Crime solve rates leave many wanting in Northern San Joaquin Valley

gstapley@modbee.comJanuary 25, 2014 

More than half the violent crimes in the Northern San Joaquin Valley go unsolved. In many places, officers hardly ever figure out who is responsible for property crimes.

On one hand, Valley crime-clearance rates are better than the California average. But the sting remains real for people hurt by crooks who, in some cases, get away with murder.

“It’s very frustrating, knowing this person is still out there,” said Penny Crouch, whose 25-year-old daughter was killed east of Riverbank more than three years ago. “I try to understand that (inspectors) have a lot going on. But if (the culprits) think they got away with it, they’ll do it again.”

Authorities say they’re doing the best they can with what they’ve got, but what they’ve got is far less than they had a few years ago. For example, the number of Stanislaus County sheriff’s detectives has been slashed two-thirds since the recession, from 30 to 10, and Modesto police now have 20 detectives, down from 33.

The staffing drop significantly hurt the Sheriff’s Department’s success rate, while Modesto police improved theirs in recent years. Police Chief Galen Carroll attributes that to “pushing detectives (to) get out in the streets,” before and after he arrived a year ago.

An extensive Modesto Bee review of crime-clearance rates for all agencies in this region found that small cities tend to solve crimes at higher rates than big cities. Small-agency chiefs say their jobs can be easier when folks in tightknit communities keep eyes open and trust local cops enough to share information.

Crunching numbers from the decade preceding 2013, The Bee also found that Modesto police have done better than other sizable Valley cities, especially in the past few years. The Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department has been on a steady slide since about 2007 and is solving crimes at rates lower than almost all other Valley sheriff’s departments.

“I don’t think we’re paying enough attention to unsolved crime in California,” said Ana Zamora, senior policy advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Robert Swan, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Stanislaus, called crime-clearance rates “a decent measure” of public safety. But shining a light on seemingly low numbers can prove disappointing for people used to seeing 84 percent of crimes resolved on the “Cops” television show, he said.

Carroll said crime-solving rates are “a measuring stick, an indicator of how you’re doing.”

Modesto cops mean business

Before the economic downturn, Modesto police were about in the middle of the pack for solving violent crimes when compared with Stockton, Fresno, Sacramento and Bakersfield. Modesto’s rates began to climb about the time that Mike Harden took over as chief in June 2009, The Bee found, and have remained consistently higher than comparably sized cities, despite having downsized detectives by one-third.

Harden, who retired in August 2012, did not return telephone calls for this report. Carroll checked with Capt. Joel Broumas, who was put in charge of investigations in 2008, and Carroll said property detectives then “became much more proactive, hitting the streets rather than staying in the office and reacting to reports that came in.”

That’s the key to solving crimes, Swan said. “You clear more crimes if you have a good relationship with the community. Building trust is a huge part of crime control. It’s absolutely the key.”

The result: Modesto police solved nearly 54 percent of violent crimes from 2008 through 2012, up from less than 47 percent in the previous five-year stretch. No other large city in the Valley solved more than half in either of those periods, and the success rate in bankrupt Stockton plummeted to 23 percent in 2012.

The statewide average for solving violent crimes was 44 percent in the decade preceding 2013.

Carroll, who had limited investigative experience upon arriving from Long Beach in early 2013, said he was surprised at first to see large numbers of detectives empty the Modesto station when calls for violent crimes rolled in. He’s now a believer that talking to as many witnesses, as quickly as possible, yields fruit, he said.

Hoping to boost public safety and other city services, Modesto leaders in November asked voters to raise the sales tax and recruited Harden, already retired, to lead the charge. But Measure X failed at the polls and Carroll, facing pending budget cuts, is prepared to lose 10 patrol positions. He has been holding open 14 vacancies, meaning no layoffs, but said he is supremely dismayed that so many cars are stolen and homes burgled while his officers are chasing in-progress crimes deemed more important.

“Unless we get workable leads, they don’t even get assigned to a detective,” the chief said. “You get frustrated when your house gets broken into and it’s not investigated. We’re equally frustrated. But quite frankly, our core (service) is patrol. You have to have someone to answer the phone and someone to go.”

Modesto police solved less than 15 percent of property crimes, including burglaries, arsons and thefts, from 2003 to 2012.

Hard times for deputies

The Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department has a much more dismal record, clearing only 6 percent of property crimes in that same period. The department solved less than 37 percent of violent crimes in 2011 and 2012 – worse than all the sheriff’s departments in the San Joaquin Valley except for Madera County.

The slide began shortly after Sheriff Adam Christianson took office in 2006 and roughly coincides with his budget decision to cut one-fourth of his department’s positions. Detectives were not immune, and the sheriff even disbanded a unit addressing ever-rising gang activity, leaving Carroll’s gang squad with a much greater burden.

In years before the recession, Stanislaus sheriff’s detectives were solving 53.3 percent of violent crime. In years after the layoffs, the average fell to 40 percent.

