Crime

Killeen police investigate a homicide in the 900 block of Culp Avenue Wednesday, February 28, 2018.

On a warm, mid-August morning in 2017, Killeen police officers found the body of Brandi Jo Cadena in her home in the 1100 block of Bacon Ranch Road.

Police said a family member found Cadena about 9:45 a.m. Aug. 19 with a single gunshot wound. Cadena’s home, a two-unit rental across the street from a Lutheran church and an under-construction pet supply store, was just a stone’s throw from busy Trimmier Road.

Cadena, a mother of two, was pronounced dead about 50 minutes after she was found, at 10:35 a.m. She was 29 years old.

Cadena’s death was the 13th criminal homicide of 2017 — but it wouldn’t be the last.

In the span of almost 4½ months, another five slayings would be reported before New Year’s Day, book-ending Killeen’s deadliest 12 months in 26 years. Nearly a year after Cadena’s murder, the culprit in her death still has not been found. In that, she is also not alone.

As of last week, 11 of the 18 criminal homicides in Killeen between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2017, are still considered active and open investigations.

On the whole, the Killeen Police Department reported a 15 percent clearance rate for “Part 1” crimes in 2017 — a 3 percent drop from the year before, according to department figures.

That means for every 100 criminal homicides, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, larcenies, vehicle theft and arsons, Killeen investigators turned 15 cases over for possible prosecution or cleared cases off their log by “exceptional means,” often by the suspect’s death or incarceration for another crime.

According to data from the FBI, Killeen’s clearance rate is nearly 30 percent less than the national average for cities of Killeen’s size.

Last week, department leadership and a police employee association representative painted a complicated picture of why the clearance rate was so low in 2017, including perpetual understaffing and a bump in total crime figures.

However, the combined effect is simple: In at least the past two years, Killeen has been a city where the vast majority of crimes go unsolved.

2017 numbers

Police department leadership say it’s a mix of staffing constraints, population growth and a 2017 jump in violent crime per capita that bucked a decadelong trend.

If the number of calls the department fields is any indication, a higher workload could be straining the department’s ability to retroactively solve crimes.

According to department figures, as the annual clearance rate in 2017 declined, the number of service calls and response times to major incidents increased.

In 2017, the department reported 155,738 calls for service from the city’s estimated 145,482 residents. In 2016, that figure was 149,738 calls for service — a 7 percent increase year over year.

“Anytime the population increases, the volume of crime and demand for services increases,” police spokeswoman Ofelia Miramontez said. “If the police department does not grow with the population, there is an impact on clearance rates.”

Accompanying that increase in calls has been an increase in response time for “priority 1” calls, or emergency calls that require an immediate police response.

In 2017, the department’s priority 1 average response time was 8:05, the department said. In 2017, that response time ballooned to 8:53 — a nearly 10 percent increase. Those numbers indicate the department’s response time outpaced the increase in service calls.

Possibly explaining that difference has been stagnant personnel growth in the department in the last two years, even as department officials have steadily allocated more resources to patrol.

In August 2017, the Killeen City Council authorized a 2018 budget that sliced away 25 vacant department positions — including 22 commissioned officer positions — in a move to shore up the city’s struggling operational fund.

“Not enough patrol officers reduces our chances of catching crimes in progress and making on-scene arrests which provides a positive clearance rate when accomplished,” Miramontez said. “Not enough detectives means that more cases have to go unassigned, which results in no clearance rate hindering our numbers.”

Bobby Castillo, a KPD traffic officer and president of the Killeen Police Employee Association, said continued understaffing and increasing vacancies were straining the department’s ability to retain officers and solve crimes.

“It does not matter what plans are in place or what strategies are implemented; you need adequate staffing to execute them,” Castillo said Thursday. “We have to address the root causes of our vacancies instead of ignoring them.”

In the 12 months between August 2017 and Thursday, the department reported the departure of 18 commissioned officers, only one due to retirement.

Miramontez said the department was planning to hire 12 new probationary officers on Tuesday.

Low point in 2016

Despite the preponderance of murders and a bump in violent crime in 2017, the department’s clearance rate concerns are not new.

According to a commissioned report from the U.S. Department of Justice released June 30, the department posted clearance rates below national average for all but one categories of violent and property crime in 2016, including a low of 13 percent for murders.

The department has said that low rate has been attributed in part to a shift in murder causes from domestic violence, with a limited suspect pool, to the drug trade. Statistics from the federal report show homicide clearances fluctuate wildly from year to year based on the number of incidents and the relationship between the offender and victim.

In January 2016, former police Chief Dennis Baldwin, now the city’s deputy city manager, said the department’s more than 59 percent clearance rate in 2015 was tied directly to a spike in domestic-related homicides.

