The 21 homicides in Spokane last year overwhelmed the Major Crimes Unit, requiring police officers from other units to help .
The last time Spokane had this many killings was in 2002, with 23 homicides. For Sgt. Zac Storment, the increase led to overworked detectives who were unable to take on other investigations.
In an average year, Spokane major crimes detectives would respond to a homicide about every two months. Major Crimes detectives also investigate shootings by other law enforcement agencies and suspicious suicides, along with robberies, assaults and bank robberies.
“I guess that’s kind of what changed in 2020. We had to pare it down to almost exclusively homicides,” Storment said.
A homicide investigation has a lead detective along with a scene detective, who is responsible for evidence collection and following that evidence through forensics, Storment said. There is also a “supporting cast” of officers who can help canvas the scene or take witness statements, he said.
Processing a homicide scene can take six to 14 hours, he said. Then the periphery officers are free to take on other cases, he said.
“They kind of cycle through with that with the hope that there will be time between the homicides,” Storment said of detectives taking lead roles.
A straightforward homicide, where the suspect is quickly identified, takes the lead detective at least a month before they are comfortable taking on other work, Storment said. More involved cases often take several months or more, he said.
There are nine detectives in the major crimes unit and two specialists who handle vehicular felonies.
The first homicide of 2020, the death of Michael Hermann, occurred on Jan. 20.
“I remember this homicide, and to me, it seems like it was years ago,” Storment said. “2020 for whatever reason, time seemed to stretch out on us where the year just kept going and felt like it would never end.”
The next homicide came 10 days later. April was the first month of 2020 without at least two killings, Storment said.
“The thing to keep in mind is, in between all this, there’s shootings where people are not dying, that are just about a homicide, that we still have to go deal with,” Storment said.
The intersection of Fifth Avenue and Freya Street was a repeat shooting scene where detectives put evidence placards on walls that had old evidence placards on them, Storment said.
Often, drive-by shootings are just inches away from becoming homicides, Storment said.
In the past, the Major Crimes sergeants have tried to make sure detectives have just one homicide on their plate at a time, but Storment said he doesn’t think that is realistic anymore.
New detectives to the unit have worked three homicides their first year, something Storment said he never thought he would have seen happen earlier in his career.
“You get to the point where you start worrying about them,” he said of his detectives.
In a normal year, Major Crimes detectives assist on all shootings where there is a likelihood of death, but this year, if it looked like the victim could survive, the patrol unit might not even call them, he said.
“That’s kind of embarrassing to say, but we’ve reached that threshold,” Storment said.
Other detective units, like the property crime unit, are having to pick up more investigations of robberies and serious assaults that major crimes was too busy to handle, Storment said.
“I guess that kind of brings to mind the example that Spokane does not, never has done, a great job of investigating all property crimes. There’s just too many of them,” Storment said. “Now that’s even getting worse because the detectives trying to handle that are having to catch our overflow.”
Storment said patrol officers have done a great job picking up more lengthy investigations than in the past, but it does slow down their response times.
Despite the drastic increase in homicides over the prior year, 19 of the 21 homicides are considered solved, according to the police department.
Even with the high solve rate in his unit, Storment said he fears there could be a breaking point if homicides don’t decline, causing future cases to get less attention.
While detectives work hard to bring killers to justice, families still are left devastated.
“It doesn’t bring anybody any peace,” Storment said. “It doesn’t bring anybody any satisfaction whether they’re solved or not. I think that whole closure thing is a joke for any family that has gone through it.”
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