crime occurred.

Why some neighborhoods have seen more homicides solved — police consider the arrest of a murder suspect as solving the crime, even if the suspect hasn’t been charged or convicted — than others remains a mystery.

“There’s no tried and true way the numbers work out why they do,” Interim Police Chief Toney Chaplin told the Police Commission on Wednesday night.

Chaplin’s remarks came after Cpt. Alexa O’Brien, who heads the Major Crimes Unit captain, which oversees homicide investigations in San Francisco, gave a presentation on the expansion of the department’s Cold Case Unit, which solves killings in areas that are hit particularly hard by violent crime.

BY THE NUMBERS

In the past 10 years, 675 people have been slain in San Francisco; 307 of those killings have been solved, according to department statistics.

That’s a 46 percent clearance rate for the San Francisco Police Department over the past decade. In 2015, it was 48 percent, compared to a national average of 64 percent. But even those numbers can be misleading.

For example, if an arrest is made in 2016 for a murder that occurred in 2015, the clearance is recorded as happening in 2016. Nonetheless, the department doesn’t have a grasp on why homicides clearance rates vary in different areas.

In the ZIP code 94124, where the most killings occurred in the past decade, there have been 139 homicides. But the Bayview-Hunters Point area has a 35 percent clearance rate — one of The City’s two lowest rates. The ZIP code 94110, which covers Bernal Heights, also had a 35 percent clearance rate, but only experienced 97 murders.

Even Visitacion Valley boasts a higher clearance rate, at 39 percent, for the 66 homicides there in the past decade.

The ZIP code 94102, the Tenderloin area, had a clearance rate of 49 percent for 67 homicides in that time period. The South of Market neighborhood, one of the most crime-ridden areas in The City, had a clearance rate of 51 percent for 57 homicides.

O’Brien and others have said homicides are particularly hard to solve in neighborhoods with a history of tense relations with police because people often are reluctant to come forward when they have information about a killing. Additionally, she said, many others don’t come forward out of fear for their safety.

“The fear of [retribution] in one of these homicides is real,” O’Brien said.

UNSETTLING DATA

Police Commissioner Victor Hwang would like to know more about the disparities in clearance rates.

“I do think it’s important for us to look beyond the data and try and figure out the reasons for it,” Hwang said. “If it’s about distrust of police or feelings of fear, then we need to tackle that to reduce the number of unsolved homicides.”

For instance, Hwang pointed out, the clearance rates in SoMa and the Tenderloin — both areas with challenging police and community relations — have higher clearance rates than the Bayview.

“If we don’t know the ‘why’, then how do we find a solution?” asked Hwang, who noted the data is lacking true analysis to figure out what it really means. If the problem is a lack of cooperation because of fear, Hwang asked, would more money for witness protection help?

O’Brien noted the disparities may in part be due to the sheer number of homicides in the Bayview over the past decade versus the other neighborhoods. But one thing she’s sure of is that it has nothing to do with her team.

“My homicide inspectors, they’re top notch,” said O’Brien, who added that the four homicide detail teams — about four officers each — work equally hard on all homicides. “We’re getting better and better at solving these crimes.”

Their job should be getting easier, too.

Of the 31 homicides in San Francisco this year, only one has occurred in the Bayview, when 18-year-old Kijana Wood was shot dead in early March. The man who allegedly killed Wood, Verdell Cornealis Martin, has since been arrested and charged with murder, making the clearance rate 100 percent for the Bayview in 2016.

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