“Most of the murders in Killeen during 2015 were the result of domestic violence, with three events accounting for seven murders,” Baldwin said.

In 2016, a perceived decline in domestic homicides resulted in fewer suspects and a corresponding plummet in clearance rates. The federal report said KPD did not know the relationship between a homicide offender and victim in 43 percent of cases between 2007 and 2017.

The FBI has not released confirmed clearance figures for 2017.

Organizational changes

Calendar year 2016 capped a period in which the department’s leadership was in a state of flux when Baldwin was promoted to the interim city manager role after Glenn Morrison’s uneasy retirement in April 2016 and interim City Manager Ann Farris’ demotion from the position by council in August of that year.

Baldwin had been with the police department for 33 years and served as chief for 12 years.

When Baldwin took on the role of interim city head, he proposed a number of police organizational changes that he said would save money and increase operational efficiency as the city was pulling itself out of a proposed $8 million shortfall in July 2016.

In an email to the Herald on Oct. 31, 2016, Baldwin proposed three major changes that altered the face of the department in north Killeen almost overnight. Those changes were:

Reassigned all uniformed personnel at the North Precinct to the patrol division stationed at police headquarters at 3304 Community Blvd., 6.6 miles to the south, away from the center of the city.

This move included reassigning five officers and a sergeant from the department’s K-9 unit, seven officers from the traffic unit, and vacant positions from the North Precinct Uniformed Services Unit.

Moved the records function at the former North Precinct to the records section at headquarters “to reduce redundancy, overtime, and staffing requirements.” At the time, Baldwin said: “It should be noted that when the headquarters was built in 2010, residents did not have access to The Hop transit system. Downtown residents now have access to this transportation system, so the effects of this consolidation have been mitigated.” That Hop route was cut from the system in 2017, leaving no public transportation to the new headquarters.

Installed a “call box” at North Precinct in lieu of a 24-hour desk officer.

The following August, the department proposed bolstering patrols even further by eliminating the Special Investigations Division and moving those officers back on the beat. The department also proposed folding the Organized Crime Unit into the Criminal Investigations Division.

After review, the department said Thursday it decided against that move.

“The police department often reviews the effectiveness and efficiency of its operations and considers organizational and operational changes,” Miramontez said. “Upon further review, that plan was not implemented.”

There were 159 sworn patrol officers on the force in June, the department said. The department’s authorized civil service workforce, including vacancies, was approved for 260 full-time equivalents in August 2016.

Moving ahead

With Charles Kimble’s hiring in October 2017, the department worked to counteract an uptick in violent crime numbers in 2017 that moved against the national trend.

According to the department’s numbers, the first six months of Kimble’s tenure saw a nearly across-the-board drop in violent crime — with the exception of rapes. Kimble attributed that decrease to a reorganization of patrol command, including consolidating the city’s four division commands to three, and courting state and federal collaboration in fighting crime.

Those moves have paid off in taking repeat offenders off the streets, Kimble said. Most recently, the department scored a big win in early August when seven people accused of being local members of the Gangster Disciples, a Chicago-based gang, were indicted as part of a multi-agency meth conspiracy bust that netted 28 suspects between Killeen and Waco.

In recent months, the department also reported multiple federal indictments for Killeen suspects, including 17-year-old Lazarus Israel Duaquon Bush, who was arrested by the U.S. Marshals on Oct. 30 in the 2900 block of Cantabrian Drive in connection to multiple robberies in Copperas Cove and Killeen.

Bush was sentenced to 30 years in prison Aug. 3 in connection with the armed robbery Oct. 28 of a Little Caesar’s Pizza in Cove.

Despite the reported numbers of crimes dropping, it remains unclear where the department’s clearance rate stands for 2018.

During a budget workshop Aug. 7, Kimble told the Killeen City Council the department was looking to tackle its declining clearance rate but did not outline any allocation of resources back into the department’s investigative divisions.

Miramontez said the department was in the process of looking for greater operational efficiency to bolster the clearance rate.

“The department is always looking for ways to improve operations,” Miramontez said. “The chief meets with command staff to discuss ideas regularly. He is also working the plan provided by the DOJ to make improvements in efficiencies and effectiveness when it comes to providing services as well as directly impacting the crime rate.”

Castillo said he wanted residents to understand that officers cared about crime solving and looked for solutions despite difficult financial times.

“Just like the victims of crimes and their families, our officers, too, want justice for them and want to be sure that the individual(s) who are responsible for the violence are held accountable and incarcerated for their offenses,” Castillo said. “Sometimes officers feel the crime rate directly reflects the quality of their work, and it can become highly frustrating.”

Editor's Note: This article has been changed to correct a mistake.

kyleb@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7567

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