Understaffed Oakland department behind other cities in solving homicides
By Mary Fricker, The Chauncey Bailey Project
The Oakland Police Department has the lowest homicide clearance rate among California’s large cities because the department is understaffed and the detective work in certain instances is not thorough, an investigation by The Chauncey Bailey Project has found.
Oakland’s homicide detectives solved two of five slayings in 2006 and 2007, for a clearance, or solve, rate of about 40 percent, according to a Bailey Project analysis using the national standard for calculating clearance rates.
Most of the state’s large cities had solve rates of at least 50 percent, using the same formula set by the U.S. Department of Justice. The national average for cities Oakland’s size, population 250,000 to 499,999, was 53.5 percent.
More than 150 of 265 Oakland homicides went unsolved in the past two years. Police departments consider a case solved, or cleared, when a suspect is arrested.
“The department has for the last three years recognized that limited staffing very negatively impacts our ability to do comprehensive follow-up investigations,” said Oakland police Chief Wayne Tucker, who was hired in 2005.
–Understaffed Oakland department behind other cities in solving homicides
–Oakland homicide clearance numbers vary
–OPD homicide detectives focus on interrogation, sometimes at expense of other investigation
–Law enforcement reports and statistics are available on the Internet
– CHARTS: Homicides in California’s largest cities; Oakland homicide detectives’ case loads, wages, overtime
Tucker said his department is not able to adapt to emerging conditions, such as Oakland’s soaring murder rate, because the department needs 300 more officers and because 550 of his existing 800 officers are filling inflexible assignments set by legislation or funding over more than a decade.
“We have a number of constraints regarding how it is we adapt ourselves to current and emerging crime, based on legislation and city policy,” Tucker said.
On top of Oakland’s low solve rate, some cases were dismissed after the suspect was arrested and charges were filed, usually because judges, juries or deputy district attorneys found there was insufficient evidence. Often investigators relied on interrogation to get suspects or witnesses to talk and spent less time on gumshoe detective work, the Bailey Project found.
That approach is because of inadequate staffing, Tucker said. Relying on interrogation or confession is one good way to make cases, he said, but the department would like to be able to do more investigating and gather more corroborating evidence.
In the past five years, 26 defendants charged with murder, or one of seven people arrested, were dismissed before or during trial after they had spent up to 2½ years — the average stay was one year — in jail. All but one of those homicides are still unsolved, according to the department’s records division.
This dismissal rate is on par with other large U.S. cities, according to Bailey Project research, but when added to the Oakland Police Department’s low clearance rate, it means even fewer solved cases.
The news that Oakland’s homicide solve rate is so low comes as a surprise, because the department has said in official and news reports that it has a solve rate of about 50 percent. It achieves this rate by basing its calculations on a more favorable computation method than the national standard. The Chauncey Bailey Project has examined records from the homicide unit and the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office and determined that 40 percent is more accurate.
At the heart of the crime-solving problem is the understaffing, law enforcement experts told the Bailey Project.
Oakland’s homicide investigators are each being handed 13 new cases a year, while detectives in California’s 10 other large cities get no more than five, the Bailey Project found. In those large cities, homicide detectives each solved an average of up to three cases a year in the past two years, according to Bailey Project research. That suggests Oakland’s 10 homicide investigators might be expected to solve about 30 slayings a year. As of Monday, Oakland had 120 homicides in 2008.
A city with that many slayings should have two to three times more homicide detectives. Oakland police Assistant Chief Howard Jordan said last week he would like to have 20. He hopes to add four sometime next year, but the entire department, not just the homicide unit, is short-handed, he said, and the training of new investigators takes time.
To compensate for being short-handed, Oakland’s homicide detectives averaged 1,350 hours of overtime each last year — one investigator worked 2,214 extra hours — and managed to solve about five cases a year in the past two years. San Francisco said its investigators averaged about 500 hours of overtime and Sacramento said its number was about 650.
“Those guys work very, very hard, but they’re very understaffed in homicide investigations,” said Dennis Kilcoyne, president of the California Homicide Investigators Association. “When you’re dancing from crime scene to crime scene, what suffers is solving. It’s like having one fire station and 10 fires going at one time. It’s like fishing without bait.”
