Hampton Roads had over 200 homicides last year. The police solved just over half of the murders.
The number of people dying of homicide in Hampton Roads remained high over the past year, with more than 200 homicides in the region’s seven largest cities through 2022.
But in a disturbing trend law enforcement agencies across the country are witnessing, many of these remain unsolved. Of the 220 murders reported by the cities’ seven police departments in 2022, 120 were “exonerated” through arrest or other means. That means no one will be arrested or held accountable for 45% of homicides in the region by 2022.
According to local police department data counted by The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press, homicide solving records vary widely between police departments in the area.
Norfolk, which recorded the highest number of homicides, had the lowest percentage of cases resolved through arrest or other means in 2022. Of the 63 murders, only 37% or 23 cases were approved. Suffolk had the highest rate with all 13 authorized homicides in 2022.
Chesapeake recorded 25 murders, 17 of which were acquitted (68%).
Hampton recorded 24 murders, 10 of which were acquitted (42%).
Newport News recorded 31 murders, 16 of which were acquitted (52%).
Portsmouth recorded 42 murders, 25 of which were acquitted (60%).
Virginia Beach recorded 22 murders, 16 of which were acquitted (73%).
The Pilot and Daily Press asked for the total number of homicides for 2022 and the number of cases acquitted in 2022, which is somewhat different from how the FBI tracks clear-up rates. They were also asked about the number of homicide deaths caused by gunfire.
The national homicide declaration rate for 2020 — the latest year for which the statistics are available — was 56%. The release rates defined by the FBI also take into account cases from previous years that were resolved in a given year, and therefore can result in higher rates than if only those from that year were included.
The 220 homicides reported by the seven cities last year were more than the 206 in 2021. While the total in 2022 was not significantly higher than the cities reported the year before, it was 76% higher than that 125 in 2017.
Local police data for 2022 also showed that more than 90% of people killed last year were due to gunshots, with 201 of the 221 victims shot dead.
Homicide detection rates across the country have declined over the past two decades, according to Jeff Asher, an analyst and consultant at AH Datalytics and an expert in evaluating criminal justice data.
“I think guns are the most important factor,” Asher said. “Gun cases are harder to solve, yet they make up for most homicides.”
Shooting cases can sometimes be more difficult to resolve because there is often a distance between the shooter and the victim, Asher said.
This can result in less evidence remaining at the crime scene and make it easier for the perpetrator to escape and not be seen by witnesses. If the weapon is not recovered, a ballistic test on recovered bullets or cartridge cases is not possible. Outdoor scenes can also be more difficult as they are scattered and harder to control.
The sharp increase in homicides in Hampton Roads in recent years is a trend seen in cities across the country as homicide rates continue to rise, particularly in urban areas.
The 21,570 homicides the FBI recorded nationwide in 2020 — the most recent year for which complete data is available — increased 30% from the year before, marking the largest increase since the agency began collecting data. Homicide is defined as the killing of one person by another and can include murder and manslaughter, as well as murders classified as justified and unintentional.
Law enforcement experts say other factors, such as a lack of cooperation from witnesses, could make solving the rising number of homicides more difficult. Although fear of retaliation is often cited as the reason, it often boils down to a reluctance by witnesses to come forward.
“Maybe they don’t trust the police. Maybe they just don’t want to participate. Maybe they’re scared,” said former Virginia Beach Police Commissioner James Cervera, who headed the department for 10 years and was a member for more than 40 years. “Whatever the reason, it’s a problem, and it’s a big problem.”
And while things like advances in technology and the proliferation of surveillance cameras have helped detectives, police will continue to rely heavily on the cooperation of witnesses and other members of the community, Cervera said.
However, the difficulties are not universal. In Portsmouth, where police will solve 60% of homicides by 2022, spokeswoman Victoria Varnedoe commended both local detectives and the willingness of community members to come forward with information given the above-average solve rate.
Chesapeake’s homicide rate has averaged 65% over the past six years, with a high of 81% in 2017 and a low of 50% in 2019, police spokesman Leo Kosinski said. Cases under investigation last year included a mass shooting that killed six people at a Walmart. Of the other killings, seven were robbery-related, six were domestic in nature and four related to gang activity, he said.
Another area experts agree has had a serious impact on investigators’ ability to solve cases is staffing issues. The Norfolk Police Department did not respond to a request for an interview on the homicide rate, but staffing levels have been a major challenge for the agency over the past year, with up to a third of sworn posts remaining vacant.
Since the nationwide protests that erupted in the wake of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, there has been a “mass exodus” of officers and a serious drop in police academy applicants, according to Newport Police Department News. Boss Steve Drew.
There was also a significant increase in crime as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country around the same time, Drew said.
Before the protests, Newport News averaged about 1,000 applicants a year for its police academies, Drew said. Today it’s 400 to 500, and many don’t make it. Some officials also prefer to move from the big city to rural departments where the workload isn’t as heavy and the danger isn’t as great, he said.
Another issue Drew and Cervera have pointed out is the high expectations juries appear to have, which can result in prosecutors being unwilling to proceed with a case. Before charges are brought, police and prosecutors often work together to determine if there is sufficient evidence.
“An officer’s word isn’t enough these days,” Drew said. “They (juries) want to know where is the video? Where is the TBEN? They say, “If we don’t see the video footage, we don’t know it happened.”
Cervera agreed. “I think citizens, juries and attorneys watch far too many police programs,” he said.
One of the most concerning things for Drew is the number of young victims. Of the 31 people who died as a result of murder in Newport News last year, four were under the age of 18.
“Yes, we are evidence-based and data-driven,” said Drew. “But when I look at these numbers, I am reminded and aware of the fact that all these numbers are a person, a neighbor, a family member, a member of the community and they are important to us. You are important to me.”
jane harper, [email protected]; Eliza Noe, [email protected]