Christianson set aside money to re-establish his gang unit 16 months ago, but has had trouble retaining and recruiting enough patrol deputies to justify the luxury of a squad dedicated to the gang threat. Undersheriff Mick Hardenbrook, formerly commander of investigations, said re-forming the gang unit “is our top priority” but could not say when it will be up and running. “It is frustrating, to say the least,” he said.

In the decade before 2013, Stanislaus’ solve rates for rape (36.6 percent), thefts (3.9 percent) and burglary (8.2 percent) were the lowest in the San Joaquin Valley except for the Madera County Sheriff’s Department.

A few years ago, several detectives were dedicated to solving burglaries and other property crimes. “Now we have one detective assigned to burglaries for the entire county,” Hardenbrook said.

“There is not a single cop who wants to see someone get away with a crime,” he continued. “You don’t like to do this, but you have to learn to put a case down and go to one you can solve.”

Although struggling in most areas, his department can be proud about solving murders, with a success rate of 83.2 percent in the past decade – second only to Merced County (83.6 percent) for sheriffs in the San Joaquin Valley and far better than the statewide average of 57 percent. Modesto solved 76 percent of its murders, best among Central Valley large cities except for Sacramento (82 percent), while all other police agencies in Stanislaus County posted rates worse than the statewide average.

Positions difficult to fill

Despite constant recruiting, the Stanislaus Sheriff’s Department still has 30 openings for jail guards and 12 for patrol. In recent weeks, an experienced detective and another deputy left for better-paying jobs in Tracy.

Low pay is a problem. All Stanislaus County employees took wage cuts in the recession, and patrol deputies this month finally negotiated a 13.4 percent raise, but it’s a wash because the county no longer will cover their retirement fund obligations.

Carroll agreed that his officers make more money on average than deputies. But some county officers have defected to his department for “cultural” reasons as well, he said. “A few sheriff’s departments probably want to put restraining orders on me,” he said.

Chiefs of smaller agencies acknowledged losing officers to larger ones with better pay. But many small-agency officers thrive with a slower pace, where they’re more likely to feel satisfaction for solving crime puzzles.

“We kind of take pride in people being willing to talk to us and trust us,” said Ed Ormonde, Ripon’s chief for three years. “People know what’s going on, and when they see something suspicious, they call.”

That doesn’t happen as much in gang-infested inner cities, said Milt Medeiros, acting police chief in Escalon, which has eight officers. None are detectives, so investigative duties fall to whichever patrol officer responds.

Like almost all agencies, Escalon and Ripon downsized in the recession, losing 18 percent and 33 percent of officers, respectively. But Escalon, population 7,208, according to a city report this month; and Ripon, 14,606 in 2013, according to its police department, solved 77.5 percent and 73.6 percent, respectively, of their violent crimes in the past decade. Those are the best clearance rates among all agencies in the region. For comparison, Modesto has about 206,000 people.

“People tend to know who did what in small towns,” Swan said.

Justice delayed is justice denied

But no success rate satisfies those still waiting for justice.

“It’s important for law enforcement to make sure all victims have an opportunity for closure,” said Chelsea Bond, program coordinator of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Terri Huston sensed the worst when her 26-year-old son disappeared from Turlock in March 2012. Authorities, noting his right to privacy as an adult, initially thought he might have gone off for some personal time and were not as aggressive as Huston would have liked.

“I knew better in my heart. I knew my son was gone,” she said, “but there was always that little hope in the back of my head, ‘Maybe I’m wrong. Please, God, let me be wrong.’ 

As time went on, she created a Facebook page titled Find My Son, hoping someone would come forward with a helpful clue. The site has morphed into a virtual bulletin board for fliers of missing people posted by their loved ones all over the United States.

The body of Huston’s son, Korey Kauffman, was recovered from an isolated area of Mariposa County almost a year and a half after he vanished. A task force of investigators from five agencies has linked his murder to other crimes and are collaborating on the case.

“We want justice,” Huston said, “and I’m pretty sure the cops are going to get it for me. They do seem to be pressuring and doing their job. I guess I am one of the lucky ones, because they’re going to solve this eventually.”

Crouch has no such hope.

Her daughter, Amy Lynn Freeseha, was killed by a hit-and-run driver while jogging with a 10-year-old niece, who survived, on Langworth Road in 2010. The California Highway Patrol got nowhere with an investigation and declined help from other agencies, Crouch said.

The CHP did not list any homicide investigations in Stanislaus County that year, suggesting that Freeseha’s death was classified as an accident. It’s impossible to know, Crouch figures, because the driver fled and the crime hasn’t been solved.

“It’s been hard,” she said. “It would be nice to find out who did it and just ask them, ‘Why?’ 

Go to www.modbee.com for an interactive map with crime-solving numbers posted by each agency in areas served by The Modesto Bee and the Merced Sun-Star. Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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