The underperformance of the Oakland Police Department’s homicide unit came to light when the Bailey Project discovered shortcomings in how homicide detective Sgt. Derwin Longmire handled the slaying investigation of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey, who was shot to death in August 2007.
The project found that Longmire quickly zeroed in on a suspect, obtained a confession from the young man during an unrecorded interrogation and didn’t document evidence that pointed to others’ involvement in the case.
In short, Longmire focused on rapidly solving the crime through interrogation and did not document much further investigation. A half-dozen legal experts have told The Chauncey Bailey Project that Longmire’s investigation was inadequate and unprofessional.
But some Oakland defense attorneys and public defenders said Longmire’s behavior was not unusual. They said they’d been complaining for years that the Oakland Police Department’s homicide investigations were too often superficial.
“The minute cops have somebody in their sights, instead of investigating the case they investigate the person. They think they know what happened,” said Oakland defense attorney William Cole, who represented six of the 26 defendants whose cases were dismissed in the past five years, the most of any attorney.
“I’m not saying these cops are in the business of framing people. They’re in the business of solving cases. And they have a very heavy caseload,” Cole said.
Doing a tough job
Alameda County assistant district attorney Tom Rogers said Oakland’s homicide investigators do an excellent job under difficult circumstances.
“Our office has great respect for the professionalism and integrity of every member of the Oakland Police Department homicide division,” Rogers said. “We have complete confidence in the investigations they have conducted and the manner in which they have conducted them.”
Rogers said Longmire deserved a lot of credit for identifying Bailey’s shooter and using his considerable interrogation skills to get a confession just hours after Bailey was killed. At least six deputy district attorneys told the Bailey Project that they think highly of the Oakland Police Department’s homicide unit.
But a review by the Bailey Project of the homicide unit’s performance, including the 26 cases dismissed in the past five years and more than a dozen other disputed arrests recommended for review by defense attorneys and public defenders in Oakland — more than 20 percent of the 182 cases filed in the past five years — found investigations with insufficient evidence to try the case and hundreds of other killings going unsolved.
Some residents simply see a police department that doesn’t solve crimes.
“If they had more cops and made more arrests, we’d feel like they were taking care of us,” said Anthony, who spoke on condition he be identified only by his first name. Anthony is an experienced West Oakland community outreach worker who spends 20 hours a week working with young men.
It seems like Oakland police don’t care about West Oakland kids, Anthony said. “If the kid has a track record of crime and he gets killed, why spend a lot of time on him? It seems like there’s no feeling for them and their grieving families.”
Some experts say the solution to the disconnect between detectives who are working long hours to solve homicides and community leaders who think the police don’t care about them starts with three important steps:
-The homicide unit needs to publish accurate statistics, including clearance rates that meet national standards, so the department, the mayor and the City Council squarely face the shortcomings and so citizens will become realistic about what homicide detectives can do.
-Judges, juries and prosecutors need to hold detectives to a higher standard, expecting that they will take obvious investigative steps.
-The city needs to hire more homicide detectives, so they will be able to do a more thorough and thoughtful job.
The Oakland Police Department also needs to modernize its crime-fighting approach to be more efficient, several law enforcement experts and studies said. But the shortage of homicide detectives is so dire, it’s hard to see how much can be accomplished until the unit gets more people.
The manpower shortage also extends beyond homicide to all criminal investigations, a Bailey Project investigation found, as about 80 investigators juggle thousands of new killings, rapes, robberies and assaults every year.
Some Oakland police officers said the shortage was one reason police didn’t move sooner against the politically well-connected Your Black Muslim Bakery, despite a decade of lawlessness at the organization that included violence, welfare fraud, child abuse and violations of state licensing, public health and labor laws.
“The bottom line is clear — Oakland cannot afford not to hire more police officers,” said Gregory McConnell, president and CEO of the Jobs and Housing Coalition, an association of business and housing leaders.
In its review of Oakland homicide cases, the Bailey Project interviewed the prosecutor and defense attorney in each case and read the court file. Oakland Police Department officials declined to discuss the cases, citing concern about jeopardizing investigations.
The Bailey Project found a pattern of homicide detectives using the fastest investigation techniques, such as interrogation, instead of the most thorough.
