With 17 homicides and counting in the Spokane this year, the Spokane Police Department is concerned about violent crime in the area.
“If you run the numbers, we’re on path to break the record number of homicides to the city,” said Sgt. Terry Preuninger.
An increase in non-fatal shootings and homicides is not only concerning to the citizens of Spokane, but to the police department tasked with investigating them, Preuninger said.
Criminologists agree that it’s easy to see patterns in homicides but difficult to find the cause, said Brian Wolf, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Idaho.
“Regarding homicide especially, it’s pretty easy to spot the trends, and it’s pretty difficult to come to solid conclusions on why,” Wolf said. Those that study crime look for structural changes in society to explain long-term trends, he said.
While Spokane police report 17 homicides this year, Preuninger emphasized that number could go up. Some deaths are obvious homicides and are classified as such immediately, while other suspicious deaths take time to investigate, with a medical examiner ruling required to classify them as homicides. There could be more than 17 homicides so far this year that are still waiting to be classified, Preuninger said.
Shootings by police officers where someone is killed are not included in homicide numbers, Preuninger said.
Along with increased homicides, reports of shootings have increased as well.
“We don’t track just the number of shootings,” Preu- uninger said. “We’re just getting more reports of shootings on a weekly basis.”
Not all reported shootings are even classified as crimes, Preuninger said. There has been an increase in reports of shots fired, but when police arrive on the scene, all they find are a few shell casings. If no one turns up at an area hospital with a gunshot wound, often those instances aren’t listed as criminal.
“We go from something that could have been a homicide to an uncategorized non-criminal event,” Preuninger said. “It does not translate into violent crime stats because nobody got hit, or nobody reported being hit.”
While the Oct. 5 report for violent crime in Spokane shows a decrease of about 11%, not all reported homicides are factored in, and neither are reported shootings. While some deaths are obvious homicides and can be classified as such immediately, other suspicious deaths are investigated for weeks or months before being classified as a homicide. This delay in classification can lead to a lower report of homicides on crime reports than those known to police, Preuninger said.
Shootings do not have their own category in the police department’s weekly CompStat report and can be classified as assaults, or if no one reports injury, are not included in the report at all.
“A bunch of people shoot at each other and nobody gets hit, that’s pretty violent,” Preuninger said. “Obviously, the difference between that and a homicide is often seconds and inches between if someone got hit or not.”
The number of homicides in Spokane varies each year, with the highest number on record being 23 in 1995. There were also 23 reported homicides in 2002, though that number could have been higher, with some departments within SPD reporting 24 homicides. Delays in classification often cause discrepancies in homicide numbers reported, Preuninger said.
“Some people are killed in one year, but it’s adjudicated later or determined to be a homicide later,” Preuninger said.
Wolf said Spokane’s record number of homicides in 1995 fits with national trends.
“The country as a whole has generally seen a decrease,” Wolf said. “1994 to 1995 was the peak year in the country for homicides.”
Homicides and shootings are concentrated among younger people, Wolf said. With the country getting older, it’s no surprise that homicides have decreased, Wolf said.
In the past 25 years, 2011 had the lowest number of recorded homicides in Spokane, with five. Last year, there were seven homicides.
While the Major Crimes Unit has been able to forward charges in 14 of the 17 homicide cases in Spokane this year, the caseload has kept them busy, Preuninger said.
“There’s a huge impact on the city,” Preuninger said. “With this many homicides, that’s all they’re working.”
Normally, the Major Crimes Unit works other types of violent crime, including non-fatal shootings and assaults. Other investigative units have to pick up those cases along with their normal caseloads, meaning other mid-level crimes don’t get investigated, Preuninger said.
There are a multitude of possible reasons for the increase in homicides and shootings, Preuninger said, but it’s hard to pinpoint the cause.
Wolf pointed to the abnormal year as a potential explanation for the increase in slayings.
“I think maybe there are some more recent things going on in 2020,” Wolf said. “Speaking to Spokane, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, most of us have been locked down in some form throughout the year.”
Being cooped up at home, losing a job, or increased mental health challenges could all be factors, Wolf said.
“Isn’t that the story of the year, I mean, what is COVID doing?” Wolf said. “We know we don’t have mass shootings because we’re all locked down, but we can see changes in interpersonal things.”
Wolf said with the increase in despair people are feeling, they could be turning to illegal drugs. Disruptions in the drug market can cause spikes in violence, Wolf said.
Like Wolf, Preuninger said he could only speculate about potential causes.
There have been multiple homicide victims who are a part of the homeless population this year, Preuninger said.
Michael Bull, 30, was shot and killed in April in downtown Spokane, where he had been homeless for some time. Police hit a few dead ends in the case before getting a ballistics match to the gun that killed Mary Shaffer, a woman who was shot in August while waiting to pick up her children from her ex-husband’s house. Nathan Beal, 35, was charged with murder in both cases.
“You take a population that is by far more at risk to be victims, and you also have a population that has a higher number of people who have committed serious crimes,” Preuninger said. “And you put all of them downtown in a small space.”
With 241 aggravated domestic violence assaults this year and seven homicides that appear to be domestic-violence-related, police have expressed their concern about a lack of safe places to report domestic violence during the pandemic.
Organizations including the YWCA and Safe Passage have opened text lines to give domestic violence victims a way to discreetly reach out for help.
There has also been a notable increase in gang activity in Spokane, Preuninger said.
Norvell Amos, 15, was killed Oct. 1 in a shooting that had ties to the “Swavii” gang. One 16-year-old gang member and Elijah Davis, 20, were arrested in connection to the death.
A drive-by shooting in East Central on Oct. 5 left two people injured and is now being investigated by the Spokane Safe Streets Task Force, which works to curb gang violence. Three of the 17 homicides this year are thought to be tied to local gangs, Preuninger said.
Due to COVID-19, the jail population in Spokane has been reduced nearly 50%, which Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich tied to increased property crime. Preuninger acknowledged the lower jail capacity could lead to more criminals on the street.
“You have a population of people who commit serious crimes, or sometimes less serious crimes, that are not in jail,” Preuninger said.
That could explain the reason why overall crime rates remain level for 2020, while violent crime has increased, Preuninger said. It could be that those left on the streets are committing more violent crime because they’re not behind bars.
There also has been an increase in homicide rates in large cities across the country, while other types of violent crime are down, according to the New York Times.
“You’ve seen across the country, in cities, an increase in violence,” Preuninger said. “So maybe it has less to do with the specific city.”
Wolf said that he also sees changes in culture and crime nationwide; however, not every city nationwide has seen a spike in homicide. Homicides also are more common in the summer, Wolf said, which contributed to the increase in deaths in summer months.
“It does get tricky to explain why,” Wolf said. “But that’s probably the most interesting part about anything in criminology, is talking about those ‘why’ type of questions.”