Behind the scenes with Milwaukee's homicide unit as they fight more than just criminals
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The Milwaukee Police Department Homicide Unit meets three times a day. Their focus: cases they're investigating and they're juggling more than usual. CBS 58's Amanda Porterfield got an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how the unit operates.
Milwaukee Police Department Homicide Unit Commander Captain Thomas Casper and homicide cold case detective Tim Keller know first-hand the challenges facing the unit.
CBS 58's Amanda Porterfield: "What’s the last year been like for the homicide unit?"
Cpt. Casper: "Tiring. Very tiring. We had 190 homicides last year and unfortunately, we are very fortunate to that this year. Like I said I would like to be less busy that just doesn’t seem to be the case."
CBS 58's Amanda Porterfield: "Are you overwhelmed right now?"
Detective Keller: "Here’s a lot of work but there’s a lot of dedicated detectives that are assigned to this unit and the whole criminal investigation bureau."
As of May 21, there have been 60 homicides in Milwaukee. By this time in 2020, there were 59. The numbers have nearly doubled since 2018 and 2019.
Cpt. Casper is a second-generation officer. He's been with MPD for 30 years.
Capt. Casper: "We are seeing a lot of petty disputes whether they be over social media or on the street. Years ago, they would have been resolved by arguments or swearing at each other now they result in gunfire."
CBS 58's Amanda Porterfield: "Would you say that the amount of homicides that are caused by gun violence is abnormal right now?"
Capt. Casper: "When I came out of the academy in 1991 the crack epidemic was exploding and we had a high number of homicides that year, crime figures go up and down, like waves in the ocean some years its very low, and some years it’s kind of explodes."
The rise in their workload has come in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and during a worldwide civil rights movement centered around demand for police reform.
"One of the challenges we see in homicide is getting people that have information to bring it to us. It can be very difficult to get information when people mistrust police in general but also us as homicide detectives because of the behavior of someone else in our profession," said Keller.
This means they've had to change their approach when speaking to families of the victims.
"When you think about the pandemic too, our entire world had a rough year, and mentally and physically it really changed people," said Keller. "Going to a mother’s door notifying her that her son may have been a victim of a homicide it’s not very personal when you’re there with a mask on. That’s something that will stick with people forever, As far as the civil rights movement and people's overall distrust for police based on what’s happened across the nation, sometimes its just an honest conversation right away that we don’t agree with that and we are different."
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, court proceedings were held virtually or delayed and the system is backed up. The result: officers are now appearing in-person for older cases while still working on the new cases and they're doing it all with fewer detectives.
Over the past three years, the homicide unit dropped 30 percent -- a loss of 12 investigators.
"We try to clear each and every case that happens when we have more evidence, more witnesses and more cooperation with the victim’s family. That all plays a role in us being able to clear that case," Casper said.
It seems that one of their biggest challenges is gaining the community's trust.
"A lot of families want us to update them on a weekly basis. And with the volume of cases that we deal with its just not possible," Casper said. "For example one of the criticisms that we get is why does the body stay at the scene so long. 111550 there has to be pictures taken, there has to be measurements for a diagram, when the detectives testify in court there are certain things that are going to be expected for them to testify to. And it’s not done to be disrespectful."
What's even tougher on detectives is the growing number of young lives lost. In both 2018 and 2019, one child was killed in Milwaukee. In 2020, the homicide unit investigated seven child deaths. Already this year, eight of the city's murder victims are children.
CBS 58's Amanda Porterfield: "How does MPD’s homicide unit deal with these waves of violence?"
Capt. Casper: "It's difficult. I try to keep an eye on the detectives' mental well-being, we have a wellness team and a department, a couple psychologists and a department chaplain, and they do visits to check on how the detectives are doing."
Keller: "I think those are some of the toughest cases for any of us to work when there is someone who literally just started their life. Hasn’t entered adult hood yet, isn’t making adult decision and are the victim of violent crime."
Sometimes doing whatever they can to solve a crime means asking for help. That's where Milwaukee Crime Stoppers makes a difference. The organization provides a phone number that people can call in tips about crimes anonymously.
"I think it makes a big difference to give people multiple options for people to come forward, because making someone comfortable to talk with us about what they know," Keller said.
"Crime Stoppers is an avenue for them to give us information and keep their identity secret and that’s important," said Casper. "Some people are very, very fearful."
If you know anything, no matter how big or small about an unsolved crime in Milwaukee, call 414-224-TIPS and you could get a cash reward.