Chattanooga's homicide clearance rate jumps to 87 percent

Chattanooga's homicide clearance rate jumps to 87 percent

January 13th, 2019 by Rosana Hughes in Local Regional News

Authorities investigate a shooting along the 5000 block of 15th Avenue on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

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Only three of Chattanooga's 2018 homicides remain unsolved, bringing the police department's homicide clearance rate for last year up to 87 percent — a 17-point increase over 2017.

Under department practice, a homicide case is identified as cleared when an arrest is made, the offender dies or if the death is determined to be justified, meaning there was no criminal intent.

Police attribute the decrease in overall homicides to the increased clearance rate, and they attribute the higher clearance rate to an increase in public trust.

"My guys, coming into [a scene], they are tenacious and compassionate," Sgt. Adam Emery said. "They care about their community, and they are going to come with every resource they have available and they're going to approach victims and their families with compassion."

And since police say it's only a small percentage of the population that commits most of the violence, "if we remove them, [the homicide rate is] going to go down," Emery said.

Chattanooga saw a total of 23 killings in 2018. Two of those were determined to be justified (bringing the final homicide count down to 21), and a third was an officer-involved fatal shooting. That incident is still under investigation, meaning it isn't yet known if it was justified.

Still, even including justified homicides, 2018's total is a downturn from a three-year spike. In 2017, the city saw 34 homicides, 32 in 2016, and 30 in 2015. The average number of homicides from 2004 to 2014 was 20.

One factor playing into the steady increase beginning in 2014 is the passing of a law that took effect that July, said gun unit supervisor Sgt. Josh May. It opened the door for Tennessee gun owners to legally keep loaded firearms in their vehicles even if they don't have state-issued handgun-carry permits.

Since 2015, 47 percent of guns reported stolen in Chattanooga were taken from vehicles. Just last year, More than 450 firearms were reported stolen in the city, most of them from vehicles.

Back to 2018's homicides, though, the number of killings police identified as gang-motivated also has dropped, with only one case last year. That's down from three in 2017 and nine in 2016 — a year that saw an unusually violent gang war. Other homicides may have had gang ties, but there were other motivating factors for the killings, such as money or drugs, police said.

For those who would commit a violent offense, "they see that if they commit an offense, there is a higher likelihood that they will be found out and arrested," Sgt. Victor Miller said.

Gaining community trust

Making a conscious effort to regain community trust is something Chattanooga police have been talking about for years. It can be traced back to former Chief Fred Fletcher, who pushed a culture of "community policing" that revolves around problem-solving and relationships more than arrests.

Current Chief David Roddy has continued that philosophy, and investigators on the front lines of each homicide say they think the city is seeing a culmination of those efforts.

"Everything that we worked on with the community, community-oriented policing, all those things that we've been working on over the past several years, we are seeing the rewards now," Miller said. "It's a lot of hard work and dedication of the men and women in our department."

Before, police had to spend more time trying to get information from witnesses and victims than they would the suspects, Emery said.

"It is not that way now at all," he said. " We've built the trust of being confidential with us. A lot of people talk to us and nobody would know it."

Homicide investigator Austin Swafford said he thinks another reason for the public's willingness to work with police is the exhaustion that violence brings with it.

"I think the community is genuinely just getting tired," he said. "A lot of these [cases] are intertwined, and a lot of these families are looking at it like, 'Man, we losing our kids, so let's stick together.'"

The violence takes a toll on the investigators, too, homicide investigator Corey Stokes said.

"You want to have justice for the family," he said.

Emery said one thing that "always charged the batteries is when you can call that family and say, 'We got 'em.' Or, even better, is when you go to trial and there's finally a conviction for it. You meet back at the law library at the DA's office, and you're finally there at the final point of justice."

The unsolved cases

The 2018 homicides that have yet to be solved include the Feb. 18 slaying of Cachet Peterson, the July 13 discovery of Robert Townsend's body, and the Dec. 9 shooting death of Stephen Moore.

Peterson, 21, was shot at Southside Social at 1818 Chestnut St. She died shortly afterward at a local hospital.

Townsend, 60, was found in a construction waste dumpster in the 2500 block of Laura Street. His body was wrapped in multiple layers of plastic.

And Moore, 34, was found with a gunshot wound in the 2500 block of East Fifth Avenue. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Police ask anyone with any information, no matter how minor, to come forward — especially in Peterson's case, because a lot of witnesses were there but not many came forward, investigators said.

"What may seem like a small thing to them may be the key that we need," Emery said.

For example, someone may call in letting police know they saw a certain person standing in a general area. Investigators then will follow up on that lead and may find security cameras in the area, which then could help identify a suspect.

"The dominoes just start falling around that piece," Emery said.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @Hughes Rosana.