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Misdemeanor Homicide

Charlotte's Justice-on-a-Budget

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Last month, the body of Danny Kaye Johnson was found near soccer fields in a University area park. Johnson's anguished family is desperate for any information about who killed him, and they want to know when an arrest will be made. So the family calls Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Detective Brad Koch frequently, hoping for news of progress.

Koch didn't have the heart to tell them what he accomplished on the case last week, which was essentially nothing. When we called the department and asked for the lead detective working the Johnson case, we were told he was on "vacation."

As it turns out, that wasn't exactly true.

The department recently told homicide investigators they'd been working too much overtime and blew the overtime budget, so they would have to take time off instead of being paid for overtime work. Because there have been a lot of murders in the city lately, Koch has racked up a bunch of overtime. So for four days last week, the Johnson case file gathered dust while Koch sat at home. Koch, who really didn't want to be home, says he's the only one who can wrap it up.

"On a case that I fully expect to make an arrest in, it's four days that the family is expecting something to happen," said Koch. "It really lets them down. The unfortunate thing is that there are people who have committed the ultimate sin, who have killed another human being, and they're walking around the street right now because I have to be at home."

Well, officers don't have to be at home. They can work overtime if they want, just not on the cases stacked up on their desks.

According to an e-mail sent to officers by Captain John Diggs, overtime pay was approved for officers who wanted to work extra shifts patrolling uptown.

"The need for additional presence is in response to the aftermath of the fireworks show on [the Fourth of July]," the memo said. Extra officers on overtime hit the streets of downtown last weekend as well.

So let's get this straight: There's plenty of money for a PR-friendly show of force after the debacle downtown, but none for rounding up homicidal maniacs? Given that the city has budgeted a million dollars to provide traffic control for arena events, as required in the contract the city signed with the Bobcats — who will also be reaping all of the profits generated by the arena — you've got to wonder exactly what the city's priorities are.

"There are a lot of activities that take place in the center city that often bring large crowds," said police spokesperson Keith Bridges. "Officers are needed right then to provide security, traffic control and other needs. Every unit within the [police department] has an allotment for overtime and each unit must administer this money judiciously."

Charlotte Brotherhood of Police Officers Co-President Dave Holland has heard "the judicious use of resources" code-speak before, he says. Detectives who want to move up the ladder quickly learn to read between the lines.

"What they are really saying is, 'Don't piss away your time on victims that aren't sufficiently important to warrant that expenditure of overtime,'" said Holland, who is a detective. "All the garbage they sling about how officers need to manage their overtime would go away if a person of sufficient stature was the victim of a heinous crime. As long as it's just drug dealers killing each other or drug dealers killing poor people, or poor people being killed by armed robbers who need drugs, the city is going to continue to cut back on this overtime, especially when they've got to budget so much overtime to help the Bobcats get off the ground."

Detectives know that what the department is asking them to do is impossible, Holland said.

"Do you sit down with a witness to a homicide and say, 'OK, I need you to tell me what happened, but I need you to do it in 20 minutes'?" Holland said. "That's really what they're saying. Go process this crime scene, but you only have 45 minutes to do it. Get a confession, but only if you can get it in the next half hour."

That culture is so ingrained at the department that some members of the force use a code word for cases with expendable victims. They call them "misdemeanor homicides."

For now, I'm wondering exactly how this new policy will shake out. With more homicides this year than last, should Koch's investigation team spend less time on each case to stay within budget? Or should they begin to prioritize based on the worth of the life of the victim? Or perhaps a combination of both?

No one knows, because Mayor Pat McCrory didn't address that issue in his campaign speech on crime last week, the one in which he pledged to send a strong message about the city's zero tolerance policy for criminal activity.

Ironically, at the very moment the mayor gave that speech, Detective Koch was sitting at home on his sofa, passing the time.

Tara.Servatius@cln.com

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