Law enforcement: Increase in homicides a symptom of underlying behavioral health crisis

Law enforcement: Increase in homicides a symptom of underlying behavioral health crisis

Homicides in Spokane have become more common in recent years, something local law enforcement investigators say is indicative of increased gun violence, drug trafficking and gang activity.

There were 24 homicides under the Spokane Police Department and Spokane County Sheriff’s Office jurisdictions in 2021, a slight decrease from the previous year with 27 homicides.

In the city of Spokane, there were 14 homicides, a drop from a record-breaking 2020 that saw 21 killings. The 2020 killings alone near the 23 homicides recorded from 2017 to 2019. These numbers are subject to change as investigations continue and incidents are reclassified, the police department said.

For Major Mike McNab, head of the Spokane Police Department Major Crimes Unit, gun violence is a huge concern.

“We’re concerned about gun violence quite a bit,” McNab said. “We’re concerned about it because it’s not only specific to Spokane, it’s happening all across the nation.”

The United States recorded the most gun deaths ever in 2020 with a 25% increase from five years earlier, according to data aggregated by Pew Research Center.

Firearms were used in 17 of the 24 homicides in the Spokane area in 2021.

Suspects involved in gun violence are getting younger, McNab said, with some as young as 12 or 13. One 14-year-old boy was arrested in connection to a May gang shooting that left 19-year-old Kash Amos dead, according to court records.

In the past, these kids would be involved in a gangs or drug dealing, he said, but recently it has been more common for suspects not to have a “common criminal enterprise.” he said.

That common enterprise allowed investigators to target drug suppliers and gang leaders. Without that commonality it’s more difficult, McNab said.

“They’re just doing it to hurt each other,” McNab said. “How do you combat that type of motive?”

There’s also a huge crossover between people struggling with substance abuse and mental illness and violent crime, especially homicide, McNab said.

“I think there’s a lot of intersectionality between when we get somebody that’s not having rational thoughts that they’re affected by drugs or mental illness or mental illness brought on by drug use,” McNab said.

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office had an increase in homicides in their jurisdiction in 2021 with 10 killings, up from six the previous year, according to the department’s records.

Undersheriff John Nowels, who oversees investigations at the agency, said he has seen a huge shift in the underlying causes of homicide.

“Now more than ever, it is related to substance use, drug trafficking, narcotics trafficking in some way shape or form,” Nowels said.

The county has also seen an increase in gang activity, which might not be connected to narcotics trafficking but to trafficking of things like vape pens and guns.

“Our young people are more than willing to be armed,” Nowels said. “They feel like they need them to protect themselves from being robbed.”

Both Nowels and McNab said these root causes of the 2021 homicides are part of a complex social issue.

Numbers in context

“It’s important to put numbers in context,” said Martina Morris, a longtime professor is sociology and statistics, who recently retired and started working on data analysis for a number of police accountability organizations.

It’s common to want to get hyperlocal when looking at trends, Morris said, but the more local you get the more nuanced thought is needed to interpret those numbers accurately.

In a community like Spokane, one additional homicide can cause a massive percentage increase. For Spokane County, there was a 60% increase in homicides in 2021. That large increase stemmed from from four homicides.

In the city of Spokane, there was about a 67% drop in homicides from 2020 to 2021, in raw numbers – that’s the difference between 21 homicides and 14 homicides.

“It’s not that that number is wrong, it’s just that you have to think about how to interpret what it means,” Morris said. “Whenever you report a rate or a percent you need to at least look at what the raw number is.”

For numbers less than 10, it’s best to look at the rate, percentage, and the number itself, Morris said.

It’s normal to have ebbs and flows in the number of crimes committed, but with homicides those swings can be more pronounced statistically, Morris said.

Spokane switched in late 2016 to the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which is a national program through the FBI that collects data from law enforcement agencies on more than 50 types of crimes.

While the switch helps with national and state-wide comparisons and analysis, it also means data from before 2017 isn’t comparable due to differing collection methods. With such a short archive of comparable data, it’s more difficult to see trends or have a solid average.

