Law enforcement: Rise in homicides, symptom of underlying behavioral health crisis

Homicides in Spokane have become more common in recent years, which local law enforcement investigators say indicates an increase in gun violence, drug trafficking and gang activity.

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

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

For Maj. Mike McNab, chief of the Spokane Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit, gun violence is a top concern.

“We’re a bit concerned about gun violence,” McNab said. “We’re concerned about this because it’s not just specific to Spokane, it’s happening across the country.”

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

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

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

In the past, these children were involved in gangs or drug dealing, he said, but recently it has become more common for suspects not to have a “joint criminal enterprise”. he said.

This joint venture allowed investigators to target drug dealers and gang leaders. Without that commonality, it’s more difficult, McNab said.

“They just do it to hurt themselves,” McNab said. “How do you fight this type of motive? »

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

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

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

Deputy John Nowels, who oversees investigations at the agency, said he’s seen a huge shift in the underlying causes of homicides.

“Now more than ever, it’s linked to substance use, drug trafficking, narcotics trafficking in one way or another,” Nowels said.

The county has also seen an increase in gang activity, which may not be related to drug trafficking, but trafficking in items such as vape pens and firearms.

“Our young people are more than willing to be armed,” Nowels said. “They feel they need it to protect against theft.”

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

Numbers in context

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

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

In a community like Spokane, one more homicide can cause the percentage to spike massively. For Spokane County, there was a 60% increase in homicides in 2021. This large increase stems from four homicides.

In the city of Spokane, there has been an approximately 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 percentage, you should at least look at what the raw number is.”

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

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

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

While the change facilitates national and statewide comparisons and analyses, it also means that data prior to 2017 is not comparable due to different collection methods. With such a short archive of comparable data, it’s harder to see trends or get a solid average.

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, which also switched to NIBRS 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 timeframe to look back, it’s harder to see what that year-over-year volatility looks like,” Morris said.

see something say something“To see these young children involved in gun violence, to this level and to this degree, is disturbing,” McNab said. And that makes me wonder as a community, as a society, how do we take care of our children.

McNab encouraged community members to “raise the flag” if they see someone in need of help.

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

Kwismas encourages citizens to “be good witnesses” and report if they see anything suspicious while being aware of their surroundings.

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

Nowels also said he fears chronic offenders will be held accountable, allowing them to continue an escalation into increasingly extreme violent crimes.

More time spent in prison or in treatment for antisocial behavior like substance abuse and mental health issues would help reduce the problem, Nowels said.

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

“A lot of this is driven by the pharmaceutical 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 of a probable drug overdose after being exposed to fentanyl at her parents’ home. Her father was charged with her murder.

It has become increasingly common to find large amounts of fentanyl, cash and firearms at routine traffic stops, McNab said.

Data on drugs and firearms seizures during routine traffic checks in 2021 are not available.

Stranger on stranger murders remain rare

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

“Crimes between strangers are certainly rarer than anything else,” McNab said.

It is extremely rare for some to be targeted by a random killer, McNab confirmed. When this happens, the police department takes it very seriously because it worries the community at large, he said.

“We take it much more seriously and you don’t see it very often,” McNab said. “There’s always a personal connection or motivation, whether it’s in the last 10 minutes or the last 10 years, there’s always something that connects that person to the other person.”

However, with a recent increase in drive-by shootings, there is a risk that a bystander could be injured, Nowels said.

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

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

Increased workload

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

“Homicides are extremely complex investigations,” Nowels said.

Investigators need more technical expertise now than a decade ago, he said. They need to be familiar with social media, cell tower data, smartphones and a host of digital investigative tools, not to mention new DNA technology, Nowels said.

Additional tools provide more essential evidence but also take longer, Nowels said.

“The sheer volume of work that needs to be put into business has increased over the past five years,” Nowels said. “We have to develop the expertise of many different people and that just adds to the workload.”

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

Homicides can take years to pass through the criminal justice system, McNab noted.

“Even when they are resolved, this case is still awaiting judgment with this detective,” McNab said.

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

The biggest benefit of having additional detectives is to extend the call weeks, McNab said.

At all times, two detectives are on duty. Most homicides happen after office hours, McNab said, usually 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, giving them more time to work on their existing cases and for better rest, McNab said.

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

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