The DeKalb County Police Department’s homicide unit is seeing a significant increase in resolved cases, with a rate far higher than the national average and the agency’s own performance in recent years.
As of July 12, police said the unit had worked 53 homicides, which is on par with the same time last year, but has a clearance rate of 87 percent this year. The national average trends around 65 percent, according to the FBI. DeKalb finished 2017 with a rate of 67 percent, the low point after several years of decline.
“Clearly it’s positive news,” said Russell Covey, Georgia State University law professor and criminal justice expert. “This could be a blip. It could just be there were some cases that were easier to resolve than average and the numbers will even out in the future.”
But at the moment, “it sounds like the county is doing something differently,” Covey told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Capt. Anthony Ford, who is over the homicide unit, said the reasons for this year’s success is largely driven by two factors: the agency has added five homicide detectives and has made strides in building community relations to get witnesses to come forward.
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The Atlanta Police Department, which typically deals with a comparable amount of killings, said it has seen 47 homicides this year as of July 12 and has a clearance rate of 68 percent.
Police “clear” a homicide in a variety of ways, including deeming a killing justified, but the most common way is by filing charges against the alleged killer or killers. In 2018 in DeKalb, only five homicides have been deemed justified, police said.
Covey and George Chidi, a former Pine Lake councilman who keeps up with DeKalb crime, both said the witness cooperation angle is huge in solving homicides.
“The clearance rate is a function of community relationships. Period,” Chidi said.
Rising after decline
As Chidi sees it, DeKalb has had trouble in the past with getting witnesses to talk because of officer retention issues. People, especially in areas plagued by crime, need to know cops personally from seeing them repeatedly in the neighborhood before they will feel comfortable calling a homicide detective with information, he said.
Chidi, a journalist who once worked at the AJC, pointed out that many of the homicides in the county take place in hot spots, such as off Central Drive outside Stone Mountain and Wesley Chapel Road off I-20. If police make progress in community relations in those areas, it can help with the clearance rate.
DeKalb has needed help in recent years, largely because of a short-staffed homicide unit.
The recent end-of-year numbers showed a decline in the clearance rate: 2015 (81 percent), 2016 (70), 2017 (67).
“In 2017, we were atrociously short-staffed,” Ford told the AJC.
The captain also said the 16 detectives on staff now are doing impressive work.
Cops credit hard work
Ford brought up the investigation into the Jan. 19 death of Matthew McCullough.
It was the victim’s 33rd birthday and he decided to sell some Xbox 360 video games but got shot, dragged from his car and robbed in the process.
The homicide unit could find no witnesses and no security video from the apartment complex where it happened off Snapfinger Woods Drive. Detective Michael Knight, the lead investigator on the case, pulled a white board near his desk and tried to organize his thoughts. He talked with co-workers.
Ford said Knight thought there must’ve been security camera footage somewhere near the apartment. He worked his way out from the scene until, about two miles away, he arrived at a Shell station.
On video from there, he saw McCullough, a race car driver who had competed across the Southeast in the USCS Sprint Car Series, getting out of a maroon Chevrolet Tahoe and then get into his own car. This was a few hours before the meet-up to sell the video games, police believe.
Knight suspected someone in the Tahoe was involved in the homicide. In late April, he went to the media to see if anyone recognized the SUV. Within weeks, a 21-year-old named Destin Tucker was in jail on murder charges. Police said they anticipate two more arrests.
News of the first arrest drew praise for Knight from all over the department. Other homicide detectives made memes about it, one of them showing a man’s face in extreme joy, with a caption saying something like: I just solved my homicide.
Such moments might buoy the spirits of the agency, but they don’t take away the cases that are still unsolved, even if there are fewer this year. The agency is still struggling with various homicide cases and regularly asks for help in the media.
“I’m encouraged,” Chidi said of the clearance rate, but he also knows that police can only do so much in the county’s high-crime areas, because the crime is driven by poverty and drug use. “It’s not a cop who’s going to get someone off of drugs.”
And while witness cooperation may be better, as Ford suggests, it can still be a problem.
The other day, on a notoriously troubled stretch of Candler Road, a woman who grew up in the area was talking to a reporter about how devastating the killings are, how too many people don’t value life.
Then a man she was with spoke up: “Just standing here talking to you makes us a target. Think about that. That’s how it is in the hood.”
They walked away.
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