In December, when Wanda Snowden’s brother was fatally shot in his Clayton Drive home — becoming one of the final homicides in an already markedly murderous year — she was hopeful Baton Rouge police would find his killer.
Five months later, she’s lost much of that hope.
After dozens of unanswered calls to detectives or otherwise fruitless updates when she did connect with an investigator, she said she doesn’t believe Thomas Snowden's murder is getting the attention it deserves.
Her brother's case along with 44 other BRPD homicides cases from 2017 — when the city and parish broke all-time records for the most murders in one year – remain unsolved. And now, almost halfway into 2018, homicides are already outpacing last year, painting a bleak picture for the next seven months.
“It’s like, OK, y’all done forgot about 2017 murders and started on 2018,” Wanda Snowden said. “If y’all don’t have enough detectives, that’s not right.”
Local authorities concede that the homicide division is not staffed to the level they would like to see as the detectives continue to face ever mounting caseloads. However little has been done to address the situation.
“Baton Rouge deserves a fully-manned homicide department,” said East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III. “They are good at what they do, but they are strapped for time and resources. It’s a well-known deficiency.”
When Thomas Snowden was killed at the end of 2017, there were nine Baton Rouge police detectives working the city’s most high-profile crimes. BRPD supervisors said they were overworked; Moore then called them “woefully short.” Yet, despite functioning below optimal staffing levels for months and a change in departmental leadership with Chief Murphy Paul taking over in January, the division has actually shrunk since then.
Currently, eight detectives are working homicides cases, down one from December after an officer went on medical leave, police officials said, although they said they hope to add one new detective to the team soon. In previous years, about 12 detectives consistently worked the city of Baton Rouge’s homicides.
“We had a discussion about it recently,” said Deputy Chief Robert McGarner, who has been over criminal investigations since Paul’s induction. “We’re going to add a couple more investigators to the homicide division, it’s coming soon.”
On Monday, Paul officially posted for a new homicide detective, looking to recruit applicants internally, according to the job listing obtained by The Advocate. Interested officers with at least three years experience were asked to submit their applications within three days, the minimum amount of time for a job posting, the listing said.
McGarner said the new administration had been discussing adding to the homicide division, but were unable to find a good spot to pull from as the entire department is struggling with manpower shortages.
“It’s been on the table, but we’re in a situation where we have to rob Peter to pay Paul,” McGarner said. “We need more police officers, period. From uniform patrol to detectives.”
McGarner also said they hope to add more detectives once an expected 28 current police academy cadets graduate next month, and then complete their three-month field training.
In 2014, Baton Rouge Police Department homicide detectives worked 53 homicide cases. At that time, there were 17 officers in the unit.
“They’re just overloaded and they need more help,” Moore said. “But they’re not alone, it’s the intelligence department, uniform patrol. But the ones you see most are homicide detectives.”
There had had been 31 homicides inside the Baton Rouge city limits so far in 2018, up eight from last year at this time, according to records maintained by The Advocate.
The vast majority of the parish’s homicides happen within city limits, meaning the Baton Rouge Police Department’s homicide division responds to the incident and works the investigation.
Moore said he is concerned how the shortage of homicide detectives — and therefore the time and energy they can spend solving cases — can affect the public’s perception of the effectiveness of law enforcement, especially as the murder rate continues to rise. He noted that detectives are also tasked with responding to other suspicious deaths, including suicides and drug overdoses which continue to increase amid the nation’s opioid crisis.
“The inability to solve cases, particularly murders and rapes, does surely have an impact on the community,” Moore said. “It also leads to potentially a lack of cooperation, because if they don’t believe police can get the job done then someone else gets the job done.”
Baton Rouge Police have cleared 45 percent of the city’s homicides thus far in 2018, about the same proportion they had cleared at the end of 2017 — however still well below the national average, which hovers just below 60 percent. A homicide is considered cleared when an arrest is made or when the alleged perpetrator dies, not after a conviction.
McGarner said he doesn’t believe the shortage of detectives has affected the department’s clearance rate, which he said is a testament to how hard the current detectives are working.
Studies have shown detectives are more successful when they have more time to work on each case, and they in turn end up with higher clearance rates. The FBI in 2011 recommended that detectives in a department with more than 50 homicides a year should handle an average of five cases annually as the primary investigator. The study also used data to show that when detectives handle more cases than recommended, the overall homicide clearance rate decreased, meaning fewer cases were solved.
Although homicides cases are not distributed exactly even among detectives at BRPD, often being assigned depending who is on call at the time, it will still be almost impossible for Baton Rouge Police detectives to adhere to the recommended caseload unless something drastically changes.
With only eight detectives taking on cases and 31 homicides thus far in 2018, each detective already could have been assigned about four homicides — not even halfway through the year.
McGarner said every case is different, some take longer than others. He recalled working 13 cases in one year when he worked in the homicide division.
One thing that can make a big difference in solving a case, he said, is the community’s assistance, and he hopes that can continue to improve their clearance rate.
“The public is starting to buy in,” McGarner said. “The community has been doing a hell of job helping us.”
Just hours before Thomas Snowden, 46, was fatally shot in his Clayton Drive home late Monday, he and his two siblings had been there planning …
Moore said he’s hopeful something can change to stop the violent upward trend of homicides in the city. But with school getting out last week, he’s concerned — especially since the months of June, July and August are historically the most deadly.
“It’s going to be a long summer,” Moore said. “The way it’s shaping up, I don’t like what I see.”