Why are there so many murders so far this year?
With three more people killed over the weekend and another Monday, Charlotte is on pace to record its most homicides in a single year, leaving police and researchers struggling to explain the growing violence.
As of late Monday, the number of homicides had reached 44. By the same time last year, there were 14 killings.
If the current pace holds, Charlotte would surpass the record of 129 set in 1993 in the midst of the crack cocaine epidemic, although the per capita rate would be lower because of the city’s growth.
At a news conference Monday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Capt. Chris Dozier said there is “no rhyme or reason” that could explain why the number of killings has tripled.
Dozier, who leads the department’s homicide unit, said some of the violence was prompted by arguments that grew out of control.
He noted that the vast majority of homicides this year involved guns.
“People (are) resorting to firearms ... for what we, doing investigations, determine are fairly minor arguments or disagreements that just become worse and worse and blow up into what eventually becomes a homicide,” Dozier said.
Researchers who study law enforcement said it is baffling why there has been an uptick in violence in Charlotte. Unlike some other cities that struggle with homicides, they said Charlotte has a vibrant economy, a growing population and a police department with a strong track record of solving murders.
American cities generally are safer than they were in the 1990s when homicide rates began to plummet.
But the decline may be starting to reverse, researchers said.
Charlotte, Washington, D.C., Chicago and other cities have seen unexplained spikes in homicides in recent years — a time when police departments across the country, including CMPD, are struggling to recruit and retain officers.
“What we are seeing may be new and different,” said Jim Adcock, founder of the Mid-South Cold Cases Initiative in Memphis, Tenn. “Manpower is a big issue. (Charlotte) is in big trouble if this continues.”
More violence over the weekend
In response to the spike in homicides, CMPD Chief Kerr Putney in February promised to make changes.
Putney said the department would assign more officers to parts of the city that had seen an uptick in violence.
He also said CMPD would send officers on bicycles, motorcycles, dirt bikes as well as patrol cars to focus areas. Commanders and crime analysts would review shootings daily and take measures to prevent revenge violence, Putney said.
But killings continued over the weekend. On Monday, CMPD announced the arrests in two of the three homicides. Two victims, Shalecia Shav’ea Williams and Daimeon Terrell Johnson, knew their attackers, Dozier said.
In the case of Tyrena Inman, who was also killed Sunday, police had not announced any arrests as of Monday evening.
Charlotte’s fourth homicide this week was reported late Monday outside a South Boulevard restaurant, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police. It happened just before 11 p.m. outside Restaurante Lempira, at 5906 South Boulevard, police said in a press release. Investigators identified by the victim early Monday as 31-year-old Domingo Venancio-Tapia. A suspect has not been named.
Charlotte saw a similar increase in crime in 2017, when there were 87 homicides.
Robert Dawkins, a leader with Action NC, a social justice group, lobbied city leaders to form a homicide task force to study why the number of killings had jumped in 2017.
Officials refused to create the panel, Dawkins said.
City leaders instead set aside $50,000 for community groups, he said, but that was not enough.
Criminal justice researchers said the surge in violence in Charlotte and some other cities comes at an especially tough time.
Police departments in cities such as Memphis, Dallas and Houston in recent years have tried to hire hundreds of officers to deal with staffing shortages, they said.
In 2016, Charlotte City Council gave CMPD $6 million, enough to hire as many as 125 officers. CMPD has roughly 1,900 sworn officers.
But none of the newly created positions has been filled because the department can’t keep pace with resignations and retirements, the Observer has reported earlier this year.
That means CMPD staffing lags Charlotte’s rapid growth. The city’s planning director said last year that roughly 60 people a day move to the city.
Dozier said a group of homicide detectives worked more than 24 hours in a row to investigate the Sunday homicides.
“They care about the work they’re doing, but it is a strain,” he said.
David Carter, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University, who has advised law enforcement agencies, said homicide detectives should lead no more than four or five investigations per year.
CMPD and other agencies base staffing levels on the average amount of crime they see, Carter said. A surge in homicides makes it harder to conduct timely and thorough investigations, he said.
“Your crime scene techs are spread thin, the medical examiner is backed up,” Carter said. “Everything starts to lag. If this happens again next year, you better recognize this is your new normal and hire some people.”
Staff writer Mark Price contributed.