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INDIANAPOLIS –As Indianapolis creeps toward another record-high annual homicide total, the detectives who investigate murder in the city find themselves swamped with new cases.

Indianapolis has recorded 244 homicides so far this year, and more than 220 of those have been ruled murder. That’s a daunting caseload for IMPD’s 33 current homicide detectives. But help is on the way.

It’s going on four years since Rodriguez “Pooh” Anderson was shot to death in the 3600 block of Schofield Avenue on the city’s northside and Rochelle Dickerson still doesn’t know who killed her son or why or if anybody from IMPD’s Homicide Branch is even working the case anymore.

“Oh, it’s frustrating. I call down there and they said someone was gonna call me back and I dialed that number he gave me…no one got in touch with me. I got the same number, my number never changed.

“Nobody called me.”

It was at about the same time the primary detective on Rodriguez’ case retired that Indianapolis saw an explosion in the number of killings in the city.

From November 1, 2019, to November 1st of this year, IMPD investigated 505 homicides over the course of two years.

“Part of the challenge we faced in the city was the rise in violence and we have faced a shortage of officers,” said IMPD Deputy Chief Kendale Adams who was tabbed to run the department’s Investigations Division in September. “When I came in there were roughly about 29, 30ish homicide detectives.”

By shutting down a detective unit charged with tracking recent parolees and probationers, Adams added four investigators to the Homicide Branch and will add another four when the Organized Crime Unit is dissolved and the transfer process to Investigations is opened up.

“We knew we needed to rise that number so we started looking internally where we could make reassignments within our division,” he said. “I told all of our detectives, everybody in the division, our focus was going to be on crimes against persons, violent crimes against persons.”

As of the time of this report, Indianapolis is teetering on the edge of tying last year’s annual homicide record of 245 killings, while as of the first of this month, IMPD had record 571 non-fatal shooting incidents with 647 victims, compared to 526 incidents with 588 victims during the first ten months of 2020.

Last year’s non-fatal shooting totals were 714 people wounded during 639 incidents, putting Indianapolis on track this year to set another gun violence record.

“We have seen homicide rates increase and clearance rates decrease nationally,” said Professor David Carter of the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. “When homicide rates increase, it puts more stress on the departments. While the policies and practices remain the same, they just can’t be fulfilled when you’re facing an increased number of homicides coupled with the fact that across the country most police departments are understaffed.”

IMPD has approximately 1659 sworn officers on the job today, roughly the same total it started the year with, as retirements and attrition have offset any gains made by Academy recruit classes.

Metro PD has an authorized strength of 1743 officers and Mayor Joe Hogsett has found the funds to gradually grow the department to 1843 sworn officers if enough recruits or lateral transfers from other departments can be found at a time when IMPD is set to take over additional responsibilities being discontinued by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office including jail wagon transportation and Eskenazi Hospital detention of injured arrestees.

“Low staffing levels have caught up with everybody,” said Carter who has noted the departure of veteran police officers as part of a national trend. “I’ve talked to those people who say this is just not worth it, so you’re not only losing those people, you’re losing that experience.”

That finding is borne out by a recent survey conducted by Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute which advises, studies and trains law enforcement and criminal justice personnel nationwide.

The survey of 262 law enforcement agencies this month found that while about half that responded are finding their homicide detectives with increased caseloads, the other half say the caseload rate has stayed steady since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 and 143 departments reported having fewer homicide detectives while 65 indicate their homicide branches have been beefed up in the last year-and-a-half.

While caseloads per detective vary depending on a department’s staffing, overall size, and the community it serves, most homicide branches average between five and ten cases per investigator but prefer an optimum workload of four to six cases.

Adams said some IMPD detectives are carrying nine cases for 2021, and just as many from last year, including cleared cases that have been referred for prosecution, not to mention the added responsibilities of investigating suicides, fatal drug overdoses, and officer-involved shootings.

“A homicide detective with nine cases, it’s very difficult for them to spend the time that it takes on these cases, not only that, it’s very difficult for them to communicate with these families,” said Adams.

