Last spring, it looked like Cincinnati would join Baltimore, Detroit and Chicago by setting another murder record in 2015. But by the end of the summer, homicides were back on pace to match previous years. “Shootings are still high, but the death rate is about where it was last year at this time,” says Cincinnati Police Homicide Detective Jennifer Mitsch. 

Wait a minute. How can the murder rate stay level if shootings are up?

“University of Cincinnati doctors do some amazing work,” she explains.

So what used to be a homicide victim is now a shooting victim who survives—the first time, at least. Mitsch says it’s not unusual to find out a homicide victim has been shot before. “That happens a lot. The autopsy doctor calls with the results and says they found bullet fragments from a past shooting.”

Lives are saved by the heroic efforts of rescue squads, ER teams and surgeons, at huge public expense—only to be wasted when the survivors go back to the streets to sell drugs and get shot again. 

Mitsch isn’t the typical homicide detective. But nothing about murders in Cincinnati seems typical anymore.

Nearly all homicides are young black men shot by young black men; nearly all are drug related. But that doesn’t mean most are motivated by gangs and turf as seen on TV. “A lot of it is greed. Just robberies. One dealer knows what another dealer has and decides ‘I’m going to take it,’” Mitsch says.

Karen Rumsey, CPD homicide victims advocate, adds, “An old-school criminal was telling us the other day how different these guys are now. They don’t even have any allegiance to each other. They might call themselves family, but they are just off the hook, wild, on their own.”

About 60 percent of homicide cases are closed, on average. But that doesn’t mean the other 40 percent are a mystery, Mitsch says. “A huge percentage of those are not unsolved. There’s just no arrest because of the witness problem. We know who did it but we can’t make an arrest.

“The no-snitch mentality is really hurting our work. There’s really nothing to help the victims.” And when an alleged murderer does go to trial, “The defendant has the gallery full of his entourage. They have their cell phones and they take pictures of the witnesses. They follow them to their cars and threaten them and their families. They intimidate them.”

The witnesses know that “snitches get stitches.” Or worse. So they say nothing.

For example: Murder victim Kelsie Crow, 17, was shot as she was leaving a Walnut Hills birthday party on Easter weekend. Police said 60 rounds were fired into the crowd of teens. Two other teens were injured, but. “Kelsie paid the ultimate price,” Mitsch says. “There were 150 people outside that YMCA and not one will step up and speak for the victims.” 

A reward of $11,000 has been offered for the shooters, but there are no takers. “These are good people who are scared to come forward. They say ‘I will tell you what happened, but you won’t get me to come to court.’ So there’s nothing we can do.”

Killings of innocent kids such as Kelsie are the ones that hurt the most, Mitsch says. The high point of her job is to make an arrest and make it stick. When the shooters see the prison doors swinging open, a few pretend they don’t care, “But most realize they made a bad decision and they can’t take it back.”

Mitsch is assigned to cold cases, where she and another detective share more than 500 unsolved murders that stretch back to the 1960s. Homicide detectives are assigned about 15 cases a year, but with rollovers of unsolved murders, most have dozens of open cases on their desks.

“After the riots of 2001, cold cases shot up, because the community stopped cooperating with us. Before 2001, we might have five a year that were unsolved. Now it’s 11 to 20,” she says.

In 17 years at CPD, Mitsch has worked patrol, the Crime Squad and Personal Crimes. But she always wanted to be a homicide detective because she likes to solve puzzles. “I like the challenge of solving that kind of crime. Other than sex crimes, it’s the worst thing that can happen.”

“She’s good at it,” Rumsey says. “Very good at it.”

Mitsch says education is a big key to stop the violence. “When we Mirandize a suspect, we ask how far they’ve been through school, to see if they can follow what we’re saying. And nine times out of 10, they have not been past the 10th grade.”

Another huge factor, she says, is broken, dysfunctional homes where kids grow up without any authority and have nobody to love and take care of them. 

Rumsey and Mitsch are working to launch a city program named after Kelsie Crow: Cincinnati Citizens Respecting Our Witnesses (CCROW). The goal is to give witnesses support, relocation, protection and encouragement to do the right thing—to testify in court and put the killers and shooters away.

They are seeking volunteers, and want anyone interested to email them: jennifer.mitsch@cincinnati-oh.gov or karen.rumsey@cincinnati-oh.gov.

Mitsch’s advice to Cincinnati:

“Get involved. We need you to do something. Come to court. Volunteer to help kids and witnesses. Get out of your comfort zone. And for the naysayers against the police, you need to go on a ride-along. Police officers are good people. Only the bad stuff shows up on TV. A ride-along will change your perception.”