The number of people who died from homicide in Hampton Roads remained high last year, with more than 200 homicides in the region’s seven largest cities by 2022.
But in a disturbing trend experienced by law enforcement agencies across the country, many of those remain unsolved. Of the 220 murders reported by the cities’ seven police departments in 2022, 120 have been “exonerated” through arrest or other means. That means no one has been arrested or held responsible for 45% of the region’s homicides by 2022.
Murder clearing records vary widely among police departments in the region, according to data from local police departments and tallied by The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press.
Norfolk, which recorded the highest number of homicides, had the lowest percentage of cases in 2022 that were solved by arrest or other means. Of the 63 murders, only 37%, or 23 cases, were approved. Suffolk had the highest rate with all 13 of the 2022 murders approved.
Chesapeake recorded 25 murders, of which 17 were acquitted (68%).
Hampton recorded 24 murders, of which 10 were acquitted (42%).
Newport News recorded 31 murders, of which 16 were acquitted (52%).
Portsmouth recorded 42 murders, of which 25 were acquitted (60%).
Virginia Beach recorded 22 murders, of which 16 were acquitted (73%).
The Pilot and Daily Press asked for murder totals for 2022 and the number of 2022 cases that were acquitted, which differs somewhat from how the FBI tracks clearance rates. They were also asked about the number of homicide deaths caused by gunfire.
The national homicide clearance rate for 2020 – the most recent year the statistics are available – was 56%. Clearance rates as defined by the FBI also take into account cases from previous years resolved in a given year, and therefore may result in higher rates than if only those from that year are included.
The 220 homicides reported last year by the seven cities was more than the 206 in 2021. While the 2022 total was not significantly higher than what the cities reported the year before, it was 76% higher than the 125 in 2017.
Local police data for 2022 also showed that more than 90% of people killed last year were due to gunfire, with 201 of the 221 victims shot dead.
According to Jeff Asher, an analyst and consultant at AH Datalytics, and an expert in evaluating criminal justice data, homicide clearance rates across the country have declined over the past two decades.
“I think guns are the most important factor,” Asher said. “Gun cases are harder to solve, and yet they make up for most murders.”
Shooting cases can be harder to solve in part because there’s often a distance between the shooter and the victim, Asher said.
This can result in less evidence remaining at the scene and make it easier for the perpetrator to get away and not be seen by witnesses. If the weapon is not recovered, ballistic testing on recovered bullets or shell casings is not possible. Outdoor scenes can also be more difficult as they are scattered and harder to control.
The large increase in homicides in Hampton Roads over the past few years is a trend seen in cities across the country as homicide rates continue to rise, especially in urban areas.
The 21,570 homicides the FBI recorded nationally in 2020 — the most recent year for which complete data is available — were up 30% from the previous year, reflecting the biggest jump in a year since the agency began collecting the data. A homicide is defined as the killing of one person by another, and can include murder and manslaughter, as well as murders determined to be justifiable and unintentional.
Law enforcement experts say other factors, such as lack of cooperation from witnesses, could also make it difficult to solve the rising number of homicides. Although fear of retaliation is often cited as a reason, it often boils down to witnesses being unwilling 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 chief James Cervera, who led 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 advancements 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 solved 60% of homicides by 2022, spokesperson Victoria Varnedoe praised both local detectives and the willingness of community members to come forward with information due to the above-average clearance rate.
The Chesapeake homicide clearance rate has averaged 65% over the past six years, with a high of 81% in 2017 and a low of 50% in 2019, said police spokesman Leo Kosinski. The cases under investigation last year included a mass shooting that left six dead at a Walmart. Of the other murders, seven were related to robbery, six were domestic in nature and four related to gang activity, he said.
Another area that experts agree has had a serious impact on investigators’ ability to solve cases is staffing issues. Norfolk Police Department did not respond to a request for an interview on the homicide rate, but staffing levels posed a major challenge to the agency last year, with as many as a third of sworn positions vacant.
Since the nationwide protests that erupted in the wake of the May 2020 murder 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 the Newport Police Department News . Chief Steve Drew.
There was also a significant rise 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 officers also choose to move from the big city to rural departments, where the workload isn’t as high and the danger isn’t as great, he said.
Another issue Drew and Cervera pointed out is the high expectations juries seem to have, which can make prosecutors unwilling to move forward with a case. Before charges are filed, police and prosecutors often work together to determine whether 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’s 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 lawyers watch way too many police shows,” 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 homicide in Newport News last year, four were under the age of 18.
“Yes, we are evidence-based and data-driven,” Drew said. “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. They are important to me.”