It saw cases in which detectives didn’t test the truth of a confession by asking the suspect to produce the gun, didn’t track cell phone calls to check an alibi, didn’t use telephone calls to collect information and identify associates, didn’t check store video cameras to see what happened, and didn’t seek additional evidence once they had a confession, even though law enforcement experts agree confessions need to be corroborated to avoid the rare but real danger of false confessing.
The Bailey Project saw court records showing detectives kept suspects in 8-foot-by-8-foot windowless rooms for up to 22 hours, interrogated in secret, admitted they ignored clues that conflicted with their own hypotheses, testified that they constructed elaborate lies to trick people into talking, relied on co-defendants and witnesses who had a lot to gain by giving evidence against a suspect, and used jailhouse informants, even though those have been found to be a leading cause of wrongful convictions, according to research by the Northwestern University School of Law.
For detectives, the main issue in homicide cases is to arrest and charge the guilty party, as soon as possible. Even when cases are dismissed, police and prosecutors often believe they had the correct suspect.
But critics focus on a different issue, which is whether police violated someone’s rights so they could get a quick arrest and move on to the next case.
Complaints of coercion
Among the issues raised in the cases The Bailey Project reviewed were frequent complaints from suspects and witnesses that their confession or their testimony was coerced.
Police vigorously deny coercing anyone, but the only record of what happens in an interrogation room has usually been a few pages of handwritten notes by the homicide detectives and a brief recorded closing statement.
This became an issue in the Chauncey Bailey slaying case, when suspect Devaughndre Broussard confessed to killing Bailey after detective Longmire let him have six unrecorded minutes alone in an interrogation room with his employer and spiritual adviser Yusuf Bey IV. Broussard later recanted his confession, claiming Bey IV coerced him into confessing.
“Most defense lawyers have stories about cases where they are convinced that their clients have falsely confessed under police interrogation,” said former Alameda County assistant public defender William Locke.
Locke represented the defendant in Oakland’s best known such case, when an Oakland jury in 2000 found Kenneth Cowling not guilty of murdering James Carter after police notes, recordings, and their testimony in court showed that lead homicide detective Ed Hollomon and his back-up Ersie Joyner III kept Dowling, a heroin addict, in an interrogation room 14 hours without treatment, interrogated him after he twice invoked his Miranda right to remain silent and had no evidence against him except his confession-, which the judge barred because of the Miranda violations. Then-Assistant Attorney General Jerry Curtis, on loan to Alameda County, prosecuted the bitterly fought case.
Questions about interrogations came up again two years ago when Alameda County deputy district attorneys abruptly dismissed charges in four murder cases within 12 months in part because suspects or key witnesses were shown to have lied during interrogation and there wasn’t enough other evidence to continue.
— In the 2004 slaying of Joe Furch, the prosecutor discovered that a witness — who had persuaded Sgt. Louis Cruz of his reliability by describing the murder scene in great detail, in exchange for release from jail in on an auto theft charge — had been in a Los Angeles jail at the time of the murder. The case was dismissed against the two defendants in August 2005 and February 2006, according to court records.
— In the 2004 slaying of Jondrea Jones, a store video camera proved that the cops had built their case on the detailed testimony of a witness who wasn’t telling the truth, according to the prosecutor and defense attorney. The witness later claimed she lied because there was a warrant out for her arrest in another matter and Longmire implied hewould help her if she told him what he wanted to hear, the prosecutor and public defender said in an interview. The case was dismissed in October 2005.
— A juvenile told Cruz during interrogation that he accompanied his cousin Ramon Sanchez to shoot Antonio Ramirez on 20th Avenue in 2005, court records show. Sanchez was charged with murder. But later, a deputy district attorney discovered that the juvenile had been in custody at the time of the shooting. The case was dismissed in January 2006.
— In August 2006, murder charges against two men were dismissed after a video camera proved that an eyewitness was wrong, according to Assistant District Attorney Rogers. The witness had said he saw the two men kill Lath La earlier that year. But a video camera at the apartment house where one of the men lived later proved he was home at the time of the slaying.
The Oakland Police Department is developing a new interrogation policy that may require homicide detectives to record all interrogations of suspects start to finish, using the video cameras the department has recently installed in its interrogation rooms.
But Assistant Chief Jordan said the policy changes are still under review and he doesn’t know what the final terms of the policy will be or when it may be implemented.
