The city of Sacramento experienced a historic slowdown in homicides this year, logging a body count not seen in 26 years.
In 2009, 29 people were killed within city limits – only one more homicide than in 1973, when Sacramento housed half its current population, and 20 fewer than in 2008.
The record mirrors a nationwide downturn in violent crime, as well as a sharp decrease in slayings seen in other cities, such as New York.
Although still grappling for an explanation – and wary that the promising figure could simply be a fluke – police officials have welcomed the slower pace. Homicide detectives say it has afforded them rare time for individual investigations, as well as opportunities to revisit cold ones.
The benefit, they say, is tangible: Detectives have made arrests in 23 – or 79 percent – of their fresh cases this year, compared with 68 percent in 2008 and a national average of about 61 percent.
On top of that, they found closure in 15 cold cases; last year, they solved just four.
Detectives attribute their success in large part to the slowdown.
"There's no doubt it's allowed us to solve cases we wouldn't have before," when the homicide rate was higher, said Detective Pat Higgins, a six-year veteran of the squad and 25-year veteran of the department.
But 2009 has been anything but an easy year for the team, detectives say.
"Just because the number of homicides is down doesn't mean the work isn't up," Higgins said.
Recently, Higgins said he logged some of the longest weeks of his career in homicide while working the Oct. 24 fatal shooting of 22-year-old David Blanks outside the now-shuttered Center Court restaurant and club.
As in many other homicide cases, detectives were faced with dozens of potential witnesses – some abiding by the "no-snitch" code of the streets, some clueless, some muddying the story with lies, Higgins said.
Despite the arrest of a 20-year-old suspect, Higgins said detectives are continuing their efforts to present a solid case.
In other investigations, technology has become a blessing and a curse: Computers and cell phones, for example, can produce gold for detectives searching for evidence. But that gold takes hours to mine.
Though more complicated than most, the case against former Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy Chu Vue in the slaying of correctional officer Steve Lo offers a glimpse: Detectives needed five months to make sense of phone records, surveillance footage and financial records that are pivotal in their case against Vue.
Also critical in the case, they said, was an unprecedented 78-day break between homicides earlier this year that ended just days before Vue's arrest in March. That lull offered more time, and more detectives, to be dedicated to finding Lo's killer.
No matter how positive this year's numbers appear, detectives said they fear members of the public might misinterpret lower crime as a justification for fewer police resources.
Today, three teams of homicide detectives rotate to handle fresh cases. But Higgins remembers a time when one team handled every homicide – and that was just a few years ago, when annual death tallies hovered around 50.
The exhausted detectives "were like the walking dead," said Avis Beery, a former homicide detective who left because of burnout and now works felony assaults. "They looked like zombies."
She said she hopes the public would choose a more costly homicide team that solves more crimes over a cheaper squad that produces lower clearance rates.
After all, detectives said, solving homicides typically means taking violent offenders off the streets. When investigating older cases, detectives often find that suspects have committed a string of crimes between their original offense and their arrest – underscoring the need for suspected killers to be taken into custody as soon as possible.
"They don't stop" their criminal behavior, Beery said.
Offering closure to families, however, remains among the most rewarding aspects of the job, particularly when it comes to cold cases, detectives said.
"They're so surprised that we still care," Higgins said. "They think we've given up hope."
Kyle Jasperson solved three of the 15 cold cases closed this year. Among his most memorable moments of 2009 was the day he met the parents of Clayton Skinner, who was beaten to death during a robbery in 2004.
He said it was rewarding to tell them that police had arrested four suspects in their 37-year-old son's killing.
Even though a case like theirs is years old, Jasperson said, "it's no less important to the families to have closure."