Sacramento detectives say they are solving a greater percentage of homicides this year than in 2006, a result they attribute to fewer killings, more resources and ongoing crackdowns on street gangs.
Arrests have been made in 31 of the 47 homicides through July 10 in the city and areas of Sacramento County covered by the Sheriff's Department, a clearance rate of 66 percent, according to a Bee analysis of 2007 cases.
At this point last year, investigators say they had cleared 30 of 62 homicides, or 48 percent, records show.
Investigators consider a case cleared when an arrest is made, the homicide is deemed justifiable because of self-defense or the suspect dies during the slaying. Through July 10, 2006, two of the 62 homicides were classified self-defense. In a third case, the suspect died during the slaying.
One reason for the higher success rate so far this year is a sharp decline in killings, a trend that has allowed detectives to devote more time to new cases when they occur, authorities said.
"With the numbers being down, our detectives are able to not only focus on current cases, they can go back to old cases as well," said Sacramento Police Sgt. Bob McCloskey, who added that city investigators made arrests in six cases in 2007 from homicides in previous years. "This is the highest clearance rate we've had in a while, and it's due to their hard work."
The improvement in the arrest rate has been especially visible in the city, where detectives have booked suspects in 18 of 24 homicides, a clearance rate of 75 percent, records show. Of the 35 homicides that occurred in the city through this time last year, detectives had made arrests in 17 cases -- or 49 percent.
Sacramento County sheriff's detectives are also closing more cases, although not at the same rate as their counterparts in the city. Suspects have been booked in 13 of the department's 23 homicide cases so far this year, a 57 percent rate, records show.
Sheriff's detectives had cleared 48 percent of their cases through this time last year, officials said.
While the Police Department's homicide unit has added two detective positions since last year, the sheriff's bureau has remained the same size.
"An increased staff means that the caseload can get worked a lot more," said Sgt. Connie Merkins, a sheriff's homicide bureau supervisor.
With a larger unit, city detectives are able to bring in more detectives during an investigation's early -- and most pivotal -- stages, McCloskey said.
It's during those hours that information gathered on the street and in recent gang crackdowns comes into play, investigators said.
After a deadly stretch last summer -- nine people were killed during the first two weeks of August -- authorities from throughout the region began conducting a series of organized crackdowns on violent gangs.
In the past nine months, a pair of massive sweeps of gang members on parole or probation have resulted in nearly 200 arrests, while other smaller operations that have concentrated on specific neighborhoods have yielded dozens more arrests.
"Our gang officers and our POP (Problem Oriented Policing) guys have been doing more sweeps and are just out there hammering these guys and it has significantly impacted our caseload," Merkins said.
Officials said the sweeps not only get some of the area's most violent offenders off the streets, they also provide investigators with street intelligence that becomes pivotal in future cases.
"We're finding these guys are not just involved in these homicides, but they're also involved in drug dealing, robberies and other shootings," McCloskey said. "Taking one guy off the street may help to prevent a shooting or a homicide down the road."
Tackling gangs, which remain a heavy influence in the region's crime rate, has cut into the violence, officials said. About one-third of the sheriff's homicide cases and roughly half the city's killings have been driven by gang involvement, authorities said.
Continuing a trend from last year, young people have been involved in a significant number of killings. Twelve of the 37 homicide suspects this year have been teenagers, with three of them 17 or younger, records show.
Even with the lighter caseload of new homicides to work, detectives remain busy. The Sheriff's Department has 384 unsolved killings dating to 1957 and -- with 11 homicide detectives -- few resources to throw at old cases. Cold case figures for the city police were not available.
"My people are still busy because they are often still trying to catch their breath from the last homicide," Merkins said. "There's always so much work to do."