Supporters believe the policy could build trust in the community and protect suspects and detectives from false charges. But for years Oakland homicide detectives have resisted the growing national trend to full recording, saying that even surreptitious taping will leak out to the street and could cause people to stop talking.
Richard Leo, University of San Francisco professor of law and author of the just released book, “Police interrogation and American Justice,” thinks that’s ridiculous.
“If word on the street made any difference, then everyone walking into the interrogation room would walk in and say, ‘I want a lawyer,'” Leo said. Instead, many suspects waive their so-called Miranda rights during questioning by a skilled interrogator.
“I believe Oakland police are creating and perpetuating falsehoods because they don’t want to be scrutinized. In this day and age, that is unprofessional,” Leo said.
Ray Keller, trial staff supervisor for the Alameda County Public Defender, said he knows Bay Area police departments that are so comfortable keeping tape recorders on all the time that he has a recording of an investigator who forgot to turn off the recorder in his pocket while he was standing at a urinal.
Certainly, a recording of Broussard’s six minutes with Bey IV could have been critical evidence in the case.
“If you’re interested in solving crimes and getting at the truth, it’s the solution,” Leo said.
Another common complaint from defense attorneys and public defenders is that sometimes Oakland police believe they can tell when a person is lying or guilty, even though virtually all the published scientific research debunks that notion, according to Leo.
This attitude can lead police to focus on a suspect, dismiss clues that don’t fit their theory and start acting like prosecutors instead of investigators, critics claim.
In 2004, Sgt. Jim Rullamas told the court that he could tell when the three young witnesses in the slaying of Tamellia Cobbs were lying or telling the truth, transcripts show. He believed them when they identified Eric Williams, 28, and Keddrick Darrough, 25, as the killers, even though court records show the teens gave conflicting information to police, the defense attorney said the FBI had an informant who claimed someone else was the murderer and Williams turned himself in with a detailed alibi. The prosecutor disputed the alibi, and jurors weren’t so sure about it, but they decided the three young witnesses weren’t trustworthy, the prosecutor told the Bailey Project. They acquitted Darrough and deadlocked on Williams. So the District Attorney tried Williams again, and the jury acquitted him, too, after he had spent more than two years in jail.
In the 2006 slaying of Farris Patrick, police heard there was a witness to the murder, so they arrested him on trumped-up drug charges, Sgt. Jim Morris later testified. They offered to put him in a witness protection program, set him up with a job and help him find and finance some property, the prosecutor confirmed in court. The witness said John Sloan, 19, and Davon Jackson, 26, killed Patrick. But he said they shot him in the back. That was wrong. At the preliminary hearing, the witness said he lied when he fingered Sloan and Jackson, so he could escape drug charges, a transcript shows. He said he was always high and intoxicated. The deputy district attorney told the Bailey Project he believedthe witness recanted because he was afraid of being a snitch, but the judge discharged the case.
In a 2005 armed robbery case, investigators Morris and Caesar Basa Jr. were convinced that 18-year-old Brittany McDonald stole $10 from an elderly Chinese lady and threatened her with a knife, even though the victim had said her assailant was a slightly built man with a natural Afro hairdo and McDonald was a large girl with an orange Afro, according to police and defense reports in the court file. During interrogation, a sobbing McDonald confessed, but she got key facts wrong. The victim had said she could identify her assailant, but police didn’t arrange a lineup until McDonald’s attorney Locke called for it, according to the court file. The Chinese lady said no one in the lineup attacked her. The case was dismissed.
In the 2002 slaying of Roland Ross, Sgt. Gus Galindo said in court that suspect Michael Moore appeared guilty because he put his head down on the interrogation table, he was shaking his head, he was sweating and he had tears in his eyes. Galindo said he could tell from his experience talking to people that a key witness against Moore was telling the truth. But Moore, 29, claimed to have an alibi, and the prosecutor and defense attorney told the Bailey Project the jury wasn’t convinced by a prosecution witness and there wasn’t much other evidence. The jury acquitted Moore in just a few hours.
