A .300-plus batting average is impressive for major-league ballplayers, but not for The City’s success rate in making homicide arrests. It means that two-thirds of the killers in San Francisco are getting away with it.
The San Francisco Police Department closed 38 percent of the 327 homicides reported here since the beginning of 2005. But the national average of homicide arrests for metro areas with populations of 500,000 to 1 million was 52.3 percent in 2006. San Francisco solved 45 percent of the slayings in 2006, our best average of late. But the 2007 arrest rate slumped to 37 percent as homicides spiked to 98 — the worst in a decade.
Now, nearly halfway through 2008, the SFPD says it has closed one-fifth of the 50 reported cases, which includes this past weekend’s unsolved triple shooting in the Portola district that resulted in two homicides and one survivor hospitalized with life-threatening injuries.
Under FBI crime-reporting standards, a homicide case is technically considered “cleared” or closed when police identify and arrest a suspect, or if the main suspect is dead. This definition does not require any suspect to be convicted in court.
No matter how much spin is applied, if San Francisco authorities consistently fail to clear as many homicides as comparably sized cities, something is wrong. Police officials point to contributing factors that are obviously beyond their control. Most important is a virulent lack of witness cooperation in the crime-prone neighborhoods. Presumably the residents believe they have reason to fear retaliation if they come forward.
Sometimes police criticize the district attorney’s or judges’ decisions on which cases to move forward. The SFPD also points out that crime is down and arrests are up in virtually all other categories. And in April, a police representative told the Board of Supervisors that the department’s homicide detail caseload is “astronomical.”
Right now, San Francisco has 20 homicide investigators, with three about to retire. They are required to partner up on each case, so every team is working on about 20 of the 200-or-so unsolved killings from the last three and a half years.
Homicide investigators must keep an eye open on the hundreds of unsolved cases dating before 2005. And whenever a case does get solved, an investigator spends weeks working with prosecutors on the trial instead of advancing open case.
Assigning additional homicide investigators would seem appropriate, as would increasing the number of officers walking beats to gain confidence and respect of community members. But additional cops, say some supervisors, are not necessary as The City struggles to close a
$300 million–plus budget deficit for next year. However, fewer cops equals more crime, more homicides and more families waiting for justice in the killing of their loved ones.