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, which also switched to the NIBRS system in 2016, records an average homicide rate of six per year but that number is generated from just five years of data.

“Because we have a shorter time frame to go back, it’s harder to see what that year to year volatility looks like,” Morris said.

See something say something“Seeing those young kids involved in gun violence, to that level and degree is disturbing,” McNab said. And it makes me wonder as a community, as a society how we’re looking after our kids.”

McNab encouraged community members to “raise the flag” if they see someone who needs help.

“We as a community could all be a little more vigilant when we see mental health issues or extreme substance abuse issues that we could intervene before it gets to that point,” McNab said.

Nowels encourages citizens to “be good witnesses” and report if they see something suspicious along with being aware of their surroundings.

“They have to trust us enough to call and tell us that they know this person is doing that or this person is doing this and they’re concerned,” Nowels said of citizens reporting what they know to police.

Nowels also said he is concerned that chronic offenders aren’t being held accountable, which allows them to continue an escalation toward increasingly extreme violent crime.

More time incarcerated or in treatment for antisocial behavior like substance abuse and mental health conditions would help curb the problem, Nowels said.

McNab said he sees the increase in gun violence as tied to increased drug trafficking and drug use.

“A lot of this is being driven by the drug industry,” McNab said. “There’s a lot of fentanyl and methamphetamine coming into our community, more than I’ve ever seen in my career.”

In late 2021, 1-year-old Serenity Murfin-Marusic died from a likely drug-overdose after being exposed to fentanyl at her parents’ home. Her father has been charged with her murder.

It has become increasingly common to come across large amounts of fentanyl, money and guns on routine traffic stops, McNab said.

Data for seizures of drugs and firearms during routine traffic stops in 2021 is not available.

Stranger on stranger killings remain rare

Despite the overall increase in homicides recently, one thing remains true: Most victims know their killers.

“Stranger on stranger crime is definitely more rare than any other thing,” McNab said.

It’s extremely rare for some to be targeted by a random killer, McNab confirmed. When that does happen, the police department takes it very seriously because it creates a concern for the community at large, he said.

“We take those a whole lot more seriously and you don’t see that very often at all,” McNab said. “There’s always some personal connection or motivation, whether that be in the last 10 minutes or the last 10 years, there’s always something that tied that person to the other person.”

However with a recent increase in drive-by shootings, there is the chance of a bystander being hurt, Nowels said.

“Fortunately, it doesn’t happen very often,” Nowels said.

In September, police responded to five drive-by shootings in three days, luckily no bystanders have been hit but the danger is there, Nowels said.

Increased workload

A number of factors have contributed to increased workload for detectives in recent years, Nowels said.

“Homicides are extremely involved investigations,” Nowels said.

Investigators need more technical expertise now than they did even a decade ago, he said. They need to know about social media, cell tower data, smartphones, and a slew of digital investigative tools, let alone new DNA technology, Nowels said.

The additional tools provide more essential evidence but also take more time, Nowels said.

“Just the sheer volume of work that has to go into cases has grown over the last five years,” Nowels said. “We have to develop expertise in a lot of different people and it just adds workload.”

With more homicides, there’s simply more work for investigators, both McNab and Nowels said.

Homicides can take years to make it all the way through the criminal justice system, McNab noted.

“Even when they’re solved that case still kind of lingers around for adjudication with that detective,” McNab said.

Recently, SPD added two detectives to unit, leaving them with 12 investigators in major crimes who can be the lead on a homicide.

The biggest benefit to having the additional detectives is spreading out on call weeks, McNab said.

At all times, two detectives are on call. Most homicides occur outside of business hours, McNab said, commonly between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., and often on weekends.

With the new detectives, officers now have between five and six weeks between on-call duties, allowing them more time to work their existing cases and for better rest, McNab said.

Nowels said detectives at the sheriff’s office work hundreds of hours of overtime each year. The office was able to add two detectives to major crimes this year which Nowels hopes will help, he said.

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