Tucson Police Department investigators gathered at the scene of a homicide in Tucson in June. TPD investigated 53 murders in 2018, which is up from 47 in 2017. Police Chief Chris Magnus says few cases involved a random act between a victim and a complete stranger.

Murders over the last year in the city of Tucson rose by 13 percent for reasons unknown to local law enforcement, but the Tucson Police Department has managed to solve the vast majority with the community’s help.

Tucson police investigated 53 murders last year, with three occurring during the last three days of the year. That number is up from 47 in 2017.

The department’s homicide clearance rate of 76 percent is higher than the national average of 61.6 percent, which Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus attributes to the large number of tips from the community and exceptional work by the department’s detectives. That number will likely be slightly higher, since several investigations are in the early stages.

“I think this is at least a testament to the fact that people are largely willing to come forward and talk to police,” Magnus said. “That’s something that I worry about, given what’s happening with the immigration discussion. It’s very important that we don’t lose the trust and confidence of undocumented and other immigrant families and members of the community. We need people to come forward.”

Magnus told the Star that while the department doesn’t know what caused the increase in murders, very few cases involved a random act between a victim and a complete stranger.

“Almost all of these involve some pre-existing relationship or purposeful relationship where people have come together, for example around the drug trade,” Magnus said. “It’s not that different from sexual assaults in the city.”

The department investigated a total of 60 homicides, but seven were declared lawful acts of self-defense or defense of others by the Pima County Attorney’s Office. All homicides are reported to the FBI, but the numbers are broken down by lawful and unlawful killings. TPD officers were involved in six homicides last year, in the form of officer-involved shootings.

The Pima County Sheriff’s Department investigated 13 incidents in 2018, which included a total of 16 homicides.

The murders TPD investigated primarily involved guns, but there are some cases of cutting instruments, strangulation and other causes, Magnus said.

Pima County Medical Examiner Greg Hess told the Arizona Daily Star that his office reviewed 77 homicides last year, but with “a fair number of ‘pending’ cases” leftover, it’s likely that some will be ruled as homicides. In 2017, 84 homicides were recorded.

The final number should be available by the end of February, Hess said.

Though homicides in the city increased from 2017 to 2018, violent crime in Tucson actually decreased by 3 percent, according to TPD data. The violent-crime classification includes murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

Beginning in 2015, cities across the United States began to see an increase in violent crime. While experts were quick to agree that violent crime is on the rise, they haven’t been able to agree on a cause.

Pima County Sheriff’s Department investigators gather after a homicide in April. The Sheriff’s Department investigated 13 homicide incidents in 2018, which included a total of 16 victims.

No Primary Cause

Across the country, homicide rates fluctuated greatly, but several major cities have experienced decreases. Baltimore reported 309 homicides in 2018, down from 342 in 2017, according to the Baltimore Sun.

In San Francisco, killings in 2018 approached a 50-year low, with 44 homicides reported as of Dec. 22, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Local police credited the drop in violent crime to the San Francisco Police Department’s gun unit and an increase in beat officers.

“Some places have seen big decreases in all sorts of crime. We’re not seeing that at the moment,” Magnus said. “I think we’re on the right track to make improvements in this area, and we have some different circumstances in places that have seen the bigger decreases.”

While some types of homicides can be influenced by police strategies, Tucson’s homicides don’t really fit into those boxes, Magnus said.

In cities where the majority of homicides are related to gang violence or occur in specific parts of town, police can make targeted efforts to go after known shooters or strengthen relationships between police and residents of such neighborhoods. While Tucson is doing all of these things on some level, gang activity isn’t a major driver of homicides in Tucson, and there aren’t “hot spots” in which murder rates are higher, Magnus said.

Tucson doesn’t have a primary cause of murder, and there’s no common profile of a murder suspect.

Four of the murders TPD investigated in 2018 were child-abuse-related, down slightly from the five recorded in 2017.

Eleven of the cases involved domestic violence, an increase from eight in 2017. The department received two grants last year to address domestic violence and will continue to work with local agencies to engage high-risk victims. The department will also be facilitating training to service providers about strangulation and increasing outreach to Spanish-speaking victims, as part of the grants.

Nine of the TPD murder cases involved fights, which Magnus said may not have escalated to murder if it hadn’t been for the involvement of alcohol and guns.

“Nothing goes well when you have two drunk people fighting over something that may not be that important, but one of them is armed,” Magnus said.

The department has a number of strategies in play to drive down the murder rate in 2019, including full engagement of the recently improved Crime Analysis Unit to better identify areas with an increased rate of violent and drug-related crimes and targeting people involved in violent crimes.

TPD has had crime analysts in the past, but in April, the department hired a highly credentialed analyst with a Ph.D. who Magnus believes will be a game- changer.

“Jake’s work is to not only create a crime analysis unit in the department, but also become a key player in what will become our new CompStat program this year, to really bring key players together and talk about what’s actually happening in terms of crime, crashes and community concerns,” Magnus said of analyst Jacob Cramer. “We really have not been in a good position to figure out what’s been happening with a lot of crime stuff, and we’re getting better at that.”

TPD will also be partnering with several nonprofit groups to implement new crime-reduction initiatives, including the CompStat 360 program, that will take a holistic look at the city, crime, the community’s perceptions, as well as look at the department internally, in areas like officer wellness. The department is also getting ready to deploy 10 community service officers to Tucson city parks in April, to function as park rangers.

“This whole crime analysis unit function I think is going to be key, because it’s really going to help us do a better job more quickly of figuring out where there are patterned crimes, who are some of the highest-risk offenders and looking at social network analysis,” Magnus said.

Analysis will also allow the department to figure out the best way to deploy its officers and help to free up patrol officers to engage in proactive and prevention-oriented policing.

The department is also looking at taking the analysis to a deeper level and is looking at some of the root causes of crime, including substance abuse, homelessness and mental health.

“We’re in no way suggesting that there’s a disproportionate number of mentally ill people who are dangerous and violent, because that’s simply not the case,” Magnus said. “But what is the case is that you can have individuals who are driven by mental-health issues who commit some pretty serious crimes.”

In November, a U.S. marshal was shot and killed while serving an arrest warrant to a Tucson man with a lengthy history of mental-health issues.

“It isn’t luck that we don’t have more homicides, it’s the fact that our Mental Health Support Team and others are connecting people in the right ways to deal with addiction and get them into treatment,” Magnus said.

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191.

I'm a watchdog reporter covering local government, the University of Arizona and sports investigations.