After Murders ‘Doubled Overnight,’ the N.Y.P.D. Is Solving Fewer CasesIn the Bronx, where the percentage of murders solved by the police has plunged, one family is waiting impatiently for a day that may not come.

Maria Rosario has an unopened bottle of champagne ready for the day the police finally catch the man who killed her nephew, JayQuan Lewis. Mr. Lewis’s best friend already has an outfit picked out. And Marisol Sanchez, Mr. Lewis’s mother, says she will throw a party outside the local police station: She has a bakery on standby, to make the cake.

For more than three months, the group has gathered each morning on a corner in the Bronx, at a makeshift shrine to Mr. Lewis, 21, a local kid with a big smile who was shot and killed at a nearby bodega in August. On a chilly October evening — two months to the day since they lost “J.J.,” as Mr. Lewis was known — they all gathered again, sharing memories and fantasizing about the day his killer is caught.

“I have a strong feeling they’re going to find him soon,” Ms. Sanchez said.

But that was more than a month ago. She is still waiting.

In the years before the pandemic, the New York Police Department was solving nearly 90 percent of the murder cases in the city. But in 2020, as shootings and homicides increased, the percentage of homicides the police solved, a statistic known as the clearance rate, plummeted to around 60 percent, according to the department’s records.

The impact fell especially hard in the Bronx, where shootings reached their highest levels in nearly 15 years. This year, the police are solving around 62 percent of murders in the borough, said Lt. William O’Toole, who leads the Bronx’s homicide squad. In addition, he said, 17 murder suspects — including the man the police believe killed Mr. Lewis — have been identified and have active warrants issued against them.

But, Lieutenant O’Toole said, “It’s harder with the pandemic.”

In a city blanketed with surveillance equipment and video cameras, the police say some of the city’s most dangerous pockets do not have enough. The widespread use of masks during the pandemic has made it more difficult to identify assailants, they say. And, the police say, new discovery laws that allow the names of informants to be turned over to defense lawyers have deterred many potential witnesses from coming forward.

“The increase in shootings, that’s got to have a negative impact on clearance rates,” said Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Their caseload literally doubled overnight. The odds are never great. That’s the unfortunate truth.”

The challenge is particularly acute for gang- and drug-related homicides, which the police believe may have been an impetus for Mr. Lewis’s killing, with his killer possibly mistaking him for another man.

“The dynamics that play out with gang and drug homicides are in neighborhoods that typically don’t have very good relationships with law enforcement, so they question whether they’re able to trust the police with sharing information they might have,” said Anthony Braga, a criminology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the Bronx, Lieutenant O’Toole said, officers have noticed much more reluctance when speaking to the community, a phenomenon he attributes to the state’s discovery laws.

“It’s not for lack of trying,” Lieutenant O’Toole said of the rate of unsolved homicides. “We’re not getting a lot of community help.”

For Ms. Sanchez, much of that rings hollow. Her son was not known by the police to affiliate with any gang or drug activity. His shooting was caught clearly on video. And the man who pulled the trigger was not wearing a mask. The gunman’s face, fully visible on video footage, has haunted her.

In the weeks after Mr. Lewis died, Ms. Sanchez and her husband, Joseph Trinidad, were patient. The police said they identified a suspect within hours, but they did not want to release his picture, for fear of scaring him out of New York, Ms. Sanchez said. As the months have dragged on, she and her husband have grown frustrated at the lack of progress.

Between each monthly balloon release, a hard question looms: What if the phone call never comes?

Mr. Lewis spent nearly all of his short life in the Bronx, most of it on Bainbridge Avenue, where he lived with his parents and two younger brothers. A prankster with a big appetite, he was known for calling — not texting — friends and family, and for his fiercely protective nature.

After his death, neighbors recounted stories of Mr. Lewis escorting women and children home. One friend said that Mr. Lewis would often pay for a car to take her to and from her overnight job, so she didn’t have to walk alone to a bus stop.

Ms. Sanchez, who was born and raised in the borough, knew the dangers that lay outside her doorstep for a teenage boy in the Bronx. She and her husband painstakingly kept Mr. Lewis off the street — he wasn’t allowed to be outside at night, and kept busy with odd jobs and school. He had friends who had been to jail, but he eschewed street life and urged friends to pursue work or creative outlets like rapping or clothing design.

JayQuan Lewis’s parents, Marisol Sánchez and Joseph Trinidad, said their son was helpful and generous.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

“The block ain’t it,” he used to say, friends recalled. As a teenager, Mr. Lewis participated in the New York Marine Cadets. He dropped out of high school briefly before pursuing his G.E.D., and participated in Summer Youth, an employment program, in the Bronx.

Mr. Lewis had passed his nursing test in July, and intended to start school in September. He had a small group of close friends, would help his parents with anything but unloading the groceries, and was known for showering friends with money whenever he had it. For years, Mr. Lewis would spend time at the bodega down Bainbridge Avenue, chatting with the owner. He was there so often the man brought in an extra folding chair and set it up behind the counter.

That’s where Mr. Lewis was headed on Aug. 13, when he stepped out to get a soda. He shouted to his mother that he was going to the store, and asked if she needed anything; she said she didn’t, and he left.

Seconds later Mr. Lewis returned, as if he had forgotten something.

“I love you, Mami,” he shouted through the door. It was the last time Ms. Sanchez heard her son’s voice.

After his death, neighbors recounted stories of Mr. Lewis escorting women and children home after dark. Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

What happened in the next 20 minutes has left the police perplexed and Mr. Lewis’s family with precious few answers.

Mr. Lewis walked down Bainbridge Avenue to the bodega. Video footage from inside shows him picking up a bottle of water. As he stands at the counter, the gunman — whom the police identified as Kemel Smith — is seen approaching Mr. Lewis from behind. He silently shoots Mr. Lewis seven times, and walks calmly out of the store; Mr. Lewis crumples to the floor.

The shop’s owner, with whom Mr. Lewis had spent so many afternoons, closed Mr. Lewis’s eyes, Ms. Sanchez said. Her son was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Mr. Smith, who the police say was known in the area to sell marijuana and cocaine, does not appear to have returned to the neighborhood since.

“We don’t have anything concrete,” said Lieutenant O’Toole. There is no indication that Mr. Lewis and Mr. Smith had any kind of rivalry, or even knew each other.

After months of quietly searching for Mr. Smith, the police finally released the suspect’s mug shot to the media in October. The release devastated Ms. Sanchez, who saw it as confirmation that officers did not have any idea where her son’s killer might be.

Ms. Sanchez, center, with family and friends at a Halloween celebration in honor of her son.Credit…Desiree Rios for The New York Times

I don’t understand how they haven’t caught him yet,” she said recently, at a Halloween party thrown in honor of Mr. Lewis. Dressed in a “Beetlejuice” costume (“J.J. used to love ‘Beetlejuice,’” she said), Ms. Sanchez tried briefly to embrace the celebration, but instead sat quietly in the corner. Her two younger sons would not come to the event, she said. They had refused to celebrate the holiday without their older brother.

“I know his mother wants a lot of questions answered about what happened,” said Lieutenant O’Toole. “They live it every day. They get up and their son’s not there.”

But, he said, the police had been looking for Mr. Smith for only three months.

“We have his name, we have his photo,” Lieutenant O’Toole said. “Eventually, we usually get the answers.”

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