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Families Take Matters Into Their Own Hands After Philadelphia’s Slow Homicide Investigations

Officially, a victims assistance officer will help coordinate logistics and reimbursements in the wake of a homicide. But families say that rarely happens so they often take it upon themselves to investigate the crime.

(TNS) — Kathi Camp called the Philadelphia Police Department's homicide unit almost every day for four months before the detective assigned to investigate her son's murder finally called her back.

Camp was desperate to know whether police were any closer to locating Marcus Whitehead, the man wanted for killing her 26-year-old son, Diniar, in August. She felt as if her persistence had paid off when the detective said he would visit her South Philadelphia home with an update.

So on that Monday in February, Camp stayed home from work. She moved all calls and appointments, and waited for him.

But the detective never showed. Camp hasn't heard from anyone in the unit since, she said, and her calls continue to go unreturned.

"Leaving us in limbo is more harmful than the pain we already feel from losing our child," Camp said. "It's like we don't matter."

In Philadelphia, when someone is killed in a homicide, the lone victims assistance officer in the Police Department's Homicide Unit helps families coordinate initial logistics such as obtaining death certificates and applying for funeral reimbursement funds. But in the weeks, months, and sometimes years that follow, it's largely the responsibility of homicide detectives to communicate with loved ones and update them on the investigation.

But many families say that rarely happens.

Nearly a dozen families of homicide victims interviewed by The Philadelphia Inquirer described a lack of communication from the unit. Many said they call and send emails to detectives, but rarely hear back. Meetings and calls are promised but not fulfilled.

Tiffaney Flynn, whose 19-year-old daughter Ojanae Thompson was killed in August 2021, said she didn't learn the assigned homicide detective's name until three months after her daughter died, and she met him for the first time in November 2022.

A lack of communication between law enforcement and families of victims is not a new issue, and it's not unique to Philadelphia, victims services experts said. It represents a widespread reluctance to invest in adequate care for victims, experts said, and there are solutions.

"They don't seem to have a procedure," said Chantay Love, founding director of Every Murder Is Real, a support group for Philadelphia families impacted by homicide. "They know there's an issue but they won't take it upon themselves to address it."

Love said she and other groups hope to raise the issue with City Council in coming months.

Staff Inspector Ernest Ransom, commanding officer of the Homicide Unit, acknowledged that many families haven't gotten the communication they deserve. He said he is working to finally address it, and is in the early stages of setting communication standards for detectives and their supervisors.

In just his first few months in this role, Ransom said he received numerous emails from families complaining about the issue, and realized "this has to stop." A concrete procedure will ensure greater accountability, he said.

It's a "work in progress," he said, and although families' frustrations may never be fully resolved, "if we can minimize it, that's a start."

But he also said that amid the ongoing homicide crisis, detectives are shouldering a crushing workload that often leaves them little time to speak with families, and that loved ones often don't understand how much work is being done behind the scenes on their case.

The families said they understand the heavy workload, but the communication breakdown exacerbates their trauma and builds distrust in the department. Some mothers said it makes them feel as if no one is actively investigating their loved one's death, that their child is "just a number" whose case is sitting at the bottom of the pile.

As a result, some families take it upon themselves to investigate the crimes on their own. Desperate for leads, they go to the scene of the crime and search for potential witnesses. They scour social media and question friends. They walk through neighborhoods and hand out flyers.

"From a human dignity perspective, it's very problematic," said Heather Warnken, executive director of Baltimore's Center for Criminal Justice Reform. "But from a pragmatic perspective, this is an essential piece of cultivating relationships to collaborate with the community to investigate and solve cases."

'Checks and Balances'

Time is the main communication barrier for Philadelphia homicide detectives, Ransom said.

Each detective is assigned 10 to 15 cases a year — more than double the Department of Justice's recommended four- to six-case annual load. And since about half of the city's killings go unsolved, the number of families a detective must keep up with only grows over time.

"That's why it's important to have those checks and balances in place, so that when a detective does lose focus (on a case), supervisors can pick up the slack," said Ransom.

Ransom said he met with a team last week to begin developing a digital tracking system for detectives and supervisors to log when they've spoken with a family. He said "word of mouth" on whether a detective has updated a family "is not going to be acceptable. It has to be documented."

And Officer LaTanya Acevedo can also only coordinate so much as the sole victims assistance officer for the Homicide Unit. Acevedo, who has worked in victims services for 20 years, said her focus is largely on coordinating immediate logistics and paperwork for families, such as funeral reimbursement forms and life insurance.

She does field families' calls, she said, but because she can't share investigation details it's often easier for detectives to answer those questions. She urged families to take advantage of the department's quarterly "Next of Kin" meetings, where loved ones can meet the detectives handling their cases.

Ransom said that the unit needs additional victims assistance officers, especially people who speak a language other than English, but that the department has limited resources.

"The department is short all across the board," he said. "But we're in such a critical unit here, dealing with the worst of the worst crimes, and those families do need to know. We can't put this all on LaTanya, that's not fair to her."

