AUSTIN, Texas - In early April 2019, a body was found in Givens Park. His death was one of almost three dozen murders that took place that year in Austin. It was also among those where an arrest was made.
"I don’t think there’s a magic or dumb luck, I think decades ago when the Austin Police Department Homicide Unit started seeing an increase in the number, they were able to figure out the right way to investigate the murders that happen,” said APD Lt. Jeff Greenwalt.
Greenwalt heads up APD's homicide unit. From the office in the downtown headquarters, a team of 12 detectives work through leads. The unit includes two sergeants, a crime analyst, a victim services advocate and an administrative aide.
"And we are very functional and very efficient as a team, the folks up there are extraordinary at what they do and a lot of the people who work in the Homicide unit have been there for many, many, years,” said Greenwalt.
The staffing level hasn't changed much in more than a decade and neither has the way cases are handled.
In the first few hours of each call out, the unit puts on a full-court press. Greenwalt called it a strategy of saturation which typically also involves patrol units. There's also one other critical factor in play. "We rely, very heavily, on the community, whether it’s just a witness who didn't even know the people who were involved, or its family or friends, or neighbors the community plays a big role in solving these murders,” said Greenwalt.
That teamwork seems to be working based on the latest uniform crime report.
In 2017 there were 25 murders with 17 of the cases closed out with arrests. 2018 and 2019 both saw an increase in the number of murders; each year had 35 cases with 25 arrests.
The rate of closure, Greenwalt believes, prevents burn out. "We work in such a unique unit, the cases themselves are what rejuvenate the detectives when they are able to provide answers to the family of the deceased or let the family of the deceased know an arrest has been made, and justice was served, that in itself sends us back to work ready to go to the next one,” said Greenwalt.
Recent cases of excessive force by law enforcement have sparked protests and have raised questions regarding trust. But these incidents, according to Greenwalt, have yet to undermine their work. "What you see on the national news, and sometimes the local news, about the problems we've been having, is important and I'm not downplaying those opinions that people have, but when it comes time to solve crime, we have a tremendous amount of support that comes from the community,” said Greenwalt.
A study by the FBI determined that homicide detectives who have a caseload of five or less each year have a higher rate of success.
The goal for the APD unit is for homicide detectives to have one to five open cases.