How to Solve Gang Homicides When Nobody's Talking

Community members often withhold information, fearing retaliation because of a lack of trust in the police. Even though they know their lack of cooperation will give way to more crimes and a deteriorating quality of life in their neighborhoods, many are people still reluctant to become witnesses or provide useful information.

Lou Savelli Web2 Headshot

In many of the gang-infested areas of this country, it's often the rule rather than the rarity that community members decline to talk to the police when a murder occurs.

Community members often withhold information, fearing retaliation because of a lack of trust in the police. Even though they know their lack of cooperation will give way to more crimes and a deteriorating quality of life in their neighborhoods, many are people still reluctant to become witnesses or provide useful information.

Forensic evidence is only useful when you have a suspect and when evidence is collected. So what should officers and agencies do? Should they close out the case and add it to the many unsolved and cold-case files or should they put into action other case-solving strategies?

These violence-ridden communities still deserve commitment from their local police. And crimes left unsolved have a way of multiplying and spreading to other communities, even the quiet ones.

Often, the more lawless a place becomes, the more dangerous it is for the police officers who work in those communities. This is a well-documented fact. Criminals become more brazen and dangerous when left unchecked.

There are other considerations. The lack of trust by community members will be exploited by radical community activists with their own agenda.  Law-abiding citizens will feel mistrust and be unsupportive of the police, especially when the newspapers and politicians blame the police for not solving crimes and allowing the gang members to conduct business as usual. The morale of the local police agency will gradually diminish when the hard work of the officers are viewed, by them, as futile and fruitless.

Even with the occasional views of futility by the police officers working in high-crime jurisdictions, coupled with the blatant lack of cooperation by the community, the right strategies, true commitment, hard work, and good old fashioned police work can be the ticket to solving homicides, violent crimes, and other types of crimes.

In my experience, most police officers want to make the commitment and work hard to fight crime but the strategies must come from above. First-line supervisors and command staff must set the stage by leading officers into the implementation of proactive strategies for the officers to follow. These strategies should be aggressive, innovative and focused while the hunt for the perpetrators must be relentless.[PAGEBREAK]

First responders should work the scene as if the suspect is right there and that witnesses will be compiled from the people on the scene. Although not every crime scene yields a positive ID on a suspect, there is usually some information that can assist in the development of a lead or information about a potential suspect.

Process the crime scene, canvass the areas for witnesses, identify video cameras, check EZ Pass/I-Pass and other Potential Suspect Identification Devices (PSIDs) that may have documented the suspect's image or travels. (Subways, buses, often require an access card that can be tracked back to a suspect).

The first 24 hours is especially important since many perpetrators of murders will be seeking to flee the area while the heat is on. The initial 24 hours are critical to capturing suspects, recovering evidence and locating witnesses.

Hit the streets and shake the trees; you never know what will fall out.  Traffic stops, field interviews, "knock and talks," or any enforcement action, especially near the communities affected by homicides and other violence, can potentially result in the acquisition of a piece of evidence, a witness, intelligence or even a suspect.

I can't say enough about debriefing prisoners and the value of extracting information from arrestees. Conducting debriefings of all prisoners is imperative, especially when those prisoners live within, or near, the area where the homicide occurred. Prisoners are usually seeking help for their "new arrest" and trying to work deals to keep out of jail. This motivation is exactly what every street cop must exploit in order to gather information to help solve crimes.[PAGEBREAK]

Many officers have registered confidential informants they utilize for unrelated cases, especially drug cases, and those informants may have pertinent information on the recent act of violence or those involved (victim or suspect). Unofficial or unregistered informants can be just as valuable in assisting the police in developing information.

These informants should be deployed to the streets to acquire any information that could assist in the solving of crimes, especially homicides. Officers should also contact Parole and Probation and ask those officers to talk to their existing confidential informants and question parolees and probationers.

Talk to existing confidential informants in the jails and prisons. Cultivate sources in the jails and prisons connected with the community. While incarcerated, inmates can make phone calls to obtain information. People on the street often talk to those in jails and prisons and keep each other informed.

Telephone, text-message, or e-mail tip lines are effective tools in gathering information from the public, but these lines must be advertised to the public. People must know how to contact the tip lines and understand their calls will be remain anonymous. Reward money is also an effective way to stimulate cooperation from the public. These tip lines have been effective tools for many major cities such as New York and Chicago.

Relentless pursuit of a suspect should be the norm. The longer you maintain interest and pressure, the faster you'll make things happen.  People will come forward and you will start developing useful information. In every investigation, relentless pursuit should be deployed until every perpetrator is apprehended.

Media utilization is another effective tool to let the public know that a homicide has occurred. It often results in calls from witnesses and the acquisition of tips and investigative leads. Wanted posters, crimes stories, and police blotter sections in print media, radio, and television has consistently assisted police in solving crimes. Another important utilization for the media is the 'advertising' of police success stories. It is important for the police to release 'good' arrests and 'police community' events to build positive community perception because it leads to trust and better community assistance.

It is easy to say that the community does not trust the police and refuse to help solving crimes such as homicides but it is incumbent upon the police to better their relationships with the community for a host of obvious reasons.

About the Author
Lou Savelli Web2 Headshot
Sergeant (Ret.)
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