Amy Durall, who has worked with local and federal law enforcement to expand crime victim services, said departments should create a communication plan for each family, detailing how often they should expect to hear from detectives. More important, she said, agencies must invest in hiring more highly trained victim services personnel, like Acevedo, to work alongside the homicide detectives.

Detectives, she said, shouldn't be solely responsible for supporting victims, and this work can't be substituted through partnerships with community organizations like grief and resource groups, which cannot access sensitive case information.

Warnken, from Baltimore, said the issues go beyond that and point to deeper cultural biases in how police departments treat crime victims of color.

"Especially for Black and brown victims of gun violence," she said, "it's so hard to feel like they're ... a priority when they can't even get a call back."

A Grieving Mother Searches for a Witness

At least once a week, Taneesha Brodie visits the corner of 63rd Street and Lebanon Avenue in West Philadelphia, where her 28-year-old son, Quenzell Bradley-Brown, was killed in September.

She freshens up his vigil and makes sure his photo is still hanging on the light pole. She sweeps up trash and broken glass, and says a prayer.

Then, she looks for the man who witnessed her son's murder.

Brodie is one of many relatives of homicide victims in the city taking investigative measures into their own hands. In the absence of information from police, and with little hope that detectives are adequately pursuing the case, loved ones often canvass blocks, pass out flyers, and march through the city to raise awareness and find leads.

Brodie's son, a married father of four who loved music and poetry, was killed in what police believe was a case of mistaken identity, shot multiple times outside his apartment as he carried groceries inside for his family.

Brodie knows the witness' name and what he looks like. In October, just after her son was killed, he approached her at the scene and told her the shooter had mistaken her son for a drug dealer who hung on that corner. She was in such shock at the time that she didn't ask many questions or get his contact information.

So Brodie regularly returns to this spot, and although the witness has never been here since, she holds out hope that she can persuade him to speak with police, or pass information along to the assigned detective.

But the detective on the case rarely calls her back, she said. In January, after Brodie's daughter exchanged Facebook messages with a man who said he had information about the crime, she sent the detective an urgent email, asking him to call her ASAP.

He only recently got back to her, three months later, Brodie said, and asked her to bring screenshots of the exchange to the unit.

"At this point, I don't have any trust or hope in the police or the DA or the judicial system," she said. "I feel like if it were one of their own, one of their own children, they would have been out here knocking on doors and kicking them in.

"It's like they think he's just another Black kid killed," she said. "But he is loved, he is missed, and no one is just going to forget about it."

Another mother, Tiffaney Flynn, often passes out flyers to patrons of the Olney shopping center where her 19-year-old daughter, Ojanae Thompson, was fatally shot in August 2021. As Thompson and her boyfriend sat in their car outside the ShopRite, gunmen shot at them more than a dozen times, killing them both. Their murders remain unsolved.

As Flynn's daughter fought to stay alive in the first few weeks, a detective in the local police district was assigned to investigate the case. But after she died and the case went to homicide, everything went silent, Flynn said. She just met the homicide detective in person for the first time this past November, when they spoke at police headquarters and he told her there were no new leads.

"Hundreds of people were shopping and going to the doctors and post offices, and nobody came forward to say what they've seen," she said. "How could something like that take place and you have no leads?"

On Ojanae's birthday and on the anniversary of her death, Flynn sets up a table outside the ShopRite. She passes out flyers with police contact information, and tells anyone who will listen about the bubbly young girl who worked two jobs through high school and was preparing for college — and who was killed in broad daylight.

Detectives Doing the Work

Not all families have bad experiences.

Denise Singleton, whose son Kyle was killed last May in North Philadelphia, said communication was limited at first, but as of January, the detective on her case has scheduled monthly phone calls or visits. She credits the change to the regular marches her family has hosted near police headquarters, calling for justice.

And Yullio Robbins only has glowing things to say about Detective Gregory Santamala, assigned to investigate her son James Walke III's 2016 murder.

The first detective assigned to Walke's case was very uncommunicative, Robbins said. After she complained to police officials, the investigation was reassigned to Santamala. Even after he retired in November, they've kept in touch, she said.

"He's like family," Robbins said.

"It's not all just about solving the (case)," said Santamala. "Of course families want it solved, but I think they want that connection, to know that you did not forget their loved one and you did not forget them."

In his 30 years on the job, maintaining contact with families was a top priority, he said. He handed out his personal cell phone number and answered calls and texts no matter the time of day. He did this on his own accord, not through any department mandate, because he didn't want families to feel forgotten. Plus, he said, it can help solve a case, since as the saying goes, "the streets talk," and families pass along helpful tips.

Santamala said some colleagues would avoid family calls in part because there was often no new information to share. And that's difficult news to relay.

But, he said: "If you can't be available, then you shouldn't take that job. ... As painful as something may be, you have to maintain contact."

He said supervisors need to set a standard and the department needs to hire more detectives.

"They are taking on caseloads that, in my 20 years, I've never seen," he said. "You can't just keep getting case after case after case. At that point it's just a triage."

(c)2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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