WANTED: Homicide detective for the Youngstown Police Department.
Must be able to be on call 24/7 at least once a month. To be able to leave important family events or holiday celebrations on the spur of the moment. To get called into work at 2:30 a.m. — sometimes two or three times a week. To work 12, 18, 24 and sometimes 30 hours straight with no sleep.
And that’s just the easy part.
Besides the physical toll of the job, there is also the mental — dealing with grieving people, angry people, unreasonable people, and people who lie and don’t think twice about it.
“It’s definitely demanding,” says former Chief of Detectives Capt. Brad Blackburn, who is now in charge of the department’s Patrol Division. “Everything you do has to be based on if you go someplace, can you get to your car within 15 minutes.”
“You have to live your life differently,” added former Lt. Doub Bobovnyik, who was both a detective and a detective supervisor during his 33 years in the department before retiring in 2020. “Everything is put on the back burner. Everything is a sacrifice.”
In Youngstown, there are eight to 10 detectives who investigate homicides, shootings, stabbings, robberies and other violent crimes. They are broken down into teams of two and rotate being on call with the two supervisors, Chief Of Detectives Capt. Jason Simon and Lt. Mohammad Awad, who also rotate being on call. Sometimes, for a scene with a large number of victims or that covers a large geographical area, a third detective is called out.
Detectives also investigate suicides and fatal overdoses and are often called out for those cases after regular business hours. At a crime scene, one detective is selected as the lead detective for that particular case. Usually, the teams rotate who is designated lead on a case-by-case basis. That detective will then shepherd the case through court, if it makes it that far.
Because homicide cases are so time-consuming, guidelines call for detectives to be assigned no more than five murders per year. But that is not always easy. In a place like Youngstown, which has seen an exodus of experienced patrol officers and investigators in recent years, there are fewer detectives to investigate violent crimes. And on top of homicides, detectives also investigate thefts, assaults and other crimes.
Capt. Rod Foley, who heads up the department’s Training Division and was chief of detectives twice, agreed with Blackburn that the grind can be demanding at times.
“Usually when you’re called, it’s not on your schedule,” Foley said. “You could be gone two or three hours, or you could be gone 24 hours straight. You just don’t know.”
Just this month, Awad was called out to a shooting on the East Side at about 10 p.m. on a Saturday that at first officers thought might be a homicide. The case, however, turned out to be a suicide. Awad had come from a wedding and was dressed to the nines in a jacket, tie and nice coat.
Dave McKnight retired as a captain after over 30 years on the job. He was also a homicide detective from 1987 to 1995. Being a detective in the 90s was not for the faint of heart; the city averaged about 49 homicides a year during the decade, which saw a total of 492 people killed, the most for a decade in the city.
McKnight was part of a much smaller team of detectives in the ’90s, when just four detectives were tabbed to investigate homicides. He said he had a routine for the weeks when he was on call.
“All my equipment was in the car,” he said. “All my clothes were laid out.”
McKnight and the others said there were a lot of family events they missed because they would get called out.
“You miss a lot of things with your family,” McKnight said. He said it was hard to go on vacation because he had to schedule trips away around court hearings where he was needed as a witness.
“There hasn’t been an event or holiday I haven’t been called out on,” added Blackburn, who was also a detective several years ago. One of his better-known cases as an investigator was the 2005 murder of Marilyn Guthrie, 61 of Niles, who was lured out of her apartment, kidnapped, and then killed on a South Side street after she was taken out of the trunk of the car she was being held in, placed in the street and ran over. One man was sentenced to life in prison, another got 10 years, and two juveniles were also sentenced for their roles in the crime.
One thing about homicide cases, they said, is that they never go away, even with an arrest. If an arrest is made, a detective has to prepare for court hearings, then be available when the case goes to trial. Even if a defendant is convicted, there are usually appeals and that can also take up a detective’s time, Foley said.
In the case of an unsolved homicide, detectives try to review their evidence or notes during their downtime. If they get a tip or phone call, they must then check that lead out. And of course, an unsolved case lingers in the mind more than a solved one.
