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COVER STORY : For Detectives, a Case of Too Many Murders to Solve : The caseload for homicide investigators on the Eastside and in South-Central and Southwest Los Angeles is two to three times that of most of their counterparts, LAPD data shows. As a result, many killers are never caught.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Muriel Polk sensed that something was terribly wrong when she heard a knock on the door early that morning. On her porch were two detectives who informed her that her 21-year-old son had been shot to death on a South-Central street.

Today, more than three years after Patrick Polk was found slumped over the steering wheel of his car, the case remains unsolved.

Overwhelmed by more recent killings, detectives say they have been unable to devote the time needed to solve Polk’s slaying. So, in her own quest for justice, Polk has sought the help of a private investigator and visited the crime scene herself to interview witnesses and gather statements.

“It’s frustrating because (the police) don’t have enough people to follow through on murders like they should--I can vouch for that,” she said. “They get new murders every day, and you get pushed further and further back.”

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On the Eastside and in South-Central and Southwest Los Angeles, homicide detectives in 1993 investigated two to three times more cases each than did thier counterparts in most areas of the city, Police Department data shows.

The city’s busiest homicide detail last year was the Eastside’s Hollenbeck Division, where six detectives investigated 68 murders, or 22.6 cases per two-person team. In the Central Division, which covers Downtown, six detectives handled 32 homicides, or 10.6 cases per team. On the Westside, six detectives in the Pacific Division investigated 17 homicides, or 5.6 per team.

In the South Bureau, which consists of four divisions and covers most of South-Central and Southwest Los Angeles, 43 detectives investigated 412 killings last year, or 17.9 cases per team.

The Hollenbeck Division and South Bureau details last year had the lowest percentage of arrests for homicide cases in the department, a result that commanders blame in large part on their detectives’ heavy workloads. In both details, investigators often work 18-hour days and juggle half a dozen or more cases at once, only to be interrupted by yet another slaying.

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“I prefer a team handling on the average 10 to 12 homicides a year,” said Detective Ben Lovato, the Hollenbeck commander. “That gives you enough time to do a really thorough investigation and to do a thorough job in following the case as it is prosecuted.”

The disparity in workloads raises serious questions about how detectives should be deployed, city officials say. The way the detective details are staffed now, the investigators in the deadliest neighborhoods have the least amount of time to work the greatest number of cases.

“Every place needs more detectives, but they should be spread out more evenly,” said Gary Greenenbaum, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. The current deployment “makes no sense,” he said.

“I think that anybody presented with these numbers would agree that something has to be done,” said Councilwoman Rita Walters, whose 9th District in South-Central had 191 homicides within its boundaries in 1993, more than any other council district. “The allocation for the deployment of personnel should be according to the need in the area.”

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Department officials contend that a more accurate measure of detective workloads at each station should not only take into account homicides but also crimes such as robbery and burglary that are handled by other detective details.

“I don’t think you can look at the single issue of homicide and determine fairness,” said Lt. John Dunkin, a department spokesman. “You have to take into consideration the entire detective workload.”

Dunkin said each station is allotted detectives based roughly on the number of all crimes reported in each area. “It’s kind of a subjective thing that’s evolved over the years.” It is up to the individual station commanders to determine how to use their detectives, Dunkin said.

However, in an effort to take a more centralized approach to deployment, Chief Willie L. Williams’ command staff recently formed a strategy committee to determine how to better utilize detectives citywide, department officials said. Recommendations are expected later this year.

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But police officials say that all investigative details are stretched to the limit in the department, which has decreased from 8,450 sworn personnel in 1991 to about 7,600 now because of hiring freezes caused by the city’s fiscal woes.

To be sure, just adding more detectives to a detail would not ensure that more cases will be solved. Criminologists and detectives say a host of other factors also come into play: the type of slaying, cooperation of witnesses, investigators’ individual ability and persistence--and luck.

“There are some cases that you are not going to solve, regardless of how many people you deploy,” said Deputy Chief Robert Gil, commander of the department’s Central Bureau.

Detectives refer to the easiest cases to solve as “smoking guns” or “self-solvers,” such as domestic killings in which the suspect confesses at the scene. Those are very different from gang- and drug-related killings, in which witnesses often refuse to cooperate or go into hiding.

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In the Hollenbeck Division, 64% of the homicides last year were related to gangs or drugs. In the South Bureau, 60% of all homicide cases in 1993 required witnesses to be relocated or guarded for their own protection.

“This is an area where there is some of the greatest resistance to work with law enforcement because of the fear of retribution,” said Lt. Sergio Robleto, commander of the South Bureau homicide detail. He said other details have similar problems, but “the percentage of those things is greater on the south end.”