In the drive-by killing of Clayton Bolds in 2006, suspect Theodore Lee told Sgt. Dominique Arotzarena and Cruz he had been at an A’s game with a church group, but the time he said he arrived at the game was wrong, the defense attorney said. That put police on alert. A surviving victim told police that Lee did it, court records show.s The police believed him. When Lee argued that he had attended a pre-game party and rode to the game with an IRS agent, the police didn’t believe him. But the case against him was later dismissed when technical experts consulted by the deputy district attorney determined Lee’s cell phone records showed his alibi could have been true, the prosecutor said
Jurors convicted Lionel Shell, senior captain of the 2003 McClymonds High School football team, of the drive-by killing of Gamel Attayeb in January 2006 on the basis of his confession, which he recanted, and the testimony of co-defendants who cut deals for themselves. Testimony at trial showed that a surviving victim and a confidential police informant said a different man was the likely shooter, and Shell’s confession got key facts wrong, like where he was sitting in the car and what kind of gun he used. But Sgt. Tony Jones testified he didn’t test Shell’s confession by asking to see the gun, and he didn’t check phone records to see if Shell communicated with co-defendants. Shell’s attorney told the Bailey Project that Jones walked out of the interrogation room when Shell asked for an attorney and that Jones told Shell he had to choose between confession or the death penalty.
In its study of homicide cases, the Bailey Project found that Oakland police sometimes kept suspects in interrogation rooms for many hours, risking exhaustion, confusion and false confessions.
“You put a young man potentially facing the rest of his life in prison or the death penalty, put him in a little room and they feel they have no way out,” said Oakland defense attorney Anne Beles.
Joseph Buckley, president of John E. Reid & Associates and an author of the nation’s top police manual on interrogations, said he recommends that police who aren’t making significant progress after four hours of interrogation should consider another approach.
Oakland police argue that even long stays in interrogation rooms are not coercive because actual interrogation time is much less and because police check suspects frequently and provide food and bathrooms as needed.
In the 2006 slaying of Antonio Quintero, detectives Tony Jones and Bruce Brock kept Brinks truck driver Clifton Wherry Jr., 28, in an interrogation room almost 22 hours, interviewing him off and on for nine hours, according to police logs — — even though his mother and other family members say they were asking to see him and wanted to get an attorney for him — until he said he planned the robbery that ended in Quintero’s death. Wherry’s attorneys told the Bailey Project he wasn’t given his Miranda rights for 11 hours and was promised a two-year sentence if he talked. His attorneys, J. Tony Serra and Shari L. White, called the interrogation ruthless, rogue and unlawful in court documents. Wherry’s trial is pending.
In the 2004 slaying of Jondrea Jones, police logs show Longmire kept suspect Twynisha Ashley, 26, in an interrogation room for 24 hours — from 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. one night and from noon to 1 a.m. a month later — even though he only questioned her for 2 ½ hours. Ashley’s public defender Susan Sawyer told the court that Longmire threatened to take away Ashley’s three children if she didn’t implicate a co-defendant.
After 20 hours in an interrogation room, eventually crying and distraught, Fritz Paige finally said he planned the 2005 robbery where Michael Doss was shot. He was charged with murder, even though detective Jones said in court that cell phone records didn’t match Paige’s story and his statements about the type of gun, sequence of events and identification of his accomplice turned out to be wrong.
Deputy public defender Jody Nunez was outraged by the interrogation.
“It is clear from the number and duration of the interrogations that Sgts. Jones and Cruz were not going to stop until the defendant confessed to the crime,” Nunez argued in court documents. She questioned why Jones and Cruz taped three brief statements but turned the tape recorder off for long periods in between. She noted that her client obviously did not mind being taped.
“The only logical conclusion for the deliberate failure to tape record the interrogations is that Sgt. Jones … did not want his superiors or the court to hear how he used coercive techniques to break down (the) defendant’s will,” Nunez argued.
Judge Barbara Miller disagreed, saying the interrogation was “fairly standard” for the Oakland Police Department and Jones was an “extremely credible witness.” But she discharged the case because the officer who arrested Paige and turned him over to Jones “apparently” arrested Paige illegally and lied about it in court, she said. A department spokesman declined to comment, citing personnel confidentiality issues.
Reach Mary Fricker at firstname.lastname@example.org. MediaNews investigative reporter Thomas Peele and independent reporters Bob Butler and A.C. Thompson contributed to this report.