Carter agreed.

“If there’s lower staffing, there’s gonna be fewer homicide detectives,” he said. “If you have fewer homicide detectives, there’s gonna be fewer clearances.

“These are such complex investigations; it takes time to get up to speed.”

In the past, homicide detectives often closed cases by utilizing community contacts, tips and interrogations that led to confessions or revealing evidence and statements.

Now, a detective is much more like a case manager, overseeing multi-faceted investigations that include evidence determined by forensic specialists, a medical examiner, crime analysts and cell phone, computer and social media clues.

“Really the best blend for a detective now is to be technically savvy but also be able to carry on a rapport with anybody they speak with,” said IMPD Homicide Captain Roger Spurgeon. “We may have younger detectives who know all that stuff, have grown up with it and it may be second nature to them, but they maybe have not had the same level of life experience working with people and doing interviews.”

IMPD has cleared 39% of the homicide cases it investigated this year.

As of November 1st, the Marion County Prosecutor filed murder charges in 74 cases in 2021, which also includes killings from previous years.

There is no statistic on how many murder cases have been referred for prosecution and been rejected, dropped or sent back for more work.

“We’re just seeing the successful conclusions happen at a slower pace because it takes longer to get there,” said Spurgeon.

The assignment of crime analysts to the Homicide Branch, along with increased liaison with the Crime Gun Intelligence Center, which collects firearms evidence, and the Indianapolis Violence Reduction Project, which hunts down wanted suspects, has boosted the potential for solving open murder cases, though public cooperation is still the most significant and sometimes most elusive component to a detective’s investigation.

“The community support for the police is absolutely essential for solving homicides,” said Carter, author of a homicide investigations best practices study for the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance that included dozens of law enforcement professionals in consultation. “If the public does not support the police and want to talk to the police, it’s gonna be harder to do effective homicide investigations.”

Spurgeon acknowledged the need for better communication between the families of homicide victims and their detectives.

“There is so much frustration among families and loved ones because they don’t understand the investigative process and they don’t understand how long it takes to be able to go through various things and why things happen the way they do and why questions can’t be answered and won’t be answered and there’s legitimate reasons for that.

If I’m out there and my loved one has been killed and I’m a layperson, I’m gonna have a lot of questions that I’m not gonna know the answer to and I’m sure it would be very frustrating. We’re trying to take the mystery out of that and reach out and have a dialogue and that’s kind of the key to it, not just us talking at people, but having this communication back and forth so that the questions that are on their hearts and minds can be answered.”

Capt. Roger Spurgeon, IMPD

Spurgeon said next year IMPD and the Prosecutors Office plan to reengage the community in public meetings, thwarted by pandemic bans on large gatherings in 2020, to demystify the homicide investigation process.

“We’ve got some things on the horizon I think that we’re hoping to bring on board in 2022 that gets us closer to the community in ways that we haven’t seen before,” said Adams. “We’re gonna try to address that specific need with an initiative, we’re working with the Office of Public Health and Safety that we hope to embed some people with a different perspective with Homicide. One of the things that we have done is move victim assistance under Homicide to forge a closer relationship.

“I want to take some of that away from Homicide and give that to victim assistance and folks kind of in that space.”

Rochelle Dickerson is hopeful that next year she will receive the answers that have eluded her regarding her son Pooh’s murder in 2018.

“It hurts me to see mothers crying, mothers wondering why their kids did this and that, they’re killing 14- year-olds, they’re killing 12-year-olds, they’re doing drive-bys going past peoples’ houses, all these people need to be addressed,” she said. “Nobody knows what goes on, but we need somebody to take this money they talking about giving out and then clearing the streets up and putting up signs and stuff. Y’all need to solve these problems. There’s a lot of people out here that ain’t got their child solved.”

During our interview, Rochelle choked back tears as she held a poster with her son’s picture that read, “Happy Heavenly Birthday.”

“This can’t be a cold case,” she said.