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Joint Public Oversight Hearing on Metropolitan Police Department Performance in Homicide Investigations

Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Joint Public Oversight Hearing on Metropolitan Police Department Performance in Homicide Investigations

Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

Charles H. Ramsey
Chief of Police
Metropolitan Police Department

Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey delivered the following testimony to the Committee on the Judiciary, Kathy Patterson, Chairperson, Council of the District of Columbia.

Related Document:

Madame Chair, members of the Committee, staff and guests … I appreciate the opportunity to present testimony this morning concerning recent trends in homicide in the District and also important changes the Metropolitan Police Department is taking to improve our performance in this critical area. As a reminder to our viewers on Channel 13, the text of my testimony is posted on the Police Department's Website: mpdc.dc.gov.

Also being posted on our Website and distributed in hard copy is this report: the MPD's Murder Analysis, a study of homicides in the District of Columbia over the past decade, with a particular focus on the years 1998 through 2000. This report contains a wealth of information about homicide offenses, victims, offenders and murder investigations in the District. This information has been particularly valuable in analyzing and evaluating recent efforts to reduce DC's homicide rate. And it has helped to guide and inform the changes I will explain today in how our Department will organize and manage homicide investigations in the future. Copies of the report are being distributed to all Councilmembers, and additional copies are available if you would like them.

The Murder Analysis report paints a mixed picture of homicides in the District. The positive trend, of course, is that our city's homicide rate is at its lowest level in 15 years. In 1999 and 2000, the annual number of homicides occurring in the city - 241 and 242, respectively - was half what it was at the beginning of the 1990s. And thus far in 2001, homicides in DC are down 16 percent when compared with last year at this time - 173 murders as of this morning. If this trend continues, the District of Columbia will end the year with the fewest number of murders since the mid-1980s. I find it particularly encouraging that the number of juvenile homicide victims has declined sharply in the last few years - from 28 in 1999, to 17 in 2000, to 5 so far this year.

The reductions in our homicide rate are, I believe, an affirmation of our "Policing for Prevention" strategy of community policing. And they are a testament to the creative talent, hard work and dedication of our police officers and our partners in the community. For years, many people - including many police officials - argued that policing could not possibly impact the homicide rate … in effect, that homicides could not be prevented. I think our success here in DC - and in cities across the country - have proven those skeptics wrong.

But as encouraging as the homicide reductions over the past decade have been, our Police Department and our community cannot - and must not - be satisfied with the number of murders taking place in our city. The District of Columbia is still far too violent a city. Ideally, this Murder Analysis report should be studying 40 to 50 homicides a year, not 240 as we experienced the last two years.

Reaching that goal will not be the result of any one program or policy. Homicide is a complex, multi-faceted problem for which we must develop comprehensive and multi-faceted prevention strategies. The Murder Analysis report helps to pinpoint the specific types of homicide motives, victim and offender profiles, geographical patterns and other factors that contribute to our intolerably high homicide rate. These are the very same factors that our Department and everyone else committed to safer communities must focus on, if we are to reduce the homicide rate even further.

To reduce homicides in the District, there is one other critically important area where our Department must improve its performance, and that is in the area of successfully closing those homicides that do occur. Our Murder Analysis reports shows that practically every murder suspect in DC is a repeat offender, and 9 out of 10 have at least one previous arrest for a violent offense. A sizable number of murderers in DC are career criminals, who will likely commit additional crimes - including, perhaps, additional homicides - if they are not apprehended. So solving homicides will always be an important part of any homicide prevention strategy in our city.

But beyond this practical consideration, there is moral imperative to solving murders. In a civilized society governed by the rule of law, we must do everything we can to ensure that those individuals who take another person's life are identified, apprehended and brought to justice. We owe it to the family members and other loved ones of the victims, and we owe it to society in general.

Quite frankly, our Police Department's performance in this area remains sorely deficient, as measured by our homicide clearance rate. Over the last 11 years, when the District's homicide rate was nearly cut in half, our homicide clearance rate fluctuated from year to year, with a disturbingly low clearance rate in the last few years. We simply need to do a better job of investigating these crimes and bringing offenders to justice.

I recognized this back in 1998, when I announced a plan to break up the old Homicide Unit at Police Headquarters and move our violent crime detectives out to the seven police districts. The theory behind this strategy was sound. Like their counterparts in patrol, detectives would be more effective if they worked in - and became familiar with - a particular community, its problems and resources. But while the theory was sound, I now recognize - and our Murder Analysis report confirms - that in practice, this change was not a good fit for our Department at this time.

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming with this approach was that it did not provide the flexibility needed to adjust resources based on changes in homicide patterns. Homicides in our city do not occur evenly across time and location, but rather tend to occur in spurts. More importantly, these patterns are subject to change - either in motive, location or other factor. Last year, for example, we saw a dramatic increase in homicides in the Fifth Police District. This year, homicides are down in 5D, but up in other parts of the city. Also, we have seen a rise in gang- and drug-related homicides the last few years, with a reduction in robbery homicides.

Staffing a decentralized investigation model in this type of changing environment - seven police districts, three tours of duty, seven days a week, with union restrictions of the movement of personnel - tends to dilute the talent pool of the investigators and supervisors that we have. In many respects, a decentralized model requires an abundance of highly skilled, experienced detectives to adequately cover all assignments - something our Department simply does not have at this time.

The need for change is obvious: over the last three years, our homicide clearance rate has declined - from 64.5 percent in 1998, to 61.2 percent in 1999, to 57 percent in 2000. While other large cities in the country have experienced similar declines in recent years, the fact remains that our Department - here in the Nation's Capital - simply must do a better job when it comes to solving homicides. Changing the organizational structure of homicide investigations - and shaking up the organizational culture within that structure - are critical steps we must take … and that we are taking.

