Many U.S. police departments are seeing fewer arrests being made in homicide investigations, a criminal justice expert says.
But that hasn't been the case in Fort Wayne. The homicide clearance rate for this year's 41 homicides is nearly 81%, close to last year's 86%. Of 41 cases, 33 have been cleared, but police said they expect to clear another one soon.
The clearance rate depends on arrests, self-defense rulings or a suspect's death. The national clearance rate hovers around 61%, according to the Department of Justice and other reports, but experts expect it to be lower this year.
Two homicides outside the city limits are still being investigated, Steve Stone, Allen County Sheriff's Department public information officer, said, although one case has been sent to the Allen County prosecutor. With those two killings, Allen County saw a total of 43 homicides in 2020.
This is the most homicides the county has seen since 2018, when there were 46. Last year, there were 30 in the county.
Fort Wayne police have made arrests in 28 of the 41 killings they investigated in 2020. In another case, a man has been charged but is yet to be arrested. In three cases, the suspects were declared deceased, two dying in the commission of their crimes. One case was cleared as self-defense. Eight cases remain active.
“Police staffing levels have gone down this year and that decline accelerated in correlation with the social justice movement,” David Carter, professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University, wrote in an email. “Across the country, homicide and aggravated assault rates have gone up significantly over the past 10 months attributable to the pandemic and the social justice movement. Police officers and departments have also been less proactive during this time for a variety of reasons. One of the results is a decline in homicide clearances in many agencies.”
The Fort Wayne clearance rate has caught the attention of other police departments, according to Deputy Chief James Feasel who oversees the investigative support division. The division includes the detective bureau and the homicide, vice and narcotics and gang and violent crimes units.
“I can't go into specifics,” Feasel said. “They want to know how we're doing it and why our numbers are so good.”
Sgt. Timothy Hughes, 43, took over the police department's homicide unit in October 2018. From the beginning, Hughes tasked the existing six homicide detectives with tackling a homicide immediately until every lead was exhausted.
Now, 10 homicide detectives work in partners of two. Feasel brought over Lt. John Bowers from vice and narcotics, giving the department 12 officers dedicated to solving homicides, including Hughes.
In a 2018 report, Promising Strategies for Strengthening Homicide Investigations, the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice recommends “each detective is the lead on an average of four to six new homicides cases per year.”
A larger caseload size “seems to be correlated with a decrease in their individual clearance rates,” the report said.
The city police department's average for this year is about four cases per detective, but the Justice Department report also suggests that if departments want to solve more homicides, they “should limit the time detectives spend performing other duties such as investigating non-homicide cases, performing administrative work and serving on departmental details.”
Fort Wayne homicide detectives also investigated 90 non-fatal shootings and seven homicides where robbery was the motive or suspected motive, according to Hughes.
Detective Roy “R.J.” Sutphin, who has worked on the homicide unit five years, said assistance is the key.
“The way it used to be, I could get called one to three times for homicides or critical shootings. It was just me. No one was helping me,” Sutphin said.
Now, he said, “if stuff needs to be done, it gets done with multiple people. Autopsy, collecting video, people look at the list and say 'Oh, I can take care of that' and do a report. That wasn't happening before. Busy work is done very quickly.”
Central to the team's approach is a whiteboard just outside Hughes' office. The team, working in cubicles side by side, gathers around the board after a homicide, and the brainstorming begins, Hughes said.
“It just happened one day,” Hughes recalled. “As ideas were flying faster than anyone could keep track of, one of the detectives said 'let's write this down. It's getting too confusing to keep in our heads.' Sometimes we split up and come back together at a designated time. We keep on brainstorming the thing together and coming up with ideas.”
Also crucial is a “really good working relationship with support entities – we talk and work with the coroner's office, deal with parole and probation and even work with different federal agencies,” Hughes said.
With about a year on the unit, Matt Cline, Sutphin's partner, has leaned on Sutphin as “a pretty valuable wealth of information, kind of the way he handles things, his organization and thought process.”
Liza Anglin, the only female homicide detective, said Sutphin is known for his organization and Donald Lewis, with two years on homicide and also detective bureau experience, is known for tirelessly following the smallest lead.
“Even big ones can turn on a small detail, so I think the little details matter,” Lewis said.
The team approach works.
“One person can't get to all the leads before they start disappearing. Time is critical,” Lewis said, adding that evidence can be destroyed and people can change their minds.
Brian Martin has eight years on the homicide unit and is partnered with Ben MacDonald, fairly new to the team. Martin is also in charge of the older cases, often called “cold cases,” and arrested Holly Boisvert in March. She's charged in the stabbing death of Stacy DeGrandchamp in 2002. Boisvert's five-day trial starts May 10.
“I'll throw it out to everybody if I'm working on a case. I'll put it out to the group and ask for input, 'what do you see that I'm not?'” Martin said.
Working more closely with Bowers on vice and narcotics is an example of interdepartmental coordination that gets the job done, Feasel said.
In August, when Hughes obtained a murder warrant for Markquiel Derrick just a few hours after he allegedly shot to death Antonyo Stephens, Hughes discovered Derrick had fled Fort Wayne and was somewhere around Indianapolis.
Bowers was in Indianapolis for a deposition when he got word that a homicide suspect was coming through.
“He said 'this guy is coming your way.' I said 'let me get some people,'” Bowers recalled. “I grabbed some troopers (Indiana state police) and got him into custody.”
Bowers, described by Feasel as technologically brilliant, said they were able to track Derrick electronically.
“That was good stuff,” Bowers said.
Blunt force 2
Southeast Fort Wayne 21
Northeast Fort Wayne 9
Northwest Fort Wayne 9
Southwest Fort Wayne 2
Allen County 2