Eight killings made December a searingly violent month in Omaha.
With that came fear that slayings would continue at the same pace into the new year if drug and cash robberies among gang members fueled more anger and retaliation.
Instead, something of a criminal killing respite has unfolded in the year’s first quarter. There have been two homicides in the city in that period — one a victim of a shooting, the other of child abuse.
A year has not begun with so few homicides in Omaha in at least a decade. Last year, when there was a record 50 homicides, 14 of them occurred during the opening three months.
Though the torrent of homicides has slowed, crime experts caution against jubilation.
There are often quiet periods, and veteran police officers know to expect the year to end with between 35 and 45 homicides, as it always seems to. Indeed, even last year, with its unprecedented homicide tally, there were two months — February and April — that passed without a criminal killing.
Spikes and lulls are part of the city’s crime rhythm.
“Homicides are cyclical,” said Mike Butera, a retired Omaha police captain who worked and supervised slaying investigations in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Several factors, Butera said, may contribute to the low homicide number so far this year. The department has focused intensely on gang-suppression and intelligence operations, he said. In December and January, arrests removed from the street gang members who could have become homicide victims.
Six men who are members of the 40th Avenue Crips or the 44th Avenue Crips were charged in U.S. District Court in January under an organized crime statute called RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
And some criminologists, police officers and others draw an anecdotal connection between temperature and crime. Violence and ice cream cone sales soar at the same time, the thinking goes.
As it warms, outdoor crowds, open-air drug dealing and more drive-by shootings could lead homicides to flare again.
“We’re probably going to see an uptick,” Butera said.
In 2015, though, two of the worst months, January and December, were the coldest. And between 2005 and 2015, there were a total of 37 homicides in January and a total of 45 in July.
The killing lull hasn’t meant a similar drop in shootings. Twenty-eight people were shot and survived in Omaha during the first quarter of 2016, according to preliminary data provided by the Police Department. That is in the normal range compared with the past five years. Most of those were felony assaults, though the department said that some may be reclassified as accidental and not criminal.
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer declined to offer an analysis. A homicide evaluation at the end of the first quarter would be premature, he said via a spokeswoman.
Omaha’s calmer homicide pace has not been mirrored in adjacent jurisdictions.
There have been two slayings in the part of Douglas County covered by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and three investigated by Council Bluffs police, pushing both agencies beyond their homicide totals for all of 2015.
Omaha’s first homicide victim of the year was Alicia Morrow, a 4-year-old who essentially froze to death in her caretaker’s northeast Omaha home, an autopsy concluded. The woman who was responsible for her, Chelsey Cook, 22, has been charged with child abuse resulting in death. Alicia’s death was reported to police on Jan. 5.
The second victim was Jarrell Haynes, 22, who was shot March 2 near 16th Street and Victor Avenue. Two suspects have been accused, a woman charged as an accessory and a man charged with first-degree murder who is being sought.
At one point detectives believed there was a third homicide in the city. In the hours after Derek DeWolf was found dead on Jan. 8 inside a vacant house at 1502 Willis Ave., police said he had been killed by another person. The cause of death could not be ascertained, and the case was reclassified as an undetermined death.
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