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More murders, fewer cases solved; now Philly police are fighting about overtime

The number of murders in Philadelphia has spiked to 315 — the highest in six years — and police overtime spending has fallen 5 percent. Detectives say their investigations are being compromised.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross believes budget cuts have not negatively affected murder investigations.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross believes budget cuts have not negatively affected murder investigations.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

In a darkened corner office on the second floor of Philadelphia police headquarters, more than 80 detectives are squeezed into the cramped, occasionally flea-ridden confines of the department's most elite division: the homicide unit.

The expectations for the job have long been clear. Detectives work marathon shifts in the name of identifying murder suspects and solving cases, and in return, they typically earn staggering amounts of overtime.

But in recent months, that arrangement has started to fray. With the number of murders in the city rising to 319, the highest in six years, overtime spending has simultaneously been cut, leading detectives, union officials, and even prosecutors to cry foul.

In 2017, homicide detectives earned an average of $69,536 in overtime — with 10 pulling down more than $100,000 — on top of an average salary of $83,000. Through the first three quarters of this year, 30 detectives have seen their overtime fall by $5,000 to $10,000, according to payroll data analyzed by the Inquirer and Daily News.

Several veteran investigators who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the cuts have translated into less time to prepare for trials, and restrictions on their ability to interview witnesses who turn up during off hours. And, they said, there have been times, late at night, when the office has been staffed by a single detective.

"Homicide detectives are being sent home mid-investigation," said John McGrody, the vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5. "Crimes are not being solved because of the slashing of overtime."

Police Commissioner Richard Ross and Capt. Jack Ryan, the head of the homicide unit, disputed those claims, and insisted the budget reduction — which data show to be about 5 percent across the Police Department — has not hurt investigations.

"As I understand from the captain of homicide — and frankly, that's only as a result of you asking — despite what people are saying, there are no draconian measures that were put in place," Ross said. "All he is asking for is for people to justify what they are doing."

>> READ MORE: From 2016: Why is Philly's homicide rate going up?

For both sides, it makes for an awkward public dispute, a family squabble over money and accountability, set against the troublesome backdrop of the homicide unit's clearance rate, which tumbled to 42 percent in 2017, from a peak of 75 percent in 2009. The conflict also strikes a painful nerve with relatives of victims who have long feared that their loved ones' cases will become lost amid the growing number of murder scenes across the city.

"Why the hell would their overtime be cut?" asked Yullio Robbins, whose son, James Walke III, was fatally shot in Germantown in 2016, a killing that remains unsolved. "Oh my God."

‘Money is tight’

Concerns about the city's overtime spending have been growing among government watchdog groups for years.

The gap between its projected overtime budget and what the police, fire, prisons, and other departments actually spend has widened dramatically since fiscal year 2011, when the difference amounted to about $2 million. In fiscal year 2018, that gap was $40 million, as the city spent $175 million on overtime, prompting a Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority official to ask, "What accountability is there in the departments — how are their feet held to the fire?"

Almost $70 million was spent on police overtime, 21 percent more than anticipated. Of that, about $6 million went to homicide detectives. This year, Ross said, about $4.5 million is budgeted for the unit.

"We … had to make some belt-tightening adjustments across the department, not just homicide," he explained. "It's important to underscore that this is not directed at one unit."

The number of police officers on the force has also grown from about 6,100 in recent years to 6,525; Ross hopes to get the department up to 6,725, where it stood under his predecessor, Charles H. Ramsey. More officers, in theory, means less need for overtime.

Ryan, who has been in charge of homicide since July 2017, put it bluntly: "The city's money is tight."

His assessment rings hollow with many detectives, who took notice when the Kenney administration reported in November that the city had a $421 million budget surplus, the largest in more than a decade.

"It's not about the money," said one longtime homicide investigator, who described coordinating with city agencies about an open murder case from his kitchen because he was sent home at the end of his eight-hour shift, instead of being allowed to continue pursuing leads on overtime. "It's about doing the job the right way."

