Shooting arrests drop in Miami as cops struggle to solve cases


In almost four years, 646 people have been shot in Miami’s inner-city. Only 94 of those cases have been cleared. And though the number of shootings hasn’t increased substantially each year, the clearance rate — arrests made in shootings — has declined dramatically.

The numbers, made available from the Miami Police Department, also show that arrests in murder cases have taken a similar troubling course. Between January 2012 and the end of August, 282 people have been killed citywide. Only 121, or 41 percent, of the cases have been cleared through an arrest.

The city’s clearance rate for homicides — with the exception of a brief blip the past two months — has steadily declined every year since 2010 when the clearance rate was 62 percent. In 2014, an arrest was made in one of every three murders, well below the national average of 64 percent.

Police and crime experts give myriad reasons for the city’s downward spiral in homicide-case clearances. Fearing reprisal, people won’t speak. Gang fights over drug holes limit witnesses. An overtaxed police force is focused on preventing crime, resulting in fewer crimes solved.

But for the most part, police blame the low clearance rates on past philosophies and the politics of policing — strategic reassignments that backfired and police brass bending to what they perceive as political will. Some cops retired and weren’t replaced.

By 2010, Miami’s homicide detective unit, once considered one of the nation’s finest and flush with 29 investigators, had dwindled after Police Chief Miguel Exposito deployed several cops to undercover tactical units. Those units proved controversial after a rapid-fire sequence of questionable shooting deaths of black civilians in the inner city. Exposito was eventually fired for insubordination.

Exposito’s replacement, Manuel Orosa, was met with cries from politicians who wanted more cops hired. When he struggled to meet the demands, Orosa further depleted the number of detectives in homicide as he beefed up street patrol.

Miami’s homicide unit, once the pride of the department, had bottomed out to 15 detectives — with many of those detectives handling more than a dozen assault cases a month, denying them precious time to solve murders.

“Homicide took some of that drain. Some of those clearance statistics suffered because we lost seasoned detectives,” said Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes, who replaced Orosa in January.

Records obtained from the Miami Police Department show the results were swift and staggering:

▪ In 2012 in Overtown, Little Haiti and Liberty City, there were 177 contact shootings and only 41 arrests.

▪  In 2013 there were 186 shootings and 27 arrests.

▪ The next year, 2014, fared even worse, with 175 shootings and only 19 arrests.

▪ And so far this year, as of the end of August, 108 people have been shot and only seven arrests have been made, leaving the clearance rate at 6 percent.

Solving murders citywide also has been a perplexing issue. Though the number of homicides since 2010 has stayed relatively flat — fluctuating between 72 and 81 and nowhere near as bad as other comparable cities like Chicago and New Orleans — clearing those murders has plummeted from a high of 62 percent five years ago, to a low of 33 percent in 2014.

So far this year as of the end of August, there have been arrests in less than half of the city’s 54 murders.

Chuck Wexler is the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which just last week finished a report on how the police handled the disturbances in Ferguson, Missouri. He said factors including a short-staffed detectives unit and an uncooperative public likely account for Miami’s problematic clearance rates.

Wexler cited a Washington, D.C., community policing initiative that has knocked down the number of murders in that city from close to 400 a half decade ago to a little under 100 last year.

“You have to have the right people and the right number of people and they have to be trained properly and led,” he said. “Also, a homicide unit is only as good as the information it gets.”

University of Maryland professor of criminology Charles Wellford, who authored a landmark study on clearance rates in 2001, said his studies have shown that priorities matter: Typically, he said, if a police agency focuses on crime prevention, crime goes down. And if it focuses on solving crimes, clearance rates rise.

“No agency can do everything,” Wellford said.

In trying to balance preventive measures with solving crimes, Miami has taken a new tact the past few months. Though the administration continues to struggle to meet the hiring demands of city commissioners, the homicide detective bureau is now back up to 20, with the goal of reaching 24 by the end of the year. Just last week, the mayor and city manager announced a plan to hire 40 more cops by the end of the year.

Llanes also replaced Executive Assistant Chief and Police Cmdr. Eunice Cooper from the head of homicide. Filling that post is Lt. Carlos Castellanos.

Recently, the city also has embraced technology, finding success with an electronic gadget that identifies gunfire. And Llanes has demanded an all-hands-on-deck approach at murder scenes, often drawing detectives from other units to flood neighborhoods and find clues in those first crucial hours.

The results — though too small a sample to call it a wholesale turnaround — seem encouraging. A murder clearance rate that was about 35 percent in June, was up to almost 50 percent through August.

And one of the cleared cases was one of the most high-profile shooting deaths in Miami in years.

In August police arrested Khalib Newkirk, 15, and Ernest Rowell, 18, in the death of 10-year-old Marlon Eason, an Overtown child who was shot in the head as he retrieved his basketball from his home’s front walkway. Marlon was hit by an errant bullet that police believe was intended for a car on the street in front of his home.

Detectives coordinated raids to catch the two suspects, one at his family’s Overtown home, the other at a Miami bus depot. Rowell had taken a Greyhound from Arkansas back to Miami — unaware that law enforcement was along for the ride.

Miami police Capt. Dan Kerr said being progressive helps, but nothing compares to boots on the ground. “We need bodies to solve crimes,” he said.

The department also has embraced ShotSpotter, a sensor system that attaches to cameras around the city, detects gunfire and relays the location to officers in real time. The results can be emailed to an officer’s iPhone within seconds. The system allows police to identify hotspots around the city. It also has led police to shell casings that can be used as evidence in prosecuting a crime.

“Predicting crime works,” said Maj. Louis Melancon. “It creates a better relationship with the street units. If there’s a shooting tonight in Little Havana, now, by tomorrow the commander will have the breakdown. It cuts down on repeat shootings and retaliations.”

Still, Miami has a long way to go to balance the desire for more cops, a healthy homicide bureau, and a robust clearance rate.

Last year on June 24, while a group of friends sat in a small courtyard in front of their Liberty City apartment complex enjoying music and food, two black SUVs pulled up to the curb and two men with semiautomatic weapons got out and opened fire into the crowd. Men, women and teenagers scattered. In all, nine people were shot. Nakeil Jackson and Kevin Richardson were killed.

Despite a public outcry and intense media coverage, the shootings have not been solved.

Though solving a crime doesn’t cure the root of the problem, it allows peace of mind, said Eric Thompson, a Liberty City activist who runs a jobs program in the Liberty Square housing complex.

“It brings some kind of relief, but the pain is still there,” he said.

Thompson said he has dealt with so much death in his 15-year involvement in the community, that he has lost count of the number of families he has counseled.

This week he was worried about 70-year-old Josephine Cameron, the grandmother and caretaker of a 15-year-old shot to death in May, in yet another unsolved Miami murder.

Joewaun Coles, a Northwestern High School student known to friends as “Popcorn,” lost his life when he was caught in the crossfire of a group of masked men firing weapons at people playing craps in the courtyard of a Model City apartment complex. The four injured men survived. The shooters remain free.

Joewaun’s 16th birthday would have been Monday. His grandmother’s grieving became so intense, she was hospitalized last week with chest pains.

“After a while I stopped going to the funerals because it’s taken such a toll on me,” Thompson said. “These families have no support mechanism. When I go home I take it with me. It’s a nightmare.”

Related stories from Miami Herald