As a supervisor, Foley said one of his main concerns at a crime scene was that he wanted to make sure all the evidence that could be collected was taken at the initial callout.
“I wanted to grab everything at the scene we could,” Foley said.
Foley has a lot of experience with large scenes. In February 2011, he was in charge when a man was killed and 11 others wounded early in the morning on a frigid Super Bowl Sunday at an off-campus party at Youngstown State University. Several lengthy prison sentences were handed out as a result of the ensuing investigation.
In 2021, he was in charge when a man was killed and two others wounded at an East Midlothian Boulevard nightclub during a rap concert. That case is still open.
Blackburn said his experience as a detective helped him greatly when he was a supervisor.
“I was glad I had that perspective,” he said.
When he was in charge, Blackburn said his main priority was making sure his detectives had everything at their disposal to do their jobs. That also included keeping them free from distractions — everything from making arrangements with patrol supervisors for officers to guard a scene or take witnesses to the police department for questioning, to taking questions from the media and updating the chief, mayor or council members on the status of an investigation.
“My job was to clear barriers so they could do their job,” Blackburn said.
Bobovnyik also served a stint as a detective in the ’90s before he was a supervisor. From his perspective, he said, “the work goes home with you when you’re a supervisor.”
Sometimes no one gets to go home for a long time. Blackburn said he can remember times he would work over 24 hours with no sleep. But he said that is a necessary evil of the job.
“When the leads are there, you have to run them into the ground when they’re fresh,” Blackburn said.
From his perspective, Blackburn said the grind is harder on a detective than a supervisor because all the pressure of the case is on that one person.
“The main caseload falls on the lead detective,” Blackburn said. “Everything funnels through the lead detective.”
There has been a lot of funneling in the last 10-plus years. From 2011 to 2021, Youngstown has seen 270 homicides, an average of 27 a year. Of those homicides, 139 have been either solved or cleared, a solve rate of 51.48.
The national rate, according to the FBI’s 2020 Uniform Crime Report, was 54 percent, a decline from just a few years ago when the national clearance rate was just under 65 percent. In fact, national clearance rates have declined from a high of just over 90 percent in 1965 to 54 percent in 2020, with ebbs and flow in between, according to the Homicide Accountability Project, which tracks homicides across the country and uses FBI data from the Uniform Crime Report.
That decline was seen in Youngstown as well. In 2018, detectives cleared or solved 20 of 28 homicides. In 2016, they cleared or solved 13 of 19 homicides.
Clearance rates decreased in 2019, when just six of 19 homicides were cleared, but the surge of violence in 2020 and 2021 that criminologists attribute to the COVID-19 pandemic saw an improvement in clearance rates, with 13 of 28 homicides cleared in 2020 and 16 of 31 homicides cleared in 2021.
In 2022, detectives have solved or cleared eight of 19 homicides.
Of course, homicide investigations are more time-consuming and complex than other cases, and sometimes results are not seen for years. Of the 20 homicides cleared from 2018, seven of them were cleared after the year was completed. As Foley and the others said, the cases never completely go away.
Detectives in Youngstown over the years have said the number one issue they have when investigating homicides is cooperation from witnesses. While some lie, most simply do not want to talk, either out of fear or retaliation or because they want to take care of the problem themselves.
Those are some of the things detectives deal with when they are called out in the dead of night and work long shifts with little or no sleep. Blackburn once had a case in 2014 where he and the detectives went 30 hours without sleep, but they were able to solve the case.
“You have to push through it,” Blackburn said.
McKnight remembers a lot of sleepless nights when he was in The Bureau, as some call it.
“It seems like you sleep in the chair a lot,” he said.
He would sometimes, however, be reminded after one of those marathon shifts of conversations he had with other people that he had no memory of.
Bobovnyik said being called out early in the morning while you’re already asleep makes those long shifts even worse, but he said after a while, he was conditioned to working while bone tired.
“It’s amazing what you can do when you have to,” Bobovnyik said.
Foley said it is the family of an investigator on call who suffers the most.
“It seems like the family sacrifices more than you when you come home after 16 hours and fall asleep on the couch,” he said.