After Austin saw a significant spike in homicides in 2016, the number of people who died at the hands of others fell by roughly 25 percent from 39 to 29 in 2017, bringing the toll more in line with the figure that Austin police leaders would expect to see.
Assistant Police Chief Joe Chacon, who served as a homicide detective in the early 2000s, said the number of homicides in Austin has frequently fluctuated over the years.
“Unless you live in a city that has a lot of homicides — that might be having gang-related homicides or some other kind of organized crime going on — they’re very random in nature,” Chacon said.
Most killings in Austin aren’t the result of turf wars or arguments among rival criminal groups.
“The vast majority of ours are either domestic violence or they’re more a product of an interpersonal conflict between two people that ends up with somebody killing the other one,” he said.
According to Austin police, the city’s 29 homicides last year include cases defined as murders by the department and other killings that fell short of a murder charge.
Chacon said 25 of those became murder cases, two of which have not been solved.
The remaining cases that did not meet the criteria for murder included one criminally negligent homicide, an injury to a child and an injury to a disabled person. Austin police also investigated the stabbing death of student Harrison Brown on the University of Texas campus in May, but university police were required to report that incident, rather than Austin police.
Chacon said of the 23 solved cases, 17 were closed when a suspect was taken into custody, in two other cases the suspected killer took his own life and one case was determined to be self-defense. Police issued a warrant in the remaining case, but have yet to run down the suspect.
When Austin saw violent crime spike by more than 11 percent in 2016, police handled 39 homicides. By the end of the following year, 30 of those cases had been solved. Chacon said 28 of those were cleared by arrest, one involved the suspect committing suicide and one case is still open with a warrant issued.
“In 2016, that number that we had was really high,” Chacon said. “We normally don’t see that many in this city. Last year was more on par for what we’ve seen over the years, even though we’re having some pretty significant population growth. I’m glad to say that we have not seen a commensurate growth in our homicide rate.”
Austin’s homicide rate in 2016 was 4.07 per 100,000 people. It slipped to 3.01 in 2017, according to FBI, police and city data.
For homicides in which the victim and killer knew each other or had some pre-existing relationship, as is typical in Austin, the cases are more solvable. That’s one reason Austin investigators had a 92 percent homicide clearance rate in 2017. Preventing such cases, however, is still a problem.
Chacon said the department has officers dedicated to keeping tabs on domestic violence suspects with a known propensity for violence to make sure they stay away from potential victims. They also follow up with victims so they can take proactive steps in ending cycles of violence.
While most cases involved pre-existing relationships, some Austin homicides can be linked to gangs and drugs.
And sometimes the deadly violence can appear to be random, like when 30-year-old Ebony Michelle Sheppard was shot and killed in an apartment complex parking lot the day after Christmas by a stranger. Austin police say the man accused of killing Sheppard, 19-year-old Xavier Lewis, was also a suspect in a string of robberies leading up to the shooting.
“Unfortunately, in some of these, they are spur-of-the-moment crimes,” Chacon said. “While we can try and take proactive measures, most of the time on homicides we are in a reactive state.”
Sheppard’s death was Austin’s final homicide of 2017.
Homicides in 2017
- Total: 29
- 17 cleared by arrest
Homicides in 2016
- Total: 39
- 28 cleared by arrest
A total of 10 homicides for 2016 and 2017 combined remain unsolved