By the beginning of next year, our Department will expand and staff a Violent Crimes Branch within our Office of the Superintendent of Detectives. This unit will not be located at Police Headquarters, but rather in a community-based facility - at the ROC-East headquarters at the Penn-Branch shopping center. Headed by an experienced investigative captain, the Violent Crimes Branch will investigate homicides, AWIK offenses where the probability of death is high, serial rapes, pattern robberies and other major crimes occurring anywhere in the District. In the next few months, we also intend to create a team of sexual assault detectives that will be part this unit as well, investigating rapes on a citywide basis.

The Violent Crimes Branch will also include a new Family Liaison Unit, whose mission will be to ensure consistent and compassionate follow-up with the survivors of homicide victims, as well as other victims of the serious crimes the VCB investigates. The Department has submitted an application to the Justice Department for a federal Violence Against Women Act grant to hire two civilian members to help staff this unit. The Violent Crimes Branch will also incorporate the Department's recently formed Special Victims Unit, which investigates serious crimes against children in our city. The majority of our remaining detectives will remain in the several police districts as general detectives - investigating non-life-threatening shootings, robberies, burglaries, stolen autos and other offenses.

This new structure will bring several benefits, which should result in a higher homicide clearance rate.

  • First, the structure will maximize the investigative talent pool and provide us with greater agility and flexibility in responding to the changing homicide patterns in our city. If we detect a surge in homicides in one district or another, we can respond quickly to that problem area - without having to reassign someone from one unit to another.

  • Second, the members of the Violent Crimes Branch will be able to focus on a small set of violent crimes. Working as teams, they will be able to share information and expertise with one another, as they also continue working with other specialized units and the PSA teams where the homicides are occurring. Ensuring that this type of information exchange takes place will be a major responsibility of the supervisors assigned to the VCB.
  • Finally, centralized command and control of homicide and other major crime investigations will ensure greater consistency and enhanced accountability in individual investigations. Even under the old structure, our Department had centralized command and control of criminal investigations earlier this year, placing all investigative personnel under the Office of the Superintendent of Detectives. Expanding and centralizing the Violent Crimes Branch completes that process.

As you know, our Department issued a comprehensive new Standard Operating Procedure for homicide investigations this past summer. The new VCB structure will provide supervisors with the direct ability to ensure that homicide investigators are following - and documenting - each and every step in the SOP. Consistency and accountability are the foundations of the new SOP. Implementing it will be easier and more effective under the new structure.

In addition to restructuring our Violent Crimes Branch, the Department is in the process of merging our Mobile Crime and district Crime Scene Search functions into a single Crime Scene Examination unit, within the Forensic Sciences Division. The new unit will be located at 3515 V Street, NE, in a newly remodeled facility designed specifically for the processing of evidence gathered at crime scenes. Like the restructuring of our homicide investigations, the expansion of this unit will help ensure not only that crime scene resources are available to homicide detectives and other investigators, but also that the quality and consistency of the work performed are improved.

These organizational changes are important, and … Madame Chair … I am pleased to have your support, and the support of the Committee, in carrying them out. But the fact remains that organization and structure are not the magic answer to improving our homicide clearance rate. They are important pieces of the puzzle, but I do not want the Committee to leave here today thinking that we have solved this problem merely by restructuring our investigative function.

As I mentioned earlier, the quality of the people - regardless of where they may sit - is of paramount importance. And our Department continues to take steps to improve the selection, training and supervision of our investigative personnel. A new, more rigorous investigator selection process has already been introduced in our Department - I know that the lack of a formal selection process was a major issue during the last round of hearings on this topic. That new process will be adapted to the selection of members for the new Violent Crimes Branch. Assignments will be based on talent and potential, not simply on the fact that someone may have been assigned to homicide investigations in the past.

Training for investigators has been dramatically expanded as well, and this process will continue for the VCB. Training - and re-training - will be constants in this new unit.

Another important reform, which I mentioned earlier, was the development of the new homicide investigation SOP. This is an excellent, comprehensive, far-reaching document that other departments around the nation have already expressed an interest in reviewing and adapting. Ensuring that the SOP is followed will be the responsibility of the supervisors in the VCB. So supervision in the new model will be both ongoing and much more structured than it has been in the past.

We continue to make improvements in our WACIIS system - the Washington Area Criminal Intelligence and Information System. And we continue to seek the public's assistance in helping us solve more homicides - through the offering of a $10,000 dollar reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in any unsolved homicide in the District. There are very few homicides in which no one, other than the offender, saw or heard something that would help solve the case. In many ways, all of the reforms in the world will be ineffective if we cannot garner the community's trust and information in these cases. So that will remain a priority of the Violent Crimes Branch and the Department as a whole.

I want to close this morning by reiterating something I have said over the course of the last three years … and which I repeated again today. A new organizational structure alone will not automatically translate into improvements in our homicide clearance rate. But I am very confident that our new model - coupled with improved selection, training and supervision of personnel, stronger policies and procedures for them to work with, new technology and the support of the community - will bring about significant improvements in our ability to solve homicides, bring offenders to justice and bring at least a small measure of closure to the survivors of homicide victims.

One final commitment I will make to you today: this first Murder Analysis report will not be our last. Our Department is committed to sharing information with the community - on homicide trends in our city and on our Department's performance in solving them. By being better informed about the problem, all of us will be better equipped to do our part in finding effective and lasting solutions.

Thank you again. I will be happy to address your questions at this time.