Reflecting a regional and national trend, murders in Mesa accelerated during the pandemic.
According to preliminary data provided by the Mesa Police Department, 24 people died by homicide here in 2020 – double the previous year.
Mesa, the largest city in the East Valley, likely will continue to have around as many murders as all other East Valley cities combined – though Mesa’s murder rate is still far lower than the homicide rate in Phoenix.
According to national crime analyst Jeff Asher, of Crimealytics, murders increased 37 percent in 57 cities in 2020, as “37 of 58 agencies reporting murder up more than 30 percent.”
Councilman Francisco Heredia said his district on the west side of Mesa is still reeling from two murders.
“We’ve had some high-profile homicides in the past year in our district that really has been unfortunate,” he said.
On Oct. 16, witnesses saw and heard gunfire come from a KIA Soul as it drove past a taco shop at Guadalupe and Dobson roads. Four children, ages 1, 6, 9, and 16 were struck by gunfire along with three adults.
Sebastian Duran, the 1-year-old, died from his injuries.
Larry T. Miller, 29, and Chazmon Ray Washington, 31, were arrested and face first-degree murder charges.
Three months before the child was killed in the drive-by, Sam Briscoe, 33, was shot and killed in a Circle K parking lot at Guadalupe and Dobson.
Police arrested Isaiah Lee Armstrong, 19, and charged him with killing Briscoe.
Other killings in Mesa last year ranged from a road rage incident on South Alma School Road in which the victim was run over to several domestic violence incidents that escalated to murder-suicides.
In 2019, the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) website shows 11 homicides in Mesa, which has a population of about 520,000. Tucson, with a population of 540,000, had 40 homicides in 2019.
Phoenix, which is about three times larger than Mesa, had 131 homicides in 2019 — more than 10 times as many as Mesa.
Gilbert, with a population of 250,000, had only one homicide in 2019. Chandler, with a population just under 260,000, had four homicides in 2019. (Chandler also had a spike last year, with 11 homicides in 2020.) Scottsdale, which has a population of 260,000, recorded three homicides in 2019.
Tempe, which has a population just under 200,000, had eight homicides in 2019.
The FBI website shows Mesa had 17 murders in 2018, again far less than the 132 in Phoenix.
Gilbert reported two homicides in 2018, with seven reported in Scottsdale and four in Chandler. Tempe had five murders in 2018.
Murders on the rise
According to the Phoenix Police Department website, the city had 187 homicides in 2020, a 43 percent increase over 2019.
Glendale, with a population of 250,000, had 17 homicides in 2019. Preliminary reports from the Glendale Police Department show a 50% spike in homicides during the pandemic year to 26.
Gina Godbehere, a Maricopa County prosecuting attorney who specializes in homicides, blames a rise in killings on the pandemic.
“We are seeing a huge spike (in homicides) because of the pandemic across the county. We’re also seeing a spike in domestic violence,” Godbehere said.
“We’re also seeing an increase in substance abuse. That and financial stress with people losing their jobs can lead to domestic abuse,” she said.
“We just know substance abuse often plays into things and spontaneous decisions. Being isolated, they’re letting loose - maybe from being cooped up for a while,” she said.
She called the rise in violent crime “unprecedented. And scary.”
According to the Council on Criminal Justice, homicide rates jumped 32 percent during the pandemic and assaults increased by 11 percent in most American cities.
One of the keys to bringing violent crimes back down, the council believes, will be to reduce the pandemic’s impact on local law enforcement.
“City leaders continue to face policy challenges posed by the recent rise in violent crime,” the council’s report states. “Several evidence-based strategies are available to address the increase in violence but subduing the COVID-19 pandemic also remains a necessary condition for reducing violence.”
Brandi George, a Mesa Police Department spokeswoman, declined to say if the pandemic was a factor in the city’s spike in killings.
“The Mesa Police Department cannot speculate as to why homicide numbers go up or down,” George said. “We encourage anyone going through a crisis to reach out to community resources, such as their local crisis hotline.”
Heredia said he is not overly alarmed by the spike in homicides last year.
“Overall, the city of Mesa and our district are really pretty safe,” said the councilman from District 3. “What the Police Department has done over the years has provided a good base for our residents to feel safe.”
Though arrests have been made in the drive-by that killed the infant, a $40,000 reward is still offered for information leading to the arrest and or indictment of any suspects in the murder.
“The reward is still in place and posted on the Silent Witness website. The Mesa Police Department continues to ask for information related to this fatal shooting,” said George.
To provide information, call Silent Witness at 480-WITNESS, 480-948-6377, or 480-TESTIGO for Spanish speakers. Anonymous tips also can be posted at silentwitness.org.