Metropolis: Wednesday, April 24, 2003
By the Numbers

A long fight over homicide statistics proves instructive.


When Hector Carrillo and a group of murder victims’ families started a public campaign last June to address the number of unsolved homicides in Fort Worth, they had plenty of issues to argue with police and prosecutors and city leaders — racial profiling, anti-gang tactics, prosecutorial decisions.

What they didn’t figure was that, almost a year later, they’d still be arguing over the numbers. Or that they’d be asked to pay almost $8,000 to get information on those cases from the city.

Nor did they figure that it would be the city staff, rather than their Citizens Against Unsolved Murders group, that would repeatedly — albeit unintentionally — expand the scope of the inquiry into the handling of those “cold cases.”

In fact, the controversy has turned into an extended civics lesson, a textbook example of how a citizens’ group, by refusing to accept partial answers and pats on the head from the bureaucracy, can bring about change — including a beefed-up review and, in some cases, re-investigation, of cold cases by Fort Worth police.

The group’s opening salvo last summer was a full-page ad purchased in Fort Worth Weekly and El Informador Hispano listing almost 750 unsolved homicides committed in Fort Worth between 1982 and 2002. Carrillo and others were particularly concerned over the high incidence of minority victims on the list.

The police responded a few weeks later with an analysis that concluded that more than half the names on the list were not homicide victims or that the cases had been solved. But the memo referred to figures going back to 1968, not 1982.

Fine, said Carrillo, whose original list had been based on information obtained from the city under an open records request. If there’s information available going back to 1968, he told the city, he wanted that as well.

Police Chief Ralph Mendoza told the council that it would take five or six years for an officer to review 20 years’ worth of cold cases, to determine which ones should be re-investigated. Mayor Kenneth Barr told Mendoza that wasn’t nearly quick enough, and the chief in November assigned two detectives to the job. According to a memo sent to the council this month, that effort should be completed by June.

Carrillo and his group, meanwhile, aided by the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, are still fighting for additional information on the older cases and trying to understand why the police department’s numbers differed so much from their own.

Part of the problem was definitions: “Unsolved,” to the families of victims, could mean anything from a case in which no suspect was ever identified to those police believed they’d solved but which the D.A. declined to prosecute or a grand jury refused to indict. At one point, detectives told Carrillo that they had no information at all on more than 160 of the cases on the list that the city had given him.

With victims’ relatives repeatedly appearing at meetings to voice their frustrations, the council rolled that frustration downhill. In February, Mendoza presented a “reconciliation” report, explaining the disposition of more than 2,000 homicide cases dating back to 1982. The result was somewhat satisfying to Carrillo: Cases listed as “unsolved” or for which no conviction had been obtained added up to 794 — vindicating, in his mind, his group’s original claim of some 750 unsolved murders. “I think we have some common ground right now,” Carrillo said.

But what about those cases dating back to 1968? LULAC and Carrillo, denied those records by the city, appealed to the Texas Attorney General’s office. The AG’s office intervened and, in effect, mediated. Carrillo said his group agreed to accept, and the city agreed to provide, the front page of police reports for those homicides dating back to 1968.

And in January, sure enough, Carrillo received a letter from the city — and a prospective bill for $7,800 for those public records.

Back to the council.

“Jim Lane had told us in December that any other information that we got in addition to the original report [from which the 740-plus names were drawn] would be provided free,” Carrillo said. “So we took this to him. And he said, ‘I mean what I said.’”

A $7,800 bill for providing information to victims’ families is “crazy as hell,” Lane told the Weekly. “They’re not going to pay that.”

Instead, Lane told city staff that he wanted the same information — and that he would give Carrillo’s group a copy of it. Free.

“They are entitled to have all the information we can provide, and I’m going to make danged sure they get it,” he said. And if the new information that’s being gathered is flawed or isn’t what was promised, “We’ll go back to the drawing board again.”

Lane said he believes that re-investigation of many of the old cases may be worthwhile because of the immense strides that have been made in investigative techniques in the last several decades.

He had hoped to provide the $7,800 packet of information to Carrillo on Tuesday, but staffers told him it wasn’t quite ready.

Council member Wendy Davis said the continuing inability of the city to provide accurate statistics on the homicides “is a sorry statement on our records. And I don’t think it’s isolated to the police department.” The city, she said, has had major problems in information technology.

The efforts of the Citizens Against Unsolved Homicides, in the long run, have been beneficial, she said. “It has prompted the police department to get all those records in order,’’ she said. “I’m really proud of Hector. He refused to give up. He’s been very constructive and showed some real sticktoitiveness.”

Davis said she wants a systematic review of those homicides in which police believed they had made a case, but which the D.A.’s office chose not to prosecute. “That’s the most frustrating category we have right now,” she said.

Despite budget pressures, the council is now considering creation of a separate cold case unit in the police department — something that Carrillo and others have been fighting for. Chief Mendoza has said that he believes that, with the increased personnel that have been assigned to the cold-case review, a separate unit is not necessary. The officers already assigned to the effort have made arrests in several of those cases in the last few months.

City Manager Gary Jackson, meanwhile, has told the council that Carrillo will receive a full rebate of the $500 his group paid for the original, flawed printout from which they drew the names of the almost 750 unsolved homicides.

Carrillo had been told about the refund, but only saw the promise in writing this week. “That’s good,” he said. “We can use it to request more records.”

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