The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 10, 2021 1:00 am


Hopeful steps toward clearing city's homicides

It's difficult to find bright spots in homicide statistics.

The lives of so many people involved – the victims' families as well as the loved ones of those responsible for the killings – are often irreparably damaged. Those effects are not present in cold data that show 41 people killed in 2020 and 33 of those cases believed cleared.

Even so, the numbers show an encouraging trend toward providing those affected by killings with answers and, perhaps, closure. The city's homicide clearance rate is nearly 81%, well above the national average of about 61%, and Fort Wayne residents should be proud their police are working hard to solve such crimes.

The rate had hovered around 50% as recently as 2018.

The clearance rate was also higher than 80% in 2019 and is calculated based on a number of factors, including arrests, criminal charges, rulings on self defense and whether a suspect has died. In Fort Wayne, arrests were made in 28 killings last year.

Three suspects died, one slaying was ruled self defense and a man was charged but hasn't been arrested. Eight cases remain active, The Journal Gazette's Jamie Duffy reported.

Detectives credit the upswing in cleared cases to a changed philosophy in tackling homicide cases. Since 2018, when Detective Sgt. Timothy Hughes took over the Fort Wayne Police Department's homicide unit, there's a collaborative approach under which 10 detectives work together to investigate each case.

That allows investigators to work quickly to gather important details that might otherwise be missed.

“One person can't get to all the leads before they start disappearing. Time is critical,” Detective Donald Lewis told Duffy, adding that evidence can be destroyed and witnesses can change their minds about talking to police.

The increased attention to homicide cases by police is certainly helping, but there are other factors at play.

Michael McAlexander, Allen County chief deputy prosecutor, said Thursday that quick work by police can lead to more options for prosecutors.

“When the police department is throwing tremendous resources at these (crimes) immediately, they're getting people involved and getting statements from them immediately,” he said. “That helps (build cases).”

Investigators also are helped by witnesses willing to be interviewed and ever-growing technology such as cellphone video and social media posts in which police and prosecutors do not have to rely on sometimes skittish witnesses.

“When you think everything's riding on your testimony, it can be daunting,” McAlexander said, referring to witnesses.

Hughes said his staff has seen more help from witnesses, something he attributes to several things including having more detectives working on cases and the results the homicide unit has gotten.

“People see that we are using the information and getting results and the information isn't just sitting on a desk or ending up in the trash can,” he said in an email. “People are more willing to talk with us and share information if they feel it is worth their time.

“I also believe this agency's efforts to improve our relationship with the community has also contributed to witnesses coming forward more often. This can be attributed to the efforts of all officers across the department, all ranks and all divisions.”

The efforts to clear homicide cases are admir-able, but there still is room for improvement.

Stacey Davis co-founded victim advocacy group JAVA after her son was killed in 2016 and said an arrest is just the start of the resolution process for families affected by criminal violence.

“Justice isn't achieved until a conviction is achieved,” she said. “The (clearance rate) statistic, in and of itself, is bittersweet.”

A much-improved clearance rate is good news. A true bright spot in the county's homicide statistics would be resolution of the 40 murder cases pending in Allen Superior Court – all are now stalled because of the COVID-19 pandemic – and far fewer homicides in 2021.

Sign up for our Opinion newsletter

Sent daily