CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It's been a busy year for Charlotte Mecklenburg Police. The Violent Crime Division, which includes the homicide unit, is seeing its share of cases.
"When people look at the homicide unit they think just that we just work homicides but this unit wears so many hats from an investigative standpoint," Lt Alex Watson said. "The unit is called the Homicide/ADW unit. We investigate life threatening, critical, assault with deadly weapon cases, overdose cases, death investigations unattended public accidents at commercial locations that result in death, pretty much any unattended death where there's no medical history anything like that our division we go out.
And there's more.
"We investigate those incidents as well as active kidnappings and extortion cases so as you can see there's a lot of things we respond to during business hours and after."
So far this year, the number of homicides is getting most of the public's attention.
When the homicide unit is fully staffed, there are four sergeants and 28 detectives. Each sergeant supervises seven detectives in the respective squads. There are also two full time homicide detectives assigned to the cold case unit who are available to help with current cases if needed.
Lt Watson, who has been with CMPD for almost 20 years, with more than three years supervising homicide and missing persons cases, says the case load for the unit is grueling.
"When you come to homicide it has to be a calling for you and you have to know that you're in store for some hazardous duty," Lt Watson said. "And it's unlike any type of investigative unit that we have in this department. You have to have a level of dedication and be willing to sacrifice a lot. And it's got to be one of those decisions you make and you have to make sure your spouse and your family's on-board with it because it can be very brutal from the standpoint physically and mentally."
Looking at homicide cases only - detectives have had 76 cases so far this year.
According to CMPD's statistics, the numbers below show that 2017 has cracked the list of the 10 worst years for homicides in Charlotte since 1990.
- 1993 – 129 (#1)
- 1991 – 115 (#2)
- 1992 – 99 (#3)
- 1990 – 93 (#4)
- 1995 – 89 (#5)
- 1994 – 88 (#6)
- 2005 – 85 (#7)
- 1999 – 84 (#8)
- 2006 – 83 (T9)
- 2008 – 83 (T9)
- 2017 – 76 (#10)
"This number - although it's high – the circumstances vary," Lt Watson said. "Periodically you're going to go through years like that in this type of work. Unfortunately, there's no way to forecast these type of offenses."
Lt Watson added, "the best we can do is put all of our effort into clearing cases and bringing a peaceful and good resolution for the families of the victims."
Investigators say the killings so far this year resulted from arguments that escalated, domestic violence, drugs, robberies. For the almost 30 cases that are still unsolved, police say the circumstances are unknown because they're still gathering information on those cases.
Department officials say their statistics show the clearance rate for 2016, when there were 69 homicides, the clearance rate for the homicide unit was 67%;
So far in 2017, the clearance rate is 61%.
"Obviously that's no where near where we want it to be," Lt Watson said. "That number when you look at it – ideally you want to keep that around 70%. but you know it's tough – some of the circumstances of the cases that are open can be very difficult."
"Getting the information. Getting people to cooperate or finding the right people with the right information. All too often there's people that know about a murder that don't talk and that's where it gets very difficult" Detective Todd Burkard said.
Burkard, who has been with CMPD for 17 years, has worked in the homicide unit for the last eight years.
The work is about details.
"For a case to be fully put together we have to have every single officer statement and information. We have to get as much information as possible about the suspect, about witnesses, compile that and bring it over to the District Attorney's office for prosecution so it's very involved and takes hours and hours of work" Burkard explained.
"We get a case. We're working on it. If we're lucky enough to have an arrest quickly there's still quite a long time to go before we can bring that case even over to the DA's Office."
But getting the details and the information, getting witnesses to talk - Burkard says that's what becoming more difficult.
"Unfortunately, we've had murders in parts of the city where we know they're people that have witnessed these murders. We know they have information but they're not coming forward" he said.
For detectives, that difficulty is tinged with frustration.
"Even when we try to talk with them they say we're not talking to you - that's frustrating and it's difficult and it shouldn't be a situation they don't want to talk to us because they hate the police. It should be a situation they want to talk because somebody on their own community was murdered and no one should have to stand for that and no one should just let that go by without any sort of consequence."
Burkard says from his perspective the lack of cooperation is the result of lack of understanding.
"You get a lot of people that don't want to talk to the police, that don't want anything to do with us and I think it's a misunderstanding on a lot of different levels," Detective Burkard said. "I think it's hard for the community to see actually what we do because a lot of times we can't talk about everything. We get a case – we get a murder – we can't give everyone all the information because that will hinder the prosecution. So a lot of times people are left in the dark about as to what's happening, what we're doing because we can't talk about it.
Then, the flip side.
"At the same time, people have a perception that we're out just to get everyone, trying to figure out what's going on, what's happening" he said.
The lack of cooperation from some in the city to solve cases is making the workload tougher.
"It makes it all that more difficult when there's no conversation between the police and the community or there's no working together, which I think is really important," Burkard said. "There can be so many murders solved in Charlotte if people would work together with the police. The police working with the community, the community working with the police. I think that's an extremely important aspect."
Burkard estimates he and the detectives in his squad have worked dozens of cases so far this year.
"That's gotta be between all the death investigations, missing person cases, murders...close to 75, 100 cases over all" he said.
He says it's a job that takes a toll on family life.
"Whether that's a wife, kids, mother, father, close friend – if you don't have the support of them it's next to impossible to do this job," Burkard said. "Oftentimes you're missing out on events, going to party, going to a wedding, going to whatever the case maybe you have to have the support of family behind you because the amount of time this job takes – it's not something that you can just come into work 9-5 and leave and have the weekends off."
Even for a veteran investigator, working in the homicide unit sometimes doesn't seem to worth the toll it exacts.
But, for Burkard and the others, there's the calling.
"I do it because I like the job. I like what happens," he said. "I like being able to find the truth of what happened and close cases for family members who have lost loved one – it's extremely important."