Suffolk County police investigated 50 homicides last year, more than in almost 20 years, and so far have solved fewer than half of them.
The 44-percent closure rate so far for 2010 homicides is the lowest in recent memory, police in Suffolk said.
The troubling spike in homicides, coupled with those that remain unsolved, has sparked concern both within and outside the Suffolk department. Police Commissioner Richard Dormer characterized both the numbers of homicides and the lower than usual percentage closed as anomalies. He said both factors have been driven in large part by gang violence - cases that are notoriously difficult to resolve because witnesses and even the families of victims are often loath to cooperate. Suspected serial killings like the deaths of four women whose remains were found in December along Gilgo Beach also frustrate detectives.
Dormer said the department has made no significant changes to homicide squad personnel numbers or case management in recent years that would account for a dropping year end clearance rate, and said he was confident some of the homicides would be solved during 2011. The latest one solved with an arrest Friday night brought the number resolved to 22 of 50.
"There is nothing we can point a finger at here," he said.
Department officials say year-end clearance rates often rise in subsequent years as older cases get solved with arrests and trials. "There are a number of [unsolved] cases from last year that are at an advanced investigative stage and likely to be resolved very soon," said Det. Lt. Gerard Pelkofsky, commanding officer of Suffolk's homicide squad.
Pelkofsky noted the department also resolved several cases in 2010 for slayings that occurred in previous years. Among them were arrests for the murder of Rebecca Koster, 24, of Copiague, whose burned body was recovered in Connecticut in December 2009, and for the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Jaquan Jones outside his Wyandanch home in 2008.
Overall, Suffolk cops have resolved nearly 84 percent of homicides that occurred between 2005 to 2009.
In Nassau, the department says it solved 78 percent of cases between 2005 and 2009. And in 2010, Nassau said it had resolved 18 homicides, or 66 percent. Unlike Suffolk, however, some of these Nassau homicides, may have occurred in prior years.
Still, some local officials said reductions in police personnel - the department now has about 100 fewer uniformed officers and 35 fewer total detectives than it did five years ago, according to police unions - was probably a factor in the homicide spike and closure rates.
"When you have a murder rate that is up, you need more detectives, and the only way to get more detectives is to have more patrol officers," said Suffolk Legis. Jack Eddington (I-Medford), who heads the public safety committee. "They have to come from somewhere. What I believe is if we had more officers in more places, we could reduce it."
The rise in homicides last year defied a national trend toward fewer murders, and was the exception to a 10-percent drop in violent crime in Suffolk. Homicides in Suffolk accounted for about 2.4 percent of overall violent crime.
The county's troubling year of homicides began on Jan. 13, 2010, in a barrage of gunshots in a North Amityville parking lot that left two men wounded and one dead. The year ended with the stabbing death of a 23-year-old Bay Shore man on Dec. 21. Both cases are unsolved.
Between those cases, the county's homicides covered a wide spectrum of circumstances and victims; some led to arrests. A 19-year-old taxi driver was shot to death in a robbery; a Bay Shore woman allegedly stabbed by her estranged husband; four children younger than 2 were slain in separate incidents; and a soured love triangle resulted in two murders and a suicide, police said.
In the wake of a spate of violence that peaked last summer in Huntington Station, Suffolk police beefed up patrols in certain zones where much of the violence had occurred and say it has reduced gang-related violence significantly.
All told it was the highest number of recorded homicides in Suffolk since 1992, where there were 57, a spike that police said was fueled by violence surrounding the crack cocaine trade.
Experts on crime trends said a range of factors can affect how many killers are put behind bars: the quantity and experience levels of detectives, case management and, of course, luck - though none as significant as the circumstances of the killings themselves.
The methodical practices of serial killers, including targeting strangers, make those cases especially difficult to resolve. By contrast, killings by a spouse, partner, or family member are among those with the highest closure rates.
Most killings last year with suspected gang links occurred in a handful of Suffolk communities, including Huntington Station, Brentwood and Central Islip. At least 10 unsolved cases in Suffolk last year are suspected of having some gang connection, presenting investigators with special challenges.
In gang killings "associates of the victim, the witnesses, are themselves often heavily criminally involved and don't have much incentive to come forward," said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an expert on crime trends. "Forensics help, but for a homicide investigation to lead to an arrest, witnesses remain fundamental."
State cops solve 1 of 2 cases
In addition to the 50 homicides investigated by Suffolk police last year, State Police in Suffolk closed one of two killings on state property last year with the arrest of Pedro Jones, 20, in the beating death of his girlfriend's 17-month-old son. The case of a suspected MS-13 gang member found shot to death in North Bay Shore is unsolved.
Dormer said he had no plans to make changes in personnel or procedure based on the year end's closure rate. He said homicide detectives have great leeway in how they pursue cases, including unlimited overtime. He said he was confident many cases recorded in 2010 will be solved, including the Gilgo killings.
"We have brought other [detectives] in . . . and homicide is still investigating other murders. They have not put them aside because of the four bodies in Gilgo," he said.
Four detectives who usually investigate felonies other than homicides have been reassigned to a task force on the Gilgo Beach case. Other detectives from specialized commands, including computer crimes, also have been brought into the Gilgo Beach case. There are now 19 Suffolk detectives assigned full time to homicide investigations, with four supervisors. Nassau County has 20 full-time homicide detectives and four supervisors.
Robert Creighton, a former Suffolk police commissioner and now a Smithtown councilman who is a frequent critic of the department, said overall fewer numbers of marked police cars and uniformed officers in recent years could give gang members more opportunities to target victims and escape arrest.
Dormer, however, said that even with fewer overall police officers, more have been assigned to sector cars - 1,096 now compared with 970 in 2004.
Anyone with information about an unsolved homicide should call the following numbers: