APD’s homicide count changes depending on definition of ‘homicide’
If homicide numbers continue to climb, 2016 could set a new record for homicides in one year. But the criteria for determining the actual homicide count can get a bit muddy.
The number of homicides is seen by many as a measure of how safe our community is, but that number changes depending on how you define the term “homicide.”
While going through this year’s homicide data for Anchorage, KTVA counted at least 30 homicides APD has made the public aware of during 2016. But APD spokesperson Renee Oistad says their official count is at 25, because they don’t include officer-involved shootings or traffic-related deaths.
Many law enforcement departments, including Alaska State Troopers and Fairbanks police, define a homicide simply as one person killing another person, whether it’s accidental, on purpose or justified.
“So of course, officer-involved shootings are included as homicides,” explained FPD public information officer Doug Welborn in an email to KTVA.
In addition to two police-involved shootings in Anchorage this year, KTVA counted three fatal hit-and-run incidents.
“We do not include car crashes with homicide numbers,” Oistad explained.
Looking through homicide numbers dating back to 2012, examples of vehicular homicides APD doesn’t count on their official homicide list include the death of bicyclist Jeff Dusenbury, who was hit and killed by teen driver Alexandra Ellis, even though she pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide.
They also don’t count the 2013 deaths of teens Brooke McPheters and Jordyn Durr, killed by drunk driver Stacy Graham, who pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder.
But this year they’re making an exception and including a collision that left 19-year-old Chaduer Chuol dead. He was ejected from his vehicle when he crashed after speeding away from people in a truck behind him shooting. Oistad said during an interview she isn’t sure why that crash is being included.
When asked why they’re excluding a fatal 2015 vehicle crash for which a driver is facing charges of DUI, manslaughter, and second-degree murder, Oistad said in an email, “They don’t include traffic stuff in the official homicide count. So yes, that includes the Old Glenn [Highway] crash.”
She said in a later email the official homicide count only includes deaths caused by someone with “intent to cause harm.”
But they’re counting the shooting death of 17-year-old Xeryus Tate, even though DeAndrew Walker-Webster II told police he accidentally shot Tate while playing with a gun. Police charged him with manslaughter.
Walker-Webster posted a video on Facebook before turning himself in to police saying, “It was an accident,” and “I’d take the day back if I could.”
In an interview regarding another manslaughter case, APD spokesperson Jennifer Castro reminded viewers why in a manslaughter case, it doesn’t matter whether the suspect intended to hurt anyone.
“You have to realize if you’re going to be handling a weapon, if you’re going to be handling a gun and something happens, and you didn’t want it to happen, and you didn’t think it was gonna happen, but it does, you can be held criminally responsible for the outcome of that situation,” she said.
If someone engages in a behavior that could result in the harm or death of another person, state statutes allow their intent to cause harm to be taken into consideration, as well as their lack of intent. If someone engages in a behavior that they know could hurt someone else, like drunk driving, that can be used in court to argue they had intent, or at least acted recklessly. That’s why some suspects face murder charges and others are charged with manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, like Ellis.
In Walker-Webster’s case, his intent didn’t matter, raising the question: Why does it matter in other cases?
Sunday, KTVA asked police why they aren’t adding crashes for which people have been charged with murder and manslaughter to the official homicide lists, and who in the department is responsible for deciding which crimes get counted as homicides. Oistad responded in an email, “Generally speaking, traffic-related deaths are not included in the homicide count. I don’t have the specific reasoning for you and there isn’t anyone here today whom I can ask.”
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