Getting away with murder: Tracking Houston's unsolved homicides

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Channel 2 Investigates reviewed a database of homicides reported by the Houston Police Department from January 2015 through June 2018. These reports provide more insight into which parts of the city are seeing a higher number of murders and the hurdles police officers face in solving crimes in these areas.

Out of the 997 cases listed in the Police Department’s database, just over 39 percent showed charges filed and an arrest made. Forty-one percent were listed as “open” or “open pending new information.” The Police Department defines “open” as a case in which leads are still being followed. It defines “open pending new information” as a case that is still active, but leads have been exhausted. Department officials said that, once a case is listed as OPNI, the department will wait three more years before transferring it to the cold case unit.

The remaining cases were split among different statuses such as death of defendant, defendant charged in another case, awaiting lab analysis, pending before a grand jury or charged but not yet arrested. This map shows the location of homicides reported by the Police Department between January 2015 and June 2018. Each location also shows the status of the investigation. Attached is an explanation of the codes the department uses to show the status of a case.

Click here to see what the codes mean.

One area of town seeing a higher number of homicides is south of the Loop between State Highway 288 and the Gulf Freeway. According to the Police Department’s numbers, 180 homicides were reported in this area over the last 3 1/2 years. Out of the homicides reported in the area, 42 percent are listed as “open” or “open pending new information.”

“I can't be afraid of where I am, can't be afraid of what's going on around me,” said Harvey Carroll.

Carroll runs the barber shop his father founded in 1964 at the intersection of Belarbor Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

“This is my dad's baby. This is his dream,” said Carroll. “I'm going to make sure I keep his dream alive.”

Over the decades, Carroll said, he’s seen violence grow in the surrounding neighborhood, but he believes the area can rebound. He said he works hard to keep his shop as a safe space where people can “get an honest haircut for an honest price” and neighborhood kids can get a summer job. The “No Foul Language” sign and “swear jar” in the shop are further evidence Carroll wants to do his part to help turn the area around.

“Everybody needs a Switzerland. We try to be as neutral as possible. We try to make sure that, whoever comes through the door, we welcome. 'Hey, how you doing? How can we help you?' said Carroll. “You still have golden nuggets in the community and you can't give up on those.”

Another large swath of southwest Houston between I-10 and the Southwest Freeway showed 272 homicides reported, with 44 percent listed as “open” or “open pending new information.”

Police Department Cmdr. Michael Skillern said the southeast and southwest areas of town have traditionally seen a higher number of homicides.

“Not coincidentally, that is where a large part of our gang problem is,” said Skillern.

He said solving murders in these areas can be difficult because residents are reluctant to talk with police.

“There are a lot of times we know who the suspects are, we just can't get anybody to talk to us and be witnesses,” said Skillern.

Many residents in these areas said fear definitely motivates their silence.

“If you snitch, basically, you down there if that person finds you,” said Monica Porche. “Most of us just want to stay hidden, incognito, because we fear for our families.”

Other residents said they work hard to keep to themselves and avoid trouble.

“A lot of fear of retaliation,” said Bennie McAfee. “Mind my own business. Try to stay out of trouble. But trouble will find you, you know? Doesn't matter who you are.”

Some in these areas also said trusting police is another issue.

“We're prompted not to talk because you don't come to us unless there's something you want and that's not a good view,” said Carroll. “This is highly important because the issue is: If I don't know who you are, I can't relate to you.”

Carroll said officers who get to know the communities they patrol can help override the fear of retaliation. Skillern said the department is making a concerted effort to build those bridges, especially since Police Chief Art Acevedo took over. Acevedo has repeatedly told his officers that every interaction with the public is a chance to form a relationship.

“We haven't focused as strongly -- many, many years ago -- as we should have on building those relations, and they take time,” said Skillern. “You have to forge those bonds. You have to get to where the people feel like they can trust us.”

The Police Department also pointed out that a fair share of murders involve criminals attacking other criminals. Skillern said that, in 2017, 73 percent of homicide victims had criminal histories, more than half of which were felonies. He said 76 percent of named suspects also had prior criminal histories, and 69 percent were for felonies.

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