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Once a joke, SFPD is actually solving murders these days 

Wednesday, Nov 4 2009

On the night of Aug. 5, inspectors at San Francisco's homicide detail got a call about a Pontiac Aztek abandoned on Terry Francois Boulevard, a two-lane street that runs along the edge of what used to be the city's industrial port, just south of the Giants' ballpark. Ena Canales, 32, had apparently been stabbed and left for dead in the car, according to the District Attorney's office.

Within an hour of the call, six night-shift detectives were on the scene gathering evidence and tracking down family members and other possible witnesses. Inspectors later learned that their main suspect, Canales' ex-boyfriend, Manuel Castro, 31 — who'd allegedly fought with her before stabbing her to death — had abandoned a car in Southern California near the Mexican border, but apparently hadn't left the country.

This sounds like a routine bit of police work — someone flies into a rage against a loved one, allegedly kills her, and flees. It's left to detectives to track him down.

But according to Captain Al Pardini, who in May moved from leading the city's narcotics squad to head the SFPD's investigations division, the case exemplifies the success of the department's new investigative strategy.

Since early this year, the SFPD has been jamming extra staff into the crucial early hours of murder cases — with tangible results. So far this year, two-thirds of San Francisco homicides have been solved, or "cleared," to use U.S. Justice Department parlance referring to cases that have resulted in arrests and charges, but not necessarily convictions. That's more than double the rate of the past two years. This recent success is starting to undo S.F.'s reputation as a place where only the unlucky or stupid get arrested for murder.

"There's a lot to do," Police Chief George Gascón said. "But there's no question things have gotten a lot better."

San Francisco has long been known by law enforcement experts, victims' families, and cops themselves as a place where you have to be really bad at committing murders to get caught.

A 2002 Chronicle series showed that detectives were clearing only half of the city's murders, while other cities solved two-thirds of theirs. In 2007, the rate was worse; of 98 murders, only a third were cleared, when the national average was just over half. Last year, detectives solved only a quarter of San Francisco's 97 murders, suggesting a department in free fall.

This abysmal record was one of the criticisms brought against former Chief Heather Fong, who retired in August amid charges she was an ineffective leader.

Before he took office in August, Gascón told me, "The clearance rates for violent crimes in San Francisco are unacceptable. ... I'm going to figure out a way to improve them."

But Gascón's underlings seem to have gotten a jump on him. Tired of seeing murderers get away and their department made a laughingstock, commanders and lieutenants took it upon themselves to retool the way they investigate homicides.

One change was to reform the way inspectors are promoted to the homicide division, so the best officers get the job. Previously, homicide inspectors were chosen merely because they'd risen to the top of a waiting list. "Before, you'd have someone who'd spent their career in vehicle recovery, but not conducted a large investigation," said Pardini, who'd resemble a polite version of Lou Grant if not for his sidearm. The concept of the first two full days of a case being the most crucial to a murder investigation is familiar to anyone who has watched the CBS News true-crime program 48 Hours — whose Nov. 14 episode, incidentally, is dedicated to the 2007 Hugues de la Plaza case, in which S.F. police couldn't determine whether a stabbing victim was murdered or committed suicide. "That case was a great example of the need for the kinds of reforms we're doing," Pardini said.

Under the old system, two inspectors were assigned to a murder case, which could be one of several investigations they'd be conducting simultaneously. In the case of de la Plaza, whose body was found in a pool of blood in his Hayes Valley apartment, critics said that some evidence might have been missed because of lack of attention to securing the crime scene. His neighbors and friends complained they weren't interviewed until days or even weeks after the death.

"The inspector might have gotten three cases that week, and he could have been cranking day and night, but the family doesn't know that," Pardini said.

Under the new system implemented this year, between four and six inspectors are sent to a crime scene, with two assigned as lead investigators, and the others assigned to help with tasks such as securing the scene of the crime and interviewing witnesses. As the case progresses, lead investigators can consult their colleagues for help. "The first 48 hours, that's when the information is out there, before people start having second thoughts, and you can put together a case fast," SFPD homicide Lieutenant Mike Stasko said.

This year, the homicide detail has bulked up its staff, so as to be able to run speedy investigations. Many of the moves were approved by Fong.

In January, the homicide detail worked only day shifts, and comprised a lieutenant, 14 inspectors, and two cold-case investigators. In February, the division added a night watch group with seven additional officers, allowing inspectors to respond immediately to nighttime murder scenes.

And in July, the department administered a taxing homicide entry exam. Rather than merely floating to the top of a wait list, candidates now had to submit to the SFPD equivalent of a Ph.D. orals board, defending to a panel of brass how they solved crimes in the past. Of the 15 who passed, eight moved to homicide, with two of those working the night crew.

Pardini is now overseeing a project that will turn the division's fourth-floor offices into an open-plan bullpen, without cubicle divisions between inspectors' desks. The idea is to create an information-sharing culture that will put as many minds as possible on difficult cases.

U.S. marshals arrested the fugitive Manuel Castro on Aug. 19. Evidence suggested he had gotten into a physical fight with Canales, his ex-girlfriend, which ended with him stabbing her, according to assistant district attorney Brian Buckelew. Four days before her death, detectives learned, Castro allegedly attacked and injured a male friend of Canales'. He is scheduled to appear in court on Nov. 20, where the prosecution will report whether it has obtained all necessary evidence to proceed with a preliminary hearing.

Gascón gives credit to his new charges for helping improve the department's crime-solving record. But he points out that this has been a year with only 39 homicides so far, giving investigators more time to solve each case. Ten months is too short a span to determine whether the SFPD has really undergone a permanent revolution. "I think it's still early, although I'm very optimistic," he said. "People are being re-energized, and are using their expertise."

The next steps include installing technology that allows for DNA testing at the scene of a crime, and creating what Gascón calls a real-time, 24-hour crime center. "If there's a homicide, and if inspectors are rolling to a crime scene, we'll have officers at the center doing computer work, data mining, link analysis, vehicle location, and a lot of that work could be done before the inspectors get back into their office," he said.

If they keep this up, San Francisco could become a place where only brilliant murderers get away. Given the city's history, most of us would settle for that.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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