- Associated Press - Saturday, November 26, 2016

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - A year of gun violence has put Oklahoma’s second-largest city one killing away from setting a record for the number of homicides in a year - with five weeks still remaining in 2016.

Midway through the Thanksgiving weekend, Tulsa had already logged 71 homicides this year, tying a record set in 2009. Unlike seven years ago, when a spike in gang activity was to blame for a majority of the killings, officers say the only unifying thread linking the crimes in 2016 is the involvement of firearms.

“I think it’s concerning, the number of handguns,” said homicide Sgt. Dave Walker, who’s been on the force 35 years. “I’m not a big gun-control guy, but guns seem to be coming into play on more and more instances.

Typically, the city of about 400,000 averages between 54-58 homicides a year. The tally’s been as low as 48 recently. And, even though guns appear to be a unifying thread - they’ve been involved in about three-fourths of this year’s homicides - detectives are unable to find common motives.

Unlike other years, when gangs or a certain resurgence of a drug, such as heroin or methamphetamine, could be considered a possible link to the homicide rate, the array of crimes has confounded detectives.

“It’s ridiculously frustrating,” said Sgt. Shane Tuell, a police spokesman. “We just can’t show an absolute correlation between any of the criminal activity as to why these are happening.

“It would be nice to say it’s because of lack of police officers, but I think that’s very cliche right now,” he said.

The force, however, is functioning with a shortfall of about 90 officers. There’s enough money in the budget to field 783 officers. But as of early November, 695 are available, if you subtract officers who are serving in the military, in training or performing desk duty while recovering from injuries. Factor in an annual attrition rate of up to 36 officers, and “we haven’t had this few officers since 1994,” Tuell said.

The homicides have occurred in every geographic area in the city, and haven’t been confined to one high-crime or drug-prone area.

“We’ve even had some homicides in neighborhoods that have never been affected,” said Jennifer Rush, the executive director of Tulsa Crime Stoppers, which has fielded anonymous tips that led to the solving of six murders so far this year. “I think when you can’t link similarities, when you’ve got all these cases and you don’t have the reasons behind it, it does tend to make people uneasy.”

Some of this year’s homicides don’t fit into an easy-to-define category. In September, Terence Crutcher was fatally shot by a Tulsa police officer. The medical examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide. And a month before, in a middle-class neighborhood, prosecutors say Khalid Jabara was shot dead by a neighbor who had previously hurled racial insults at the man.

With a little more than a month to go in the year, detectives hope to solve at least three more pending homicide cases, contributing to the division’s 92 percent clearance rate, Walker said.

“(Seventy-one)’s just a number,” Walker said. “I’m sure next year, we’ll get back down to where we usually are.”

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