When asked if the detectives were mischaracterizing the restrictions, Ryan offered a seemingly contradictory response. "I'm certain they're exaggerating. I'm certain of it," he said. "So no, I wouldn't say they're lying."

Ross said the overtime cuts are not impacting live investigations of murders as they occur but do require that detectives articulate why they need to stay late or come in early to work a case. "If you think overtime should be automatic, that can't be the case, given the fiscal [situation] we're in," he said.

McGrody said the FOP is considering filing a grievance over the cuts, on the grounds that the department has violated the terms of its labor contract. The union filed one earlier this year in response to budget reductions for a unit that investigates police-involved shootings. "You can't forecast this stuff," he said. "What we do is reactive."

Ryan dismissed the detectives' complaints as gripes from disgruntled employees. "You tell them to come in here and talk to me," he said.

"I take my obligation, as far as spending money efficiently, seriously. You don't just turn the tap on full blast and let it flow. You demand accountability, and you want results. This is a lot of money. And it's certainly one way to make people work more effectively."

But what does the city have to show for this approach?

According to budget testimony from the spring, the Police Department set a goal of boosting the homicide unit's clearance rate to 60 percent in the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years.

When looking solely at the 319 murders that have been reported this year, the clearance rate is now only 31.6 percent, according to the department.

Law enforcement officials have blamed the dwindling number of solved cases in recent years on a combination of factors, including the reluctance of witnesses to come forward, and a growing preference from prosecutors for video and cell-phone evidence.

And some detectives continue to grumble about policies the department adopted in 2014, in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which requires interrogations in the homicide unit to be video-recorded, and for detectives to remind witnesses and even potential suspects who are brought in for questioning that they can leave at any time. "We have a hard enough time as it is getting people to come in and talk to us," one investigator said at the time.

>>READ MORE: Unsolved murders in Philly haunt mothers waiting for justice | Helen Ubiñas

‘Give them 24 hours a day’

The homicide detectives appear to have backing from an unlikely corner: The DA's Office, which has had a contentious relationship with the FOP under District Attorney Larry Krasner.

In late September, Ryan emailed Anthony Voci, the chief of the DA's homicide unit, with a particular request. "I would ask that your office not schedule case preps during the last five business days of any month going forward," he wrote, according to a copy of the message obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News.

Ryan was seeking to reduce overtime by limiting time detectives spend with prosecutors preparing for trials. His rationale, he said, is simple: "If you spend more money in one area, you have to spend a little less in another."

The DA's Office declined to comment.

But a source within the office said: "The idea of limiting the overtime that's being paid to homicide detectives is something that's not well-regarded in the homicide unit in the DA's Office. …They need to be given what they need to clear cases. If that's overtime, that's overtime."

The back-and-forth is being closely monitored by the families of murder victims.

Mothers like Yullio Robbins and Aleida Garcia were already well aware of the homicide unit's limitations — the lack of basic technology, like voicemail or email accounts for detectives, and the claustrophobic office space where parents sometimes meet with detectives — and were used to striking out on their own to track down evidence, pressure community members to speak up, and seek attention from the media.

When some families started hearing rumblings about budget cuts earlier this year, they felt a twinge of compassion, and then a swell of outrage.

"The response from everybody is, it's crazy, with the homicides going up, and the amount of work that [detectives] have to do, because they also have to go court, they're doing investigations," said Garcia, whose son Alejandro Rojas-Garcia was murdered in 2015, prompting her to found the National Homicide Justice Alliance. (In May, her son's killer was sentenced to life in prison.)

But Garcia knew the budget talk would fill some relatives with anxiety; it sounded like a potential excuse as to why a loved one's case couldn't be solved. That was a visceral fear, especially for people who were frustrated with the already low clearance rate, and familiar with the rising city murder total, the growing numbers of families trapped in limbo as they pined for closure.

"I feel that the homicide unit needs more, more of everything — more technology, more resources, more ways to get murders solved," Garcia said.

“As far as I’m concerned, they should give them 24 hours a day, but they shouldn’t waste that time. And if they are wasting it, then that’s what management is for. Instead we’re here, going around in circles.”