County homicides could be highest in 20 years
It’s no stretch to say the first three months of 2018 have been unusually deadly in Pierce County and Tacoma.
Homicides surged in the first quarter. As of March 22, the number stood at 23. That tally nearly triples the nine homicides recorded through the first 81 days days of 2017 and sets a pace that could lead to the most violent year in two decades.
The incidents run a sad gamut, from a lethal road-rage confrontation on the shoulder of Interstate I-5, to the slaying of a mother and father in Buckley, and the fatal shooting of county sheriff's deputy Daniel McCartney, who was responding to a reported robbery in Frederickson. Those are only highlights.
Law enforcement leaders can’t point to a single cause, but they feel the trend.
“We have had a really hard spike. Our people have been worked very hard,” said county Sheriff Paul Pastor. “Why the spike, I don’t know. Parents killing kids, kids killing parents. I don’t expect we will be having those challenges constantly through the year, but we’ll probably have a fairly high year in homicide.”
The year 2017 saw 38 homicides — an average year in historical terms, according to figures compiled by The News Tribune and verified with the Pierce County Medical Examiner and the state Department of Health.
This year’s early surge sets an ominous pace. Law enforcement observers tend to think it’s an anomaly even as they cross their fingers.
“Even when crime trends down, there can be spikes,” said Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, who pointed to an overall downward trend in felony referrals to his office when compared to last year.
“I think the current spike in homicides could be an anomaly, or it could be violence feeding on itself, compounded by drugs and mental health issues,” Lindquist added. “Either way, we do our jobs, reduce crime through accountability, and try to keep the community safe. Our drug court and mental health court, for example, are designed to address these issues before they escalate.”
Forecasting crime statistics is anything but a precise venture, but one approach involves regression to the mean. In other words, assume homicide trends for the rest of the year subside to average numbers.
In that scenario, the county would still see 53 homicides, a number the area hasn’t approached since 1998, when 52 homicides were recorded. That figure would still fall below the watermark of 66, set in 1992, largely driven by crime rates in Tacoma.
The city has seen its share of slayings already this year: Taxi driver Robert “Big Dave” Crall was fatally shot on March 15. A 19-year-old man suspected in a series of recent robberies has been charged with first-degree murder in the case. Before that, police responded to a pair of stabbing deaths. One killed a 15-year-old boy.
A separate shooting incident, deemed accidental by prosecutors, led to the death of 63-year-old Rhonda Randle, fatally shot by her son, who mistook her for an intruder.
Ask Tacoma Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool what accounts for the homicide uptick, and she points to a mixture of factors, including national events such as mass shootings. When she speaks to community groups about criminal justice, she's sometimes asked what she would fix with a magic wand. Her answer: kill the internet, and stop the flow of instant information and knee-jerk reaction.
“I think it’s kind of a confluence of things that are going on,” she said. “The political environment that people are bombarding all social media with. Everything is negative. We’ve had a tremendous amount of violent acts. People have been inundated with the idea that shooting is the answer.
“People have come out of the recession and some are recovering, but many people are not. People truly did lose their jobs, lose their houses and are not able to get them back. I think what we’re seeing overall is that homicide is, at this moment in time, an acceptable way to handle things.”
The number of killings adds a layer of despair to a separate and starker trend: the rising rate of suicide, which has climbed steadily since the Great Recession and continues upward, drawing additional momentum from the opioid epidemic.
State and local statistics tracking suicides tend to lag, since causes of death are more difficult to determine. Pierce County counted 173 suicides in 2016, according to the Department of Health. The number is a record: the highest in county history, and the peak of an upward line that has risen steadily since 2008.
“We’re getting two or three a day,” said Medical Examiner Thomas Clark. He can’t explain the trend, though he leans on “apocryphal knowledge” that suggests suicides rise in times of economic stress.
More practically, Clark can’t be precise about the latest suicide numbers. The sheer volume contributes to a backlog.
“The problem isn’t that we don’t track them, it’s getting them out,” he said.
Tracking suicides is a complicated task because the cause isn’t always clear. If people end their lives with firearms, determining the cause is comparatively simple. Add drugs and overdoses to the mix, and answers become elusive.
Like his counterparts throughout the state, Clark must rely on toxicology tests from the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory, which faces its own backlog. Clark is still waiting on results from 2017 deaths, and he can’t begin to count 2018.
Crime lab manager Brianna Peterson confirmed the backlog but said the primary driver of delay is an increased number of tests related to drunken driving cases. Such tests might take as little as two weeks, but that still represents time.
When it comes to assessing deaths related to possible drug overdoses, the process lengthens.
“Drug cases take longer,” Peterson said. “Once drugs are present, it might take four to eight weeks. We can’t just do one test that might detect every drug that might be present. We have to do multiple tests sometimes in order to detect the drugs that are there.”
Regardless of circumstances, unnatural deaths require a response and initial investigation from law enforcement. When homicides come in bunches, first responders feel the stress.
“We go to all the suicides,” said sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer. “We go to all the death investigations. Suicides are jumping, and suicides of young people are jumping.”
Troyer sees the same detectives responding to scene after scene. Deputies and police officers sometimes rely on grim humor to cope with such incidents, but it doesn’t always work. A March 13 triple homicide in Spanaway was one such example: a 29-year-old man despondent over his failing marriage shot his wife and two young children to death before turning his gun on himself.
“It wears on people, especially when there’s kids involved,” Troyer said. “A lot of these deputies have kids of their own. When it’s kids, they’re very quiet, talking to each other very somberly.”
Surveying the overall trends and pondering prevention, Sheriff Pastor returns to a familiar topic: personnel. He regularly notes that unincorporated Pierce County rank as the state’s second-largest city in terms of population, while adding that the number of deputies falls short of the need.
“We’re a growing county,” Pastor said. “We’re going to have 1 million people in the next six or seven years. What are we doing about it now?”