Criminologists and detectives say there is no standard figure on what constitutes an acceptable workload. But in general, they say, investigators have a greater chance for success if they have more time to work on a case without being interrupted by another killing. That is especially true during the first 48 hours of a case, when evidence is still fresh.

“Once an event takes place, you have to ask yourself how much time and energy police have to follow up on the case and whether they can maintain that same intensity over a period of time,” said Albert Cardarelli, a University of Massachusetts criminologist who has done extensive research on homicide investigations.

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In 1993, the Police Department homicide details with the lightest caseloads generally had the highest clearance rates--the percentage of homicide cases in which arrests were made. In the Northeast Division, where six detectives investigated 6.6 cases per team, 96% of the cases were cleared. The six detectives in the Central Division cleared 104% of their cases (that figure exceeds 100% because it includes cases that originated in 1992 for which arrests were made in 1993). The clearance rates were 60% in Hollenbeck and 63% in the South Bureau.

The Patrick Polk killing is an example of a case that has suffered because of the workload facing South Bureau detectives, Robleto said.

Polk was dead from a single gunshot wound when officers found him in his car near Century Boulevard and Gramercy Place on the night of Feb. 28, 1991. His 1973 Buick Regal had smashed into a wall and a light post. Because the investigation is still going on, detectives declined to discuss a possible motive.

From the onset, detectives faced the difficult task of obtaining information. No witnesses had been immediately identified, and investigators on the case were constantly interrupted by new killings.

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Finally, about a year after the slaying, the backlog of cases became too great. The original investigative team passed Polk’s case to the South Bureau’s unsolved-murder team, a now-defunct unit of two detectives who handled the slayings that other investigators no longer had time to follow.

“It was a case that needed a lot of legwork, and that team just didn’t have the time because of the volume of fresh homicides that were a priority,” said Detective Carolyn Flamenco, who took over the investigation.

Flamenco and her partner’s job was to develop new leads through old-fashioned, time-consuming detective work: knocking on doors and reinterviewing witnesses and suspects. But the new team fell victim to the same problem that scuttled the initial investigation: fresh killings. The unsolved-murder team was disbanded last summer after a wave of bloodshed that left 24 people dead within the bureau’s jurisdiction in early July. “It was just a monstrous week,” Robleto said. “That’s when we started getting completely blown out of the water.”

Robleto added that he had little choice but to break up the team. “In order to keep the emotional stability of the workers, it was important to throw more people into the front-line fray.”

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Frustrated by the lack of progress, Muriel Polk took matters into her own hands. Despite the obvious risk, she revisited the crime scene several times to interview residents. She wrote down their statements and gave them to detectives.

“I know it is dangerous,” she said. “But he was the only son I had.”

Polk, who has a 16-year-old daughter, also enlisted the help of a friend who is a private investigator. But no new leads developed.

Meanwhile, Flamenco said she squeezes in work on the Polk case among six other homicides that she and her partner are investigating. “That’s the nature of the beast here,” she said. “I try to work on his case every chance I get.”

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An unemployed insurance claims examiner, Polk spends her days looking after her 2-year-old grandson, Patrick Polk Jr., who was born eight months after his father’s slaying.

Although Polk realizes that the detectives are doing their best, she said it is difficult going to bed each night knowing that her son’s killer is probably roaming the streets. She also realizes that her situation has become an all-too-familiar occurrence in many Central Los Angeles neighborhoods.

“The death of a young man like that was senseless,” she said. “I know there’s a lot of other mothers like me. There’s too many of us out there.”

A Heavy Workload

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The Police Department’s two busiest homicide details are in the Eastside’s Hollenbeck Division and the South Bureau, which consists of four divisions and covers most of South-Central and Southwest Los Angeles. In 1993, detectives in those two details each investigated two to three times more cases than their counterparts in most other areas of the city. Although a number of factors contribute to a detective’s ability to solve cases, the Hollenbeck and South Bureau squad commanders say the heavy workload impedes their efforts to investigate homicides.

On the Cover

Detectives from the Police Department’s South Bureau examine the murder scene at a May 12 shootout at 120th Street and McKinley Avenue, marking off the shell casings with chalk circles on the pavement.

Eastside, South-Central and Southwest Los Angeles homicide detectives are investigating two to three times more cases each than their counterparts in other areas of the city. Investigators in the deadliest neighborhoods have the least amount of time to work the greatest number of cases. The workload disparity raises questions about how detectives should be deployed, officials say.

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